Our Story

Romans 6:3-11  | Psalm 114 | Luke 24:1-12

This service, unlike others in so many ways, captures as much of our Christian story as it can, which is why it is longer and why I’ll keep this brief. We move from creation to the empty tomb in one fell swoop, and what do we do with that? Do we leave this place like we’re clicking the remote, getting up from our seats saying, “Well, that was nice”? I dare say that if you are fully engaged throughout this service, for at least a moment, your heart and soul are stirred. For if anything is true about what research claims about cellular memory, these stories are written in our hearts, so to speak, or at least in our cells. So the story of our ancestors, of the Hebrews, of the women, of the apostles, of Jesus are all part of our story, very much a part of who we are. This story of ours isn’t meant to be kept in the dark.

We know for ourselves what is real, what is true. Like I shared last night, I’m as skeptical as anyone when laying claim to what is really real, but when something grabs hold of us and speaks to us like nothing else we’ve ever known, we pay attention. As our Christian Education lecture series says through Prof. Bart Ehrman, what happened in the past might not be counted as history, as what can be proven with evidence and supported with scholarship. The exodus and Passover are taken as history, the raising of the dry bones not so much. The person of Jesus of Nazareth, even his crucifixion under Pontius Pilate, are history, but his resurrection leaves historians in a quandary. Perhaps it has you in one, too. What exactly are we celebrating this Easter? Jesus’ houdini-an act of rising from death and fleeing the tomb?

What we celebrate this Easter Vigil is the light of life coming from even the darkest of times. It’s why we start from creation, for the ultimate void to the generation of life. It’s why we remember the Exodus, the liberation from oppression and despair. It’s why we aren’t afraid to talk about death, a most natural part of the life cycle. It’s why as Christians we remember our baptism, because it is one way that we die to ourselves, giving ourselves over to life in Christ. We are given new life, new birth. It’s not a coincidence we celebrate this in spring, when everywhere we look, new life is rising from the darkness of the earth or from branches that looked all but dead.

Maybe like the disciples, you think this resurrection hope is an idle tale, an opiate for the masses, giving false hope to make people feel better about the nightmare of life in this broken world. Chances are if you’re here, that’s not your perspective, but we all have days when we’re not our most optimistic. I have days, too, when I wonder if all that I work for and strive for is worth it.

But even in death, there are things we do, making arrangements, preparations. A few take care of this, like the women going to the tomb; it’s usually the few who were closest. And we can close that chapter of our lives, or we can reflect on what it means for us that one we loved so much has taught us things we’ll spend the rest of our lives processing. But what if we were the women at the tomb, and what we expected to see wasn’t what we faced? What if what we thought was the end of the story, the death of our Teacher and Lord, wasn’t so? What if we then remembered, after being prompted by another, that Jesus had actually told us this would happen, that he would rise again? Wouldn’t we tell others?

And wouldn’t they in their despair question us, write us off as crazy or making up idle tales?

But love is a strong thing. Even after death, don’t we hope for a sign from our beloveds that they aren’t truly gone from us, even if it’s in our dreams? It’s blessed Peter, isn’t it, who acts first and thinks about it later. Peter, who had denied Jesus three times and regretted it deeply. He gets up and runs to the tomb. Now, according to this gospel, he doesn’t immediately go back and credit the women, apologizing for not trusting them at their word. But he goes to his home, his place of safety, and we end with him in amazement today. When we think we know how the story ends, we can tune out or fall into our habits and routine.

But this story doesn’t end. It goes on. The devotion of the women, the discerning of the disciples, the searching for themselves for the truth, the questioning, wondering, and amazement: all this is ours, too. All this is fuel for our hope that life triumphs over death, that light prevails in the darkest of times.

If those of us here tonight have to be reminded of the hope of our story, how many others who aren’t here could us a few words to remind them that they are part of our story, too? For the love of God that couldn’t be held in a tomb certainly isn’t just for us but is open for all the world. Our story is nothing less than a love story, radiant with the light of Christ, written upon our hearts.

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Good Friday 2019

Isaiah 52:13-53:12 | Psalm 22 | Hebrews 10:16-25 | John 18:1-19:42

Every Friday in Morning Prayer, the Collect for the day was written by William Reed Huntington, an Episcopal priest who died in 1909.

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.

Especially on Good Friday, we are ever mindful of walking in the way of the cross, and we likely focus on the suffering, pain, and crucifixion more so than the joy and glory to come. It’s hard to see the way of the cross this day as the way of life and peace.

I want to wish that Christ didn’t have to suffer and die, but in our human experiences, this is our way. All that we know comes from learning the hard way, unless we’re one of the few who actually heed the advice of others who have learned on their own the “hard knocks” of life. All the hardships I’ve gone through and the suffering I’ve known give me some of my greatest lessons, shaping who I am by how I shape myself in response to these adversities. At our best even when we’ve gone through the worst, our suffering humbles us to reach out for help, to strengthen our network of support. When we feel weak is when we’re most likely to call on divine intervention, maybe like the psalmist to cry out why God has forsaken us and maybe also in our cry for help to call out praise for the only one who fully knows our hearts, the one to whom we’ve been entrusted since before we were born and has been with us ever since. And in our humility, we’re more likely to show compassion for others in their times of trial. If we haven’t been through what they’re going through, we know there’s nothing that exempts us from such suffering. It could easily be us brought to our knees, crying out for help, begging with outstretched hand, weeping silently in the night. We know the sufferings we’ve endured. So does God.

Of my time in Israel last spring, there were two places that spoke to me most deeply: Magdala and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City, downtown Jerusalem. Because tourism is a major industry in Israel, there are many efforts to preserve ancient history and prevent building contemporary structures. But over 2,000 years, much has been built, shrines built even over a thousand years ago draw many pilgrims and lay claim to ancient stories. Our tour guide pointed out to me one such stone around which a few pilgrims were listening intently to their guide. Father Kamal advised me how important it is to know the scripture and the scholarship so as not to be fooled. He needn’t worry; I’m naturally a skeptic when people claim something is “real.”

But the walls in the Old City drew me in. We went through the building surrounding the sepulchre, scrutinized a crack in one of the 1st century stonesin the wall that could affirm a quake of some sort, and made our way to the entrance of the sepulchre. It’s a stone stairway that curves upward alongside a wall. You have to crouch or bow a bit to make it through the low and narrow entry and continue to ascend the small stone steps. Like many places we visited, I again felt like we were cattle being corralled and pushed through to arrive at a place.

It’s a darkened place, illuminated by light and many candles, filled with incense and the smell of crowded bodies–at least when we were there. Honestly, I felt it was cluttered, crammed with all the things of devotion. It was so much to take in when we were being ushered along by those anxious pilgrims behind us.

Reflecting on it now, I don’t think I’ve ever had the experience before of being someplace and knowing that all the stuff didn’t matter. The place itself was holy. We came to see the place of the Skull, Golgotha, where Jesus had been crucified. We came to see how our ancestors had built around it to mark this sacred place and preserve it.

 

Being there, it wasn’t what I saw but what I felt. Stepping closer to the place where others bowed and kissed the ground, my chest constricted, my capacity to breathe felt blocked. I could barely speak. I grabbed the arm of a friend as an anchor, unsure of where this feeling was taking me. I remember him asking if I wanted to move closer, and I remember shaking my head, heart full and tight at the same time and saying, “This is it; this is the place.” I remember thinking, this stuff isn’t what I’m here to see.

I’m here to feel the presence of Christ in his suffering. I’m here to feel the presence of his mother and disciples and friends who witnessed his crucifixion. I’m here to know that all my suffering for love and against God’s love are known, even as my heart is fully known. And I couldn’t stay in that place. It was so crowded, and people were pushing in. I still felt like I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t stand the feeling of suffering. It was too much.

But I wanted to go back. I still want to go back because I wasn’t able to while we were there. Because I wonder if it was the suffering I couldn’t stand or the incredible love shown, the kind of heart-breaking love that is so broken open that it draws everything and everyone into its embrace. God laid claim on my heart, and I wanted to turn away. I realize, though, that it’s that knowing that I yearn for, that nothing else comes close to fulfilling. On the other side of that suffering is joy. On the other side of the crucifixion is glory. The way of the cross leads to eternal life because the way of the cross is the way of Jesus is the way of love. That love may hurt us and break us, but if we are truly following that way of love, we have nothing to fear and everything to gain.

 

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Maundy Thursday 2019

Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14 | Psalm 116:1, 10-17 | 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 
John 13:1-17, 31b-35

My senses stood on edge at the first foot-washing I experienced in a church (St. Paul’s, Fayetteville). I had never done it before but trusted the clergy in their invitation to the holy days leading up to Easter, to participate fully in all that was offered. I looked around at others who seemed so calm, as if what we were about to do was normal. In the church, Baptism and Eucharist are normal; even in the church of my youth I had at least had one Communion. Jesus told us that we were to be baptized as he had been and that we were to take the bread and cup in remembrance of him; this is standard issue. So what do we make of this where, according to the Gospel of John, Jesus plainly says, “I have set an example, that you should do as I have done to you”? What Jesus has obviously done is kneel before his disciples and wash their feet in an overwhelming act of love.

On Sunday I encouraged us all to pay attention to Jesus’ acts of love throughout Holy Week, and in his act of washing his disciples’ feet, we witness a great and powerful act of love. In this act of love, Jesus says many things, verbally and non-verbally. What Jesus knows is that the time is coming for him to die, and he is resolved to love his friends and followers through to the end. How is he able to do this? He has the assurance of his place in God, his confidence that he not only comes from God but is going to God; he is not bound by this world. With this assurance, he gets up and washes the feet of those gathered with him, even arguing with Peter, telling them that he knows they can’t fully understand this now, but they will, later. Later they will understand the paradox of their Teacher and Lord serving them and the significance of the servant not being greater than the master, nor the messengers greater than the one who sends them.

Jesus washing the feet of his disciples wasn’t just about role-reversals on that one night long ago. In one exemplary act, Jesus encourages a letting-go of expectation, puts those who think we understand in the uncomfortable position of not knowing and in a position of vulnerability. If letting go of a sense of order and control wasn’t uncomfortable enough, giving your feet over to the one whom you regard as your Teacher and Lord certainly is. Jesus, in his tenderness and love and assurance in God, created a safe space that night to plant a seed for new understanding. In a place of safety and security grounded in God’s love, Jesus offered a moment of transformation, illustrated in Peter’s move from not wanting Jesus to wash his feet to wanting to be washed head to toe in the waters his Lord offered. Like Peter, we still have much to learn, much to understand.

Accepting our own lack of understanding of all that Jesus stands for and all that he offered and showed to us, letting go of a sense of control and of vice-grips on what we deem acceptable, let alone taking off our socks and shoes to let an acquaintance pour water over our feet at the end of the day, all of this puts us in a position of vulnerability, and our culture equates vulnerability with weakness. Our culture equates love with weakness. But we know that being vulnerable means being open. Being vulnerable means we have the opportunity to take a risk, to be brave, to be courageous. We know that being vulnerable means that we have the capacity to be in relationship with another, which means that only by being vulnerable can we experience and understand true love. And we know that true love is powerful.

The bonds of love defy reason and even time and space, which may be why Jesus wants us to do this, too, this act of love. I wash your feet. You wash mine. We share this act of love in the name of Jesus, for love of God, and we live our lives together in assurance that whatever may come, we are God’s, we are beloved. Though we may be afraid, we have nothing to fear. For Christians, this act of love is normal. We practice showing our love for one another in the church so that outside these walls we remember that we are God’s servants and messengers on the same level with all other children of God, many of whom have forgotten what it is to love and be loved. As important as it is that we be baptized and share in Holy Communion, it is equally and especially important that we show genuine love for one another as often as we can.

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Holy Wednesday 2019

The skies are gray this morning, but the weather forecast says the rain doesn’t come until tonight. That rain promises to come with storms. The darkening of the skies calms me somehow, encouraging me to retreat a minute, get myself in order, and focus on the holy moments at hand.

“Who Among Us” by Texas artist Debra Hurd

This morning the scriptures recall how some people thought the voice of God was thunder, while others clearly heard words. Tonight at our Agapé meal we’ll hear Jesus send Judas out to do that which he must do. We know with Jesus that Judas sets out to betray him, but others think he’s going out for supplies for the coming festival. So much of what we understand–or think we understand–is left to our perspective and interpretation. It might be how we understand written words or how we perceive the present moment, and what we experience is true for us. Simply because we see something as true doesn’t mean it is True, though.

The turmoil we read about and the arguments we observe or endure arise from people standing their ground for what is true for the individual. At our best we try to understand everyone’s point of view, where they are coming from, trying to imagine being in their shoes even if we completely disagree with them. One might call this how we exercise empathy. I believe empathy exercised with humility helps us better see the fuller picture of what is real, granting us a bit of objectivity and giving us a chance to increase our personal knowledge and understanding.

From this broader perspective, we might hear the voice that also sounds like thunder and marvel with others at the experience of God’s presence. We might see the exchange between Jesus and Judas as meaningful and look back on it later with clarity. We might see our neighbors, be they rich or poor, as people struggling with life or rejoicing in small moments. In all circumstances, even as we make our first impressions and snap judgments, we leave critical judgment alone and focus on the only person over whom we have even the slightest control–our self.

Without this focus and work for and on the individual for the benefit of better relationships with one another, we lose sight of the whole. A recent story I heard said we’re truly at risk of losing empathy and retreating into separate camps, evidenced in our increasing polarity socially, politically, economically, etc. From where I see it, the grace of God has no boundaries except those that we construct ourselves. It truly is up to each of us to discern whether we want to stay in relationship with one another, how best to do that safely and for the benefit of the whole, and how we glorify God in the process or continue to betray God.

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Holy Tuesday 2019

Among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say– `Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” Jesus said to them, “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.”

After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them.

-John 12:20-36

Yesterday, the world watched the spire fall from Notre Dame Cathedral. My newsfeed was full of friends posting their pictures from their visits to the historic landmark, and people and churches worldwide posted in solidarité. I hoped with all hope the firefighters were safe, and I also worried about the rose window and all the art and treasures within that mark the ages through Christianity this past 900 years.

I remembered a simple post last week from another friend about fires in Louisiana churches, reminded by yet another friend who called out the collective grief for this cathedral when not one but three black churches had been burned in Louisiana.

I punch another whole in my privileged card. While I grieved for a church that represented so much in Western Christianity and also grieved that I might never see the cathedral in its glory, there were churches that burned not accidentally but intentionally not too far from home. From a hate crime.

Oh, how we love to see Jesus in the great and beautiful, which is of course determined and measured by those in power. How we love to come together over a tragedy, so long as it doesn’t make anyone too uncomfortable or call out injustice. How we cower when we don’t understand or think the light is taken away or hides itself from us.

This Holy Week when a great church burns, what does it reveal to us about the other churches that have burned? Aren’t all churches houses for the Body? When a man gets shot in a church, when a mosque gets burned, what are we saying in our most sacred places?

I believe this Holy Week does call us to come together in solidarity to seek Christ in all persons, to remember Jesus’s acts of love that grant us redemption especially when we live into those acts ourselves. But Jesus wasn’t one to turn a blind eye toward injustice or be deceived by grandeur. True Light is something we can’t build, and while it may be concentrated in one area more than another, it doesn’t mean any one light is greater than another.

To me, this illustrates a classic example of “all lives matter,” reminding us why we have to stand up for #blacklivesmatter. If all the houses are on fire, which one gets the most attention? The Light of Christ is present in the people of the three churches in Louisiana. We celebrate their safety, grieve for their losses, and hope for their future, too. Black.Lives.Matter. We see you. We see Christ in you. God be glorified in your perseverance, in your continuing to shine the Light of Christ. Yes, all lives matter, which means we have to work extra hard in assuring that no one goes unnoticed, especially when our attention gets diverted and when there are those who would rather we not notice.

There are GoFundMe campaigns set up for the Louisiana churches here and here.

God be with you. God be with us all as we build and rebuild, moving toward the kingdom of heaven.

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Holy Monday 2019

Morning Prayer this morning revisits what inspires the procession on Palm Sunday:  Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem. The Eucharistic gospel lesson revisits the dinner party where Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with fragrant nard, much to Judas’ annoyance. Reflection offered by Plough points toward Jesus’ overthrowing the moneychangers in the Temple.

All the while, I wonder where I am this Holy Monday.

Interestingly, I find myself in relation to the crowd.

As news of the Game of Thrones premier covers the news/radio this morning, I realize I’m not “in” with that crowd. Going to pick up a sold-out book club book, I realize that there’s the potential to meet a new crowd of folks locally. Marveling with others at the incredible redbuds and all the spring blossoms and sprouts, I am most definitely one among many getting gardening fever, more than ready to dig in the earth and tend to whatever I can get to grow (or at least dream about growing!).

But when it comes to Holy Week, where I am is one among many in a crowd straining to catch a glimpse of Jesus, hoping to witness if not be a recipient of his acts of love.

All the effort of my seeking contrasts with the sheer presence of Jesus’ being. Aside from the outburst at the Temple, I imagine Jesus steadily moving forward, carried by the will of man yet sustained by the power of God which is determined to reveal something incredible, surpassing all understanding. For all the shouting of the crowd, be it with “Hosanna!”, at a crowded dinner party, or in the general ruckus of a bunch of people, Jesus’s words and even his presence in silence come as a measured and welcome calm however painful it may be.

As part of the crowd, unknowing of God’s ultimate plans, I am reminded to seek those moments of peace and calm, even in the midst of the storms. I am called to follow those distractions that promote a healthy lifestyle and true peace of mind, like taking the dog for a walk, planting a few plants, and making sure we all consume plenty of water. Why? Because ultimately I believe that as Jesus showed us in his life, death, and resurrection, it’s about love, love of the true kind. True love nurtures who we most fully are, which is who God created us to be. So acts of love offered to myself will be life-giving, nurturing. Once I’ve given these loving acts to myself, I might be able to extend them to others.

Those acts might look like sharing in mutual love and affection, like Mary anointing Jesus’ feet or sharing a cup of tea with my kids after school. It might look like calling out systems of injustice and signing a petition or calling on legislators. It might look like being part of a crowd, or it might look like being the outsider, caught in all the emotions of each.

I wonder what a “crowd” of people who are fully and authentically present might look like for a moment before I think of all of us gathered at church. That crowd includes those present, those who wish they could be there, and anyone else willing to come. It’s a humble, vulnerable, loving bunch, with so much hope. It’s the kind of crowd that extends beyond the church, too, and not often in the mainstream but at the margins. It’s a crowd that’s at risk of getting pulled into the mass mentality, but it’s also a crowd willing to repent when it’s gone astray. It’s a crowd that is yearning, straining to see Jesus, and I realize I am where I need to be.

 

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Loving Redemption

The Liturgy of the Palms: Luke 19:28-40 | Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29

The Liturgy of the Word: Isaiah 50:4-9a | Psalm 31:9-16 | Philippians 2:5-11 | Luke 22:14-23:56

From the invitation into the observance of a holy Lent on Ash Wednesday, we knew that it would culminate in our observance of Holy Week. But what are we observing, exactly? Heretofore, our primary focus has been on ourselves, focusing on our experiences, especially in regard to our sacrifices or additions that bring us to mindful attention to God’s presence in our lives. In Holy Week, given our cultural tendencies, we might place most of our focus on the crucifixion, the betrayal that led to it and the violence of it. But we are given a holy week to take in the story, even if we try to cram as much of it into today as we can in case you don’t come back until next Sunday. When we focus on the holiness of this week, let us turn our attention to the acts of love shown to us by Jesus.

  • We begin this week with our palms raised high with our cry of “Hosanna!” (“Save us!” or “Savior!”) We look to Jesus as Savior, the one who will save us, deliver us. He willingly goes before us, knowing that we hope but don’t fully understand.
  • Monday’s gospel lesson revisits the account of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet, which he lets her do and chastizes Judas for chiding her. Love often looks like calling out truth, be it beautiful or painful.
  • On Tuesday, Jesus’ words almost implore his followers to understand who he is and what is about to happen; he’s trying to prepare his followers, to give them understanding and insight as the time draws near. As frustrated as he may be, Jesus never forces anyone into understanding or submission.
  • Wednesday night, at the last of our Lent Soup & Study events, we will again have an agapé meal, a simple Eucharist around the table preceding our meal together. For us it’s a way we draw close to the experience of a meal between Jesus and the disciples, a feast rooted in love. In the gospel lesson that night, Judas betrays Jesus, yet Jesus continues to affirm that God has been glorified in the Son of Man. Jesus doesn’t prohibit Judas from doing what he has chosen to do, but many of us know the betrayal of a friend or loved one and how hard it is not to be attached to what they are doing, especially if it is destructive; it’s an extreme act of love.
  • Maundy Thursday we begin the Triduum by receiving the great commandment from Jesus to love one another, and we practice by washing one another’s feet as Jesus showed us, ending the service with the stripping of the altar. In our timeline, this might be the night Jesus was arrested, neither resisting nor condemning anyone.
  • Good Friday we observe the crucifixion of Jesus, from which he neither flees nor complains. Some of us will walk the Stations of the Cross to encounter more moments along the way when Jesus interacts with others, silently though it may be. Some may choose to make their confession as we, like Peter, realize that we have denied Jesus in thought, word, or deed. We will gather Friday night for the service that includes the recitation of Psalm 22 — “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We will have a cross before us, and we can choose to bow before it in veneration, recognizing that Jesus’ ultimate act of love was his death.

What does it mean for us that we recount Jesus’ acts of love and remember that our redemption comes after a great suffering?

If we pay attention to our dreams, some of us have recurring dreams. They might be the exact same dream or some variation on a theme. I’m not trained in Jungian psychology or even in dream work, but the little I have dappled in both, dreams have something to teach us, something that is often nestled deeply in our subconscious. A recurring dream could suggest that we are experiencing a similar situation over again–like stress expressed in a dream of being in high school again and not finding your locker or schedule or being late or unprepared for a test (yes, that’s one of mine). A recurring dream could also indicate an insight that we’re being offered but haven’t given it enough attention to discern what it is that we have to learn.

Holy Week for me–increasingly so since I’ve been ordained–is much like a dream, and this year the words of Paul resonate with me like the voice of the narrator in a dream. Maybe it has something to do with the Bible study, where we’re taking our time reading Romans. (The more time you spend with anyone, the more they can grow on you, right?) Again, Paul is writing from prison, and he sends this letter to the Philippians. Someone described the portion we read today as a love song since it shows some of the characteristics of love songs from the time. There’s union, a union not to be exploited, and an emptying of self, all of which are ideals in a mutually loving relationship.

But this isn’t a romantic love, the love between Jesus and God or Jesus Christ and us. Paul tells the Philippians to be of the same mind as Christ Jesus. If we are of one mind with Jesus, our thoughts, words, and deeds will present in tender love and humility, in an endurance of suffering, and in enduring hope–all characteristics present in Jesus’ acts throughout this week. In all that we do, can we have Christ’s mind about us? Can we be at one with Christ? As Jesus emptied himself to experience fully the human condition even through suffering and death, is there something we need to empty ourselves of so that we can be faithful to God, follow Christ, and be who God created us to be? This kind of faithful obedience underscores the prayer from the Gospel according to Luke where Jesus says, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” Giving ourselves to obedience to God and God’s will doesn’t mean we don’t make conscious decisions.

The invitation to a holy Lent and even into Holy Week is just that, an invitation. We could, like many others, not observe a thing, and our lives would continue. But for those of us who have given thought and awareness to the presence of God in our lives, meeting that with the recognition of Jesus’ acts of love might illumine for us how we can further reveal to others the presence of Christ in our lives, in all our suffering and all our hope.

 

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Almost, Not Yet, Already

Isaiah 43:16-21 | Psalm 126 | Philippians 3:4b-14 | John 12:1-8

The cherry blossoms and tulips taunt me with the coming season of Easter, but we’re not there yet. Entering this fifth week of Lent, we know we’ve been in the season a while. After a month more likely than not, we’ve either given up on our practices, or they’ve become habit. As any of us know who have had to cut ourselves off of an addiction, at this point if we’ve been off for a month, we’re clean. It doesn’t mean we don’t still struggle with temptation, but after a period of detox, we have a bit more clarity. For those with powerful substance abuse addictions, that period of detox is especially cruel to witness, let alone experience. Addicts will think they’re dying, that they won’t survive, and those who are helping them make it through will offer witness and assurance that while, yes, they feel like they’re dying, they will make it. They will survive, and they will be stronger for it. They’re at a critical moment in their journey–a tipping point, if you will–and now more than ever, as people of faith, we know that God’s grace is needed.  Wherever we are in our journey of faith, wherever we are in our wilderness, whether it’s in the throws of painful cleansing/detox/transition or in the lush jungle of joyful, life-giving discernment, there comes a decisive moment of taking that next step into a new chapter and hopefully with a newness of life rooted in Christ.

It sounds like easy words, but we know the process is more complicated. Even if we gave up something simple for Lent, the intent is still to give up something in our lives that makes more room for God’s will to speak to us and guide us on our way, which at our best is God’s way. We do this because we remember that after baptism, Jesus went into the wilderness for forty days, was tempted in every way but did not sin. He emerged from the desert, prevailing over evil, and fully lived into his life’s ministry, perfectly living into God’s will. Jesus’ faithfulness prevails in every way. And we remember, too, that God’s faithfulness always prevails. God’s faithfulness is what gives the psalmist hope in Ps. 126: recalling the great things that God has done, from deliverance from Egypt to the restoration of fortunes, whatever it is they lament now, the will of God is to be faithful, to keep promises, and to transform the lives of those who survive the wilderness.

It is this transformation that we hope for when we’re going through difficult times. I don’t want to suffer for nothing. If I’m going to give up sugar, I want to lose weight and be healthier. If I’m going to give up drugs, I want to live a life worth living. If I’m going to do good, I want to know that what I’m sacrificing for is worth it. I want something to look forward to. This is hard for us because we can’t promise that because we’re doing good things that life will be sunshine and roses. We can’t assure there won’t be daily temptation, that our bodies will stay in remission, that there won’t be some senseless tragedy, despite our best efforts in our home or at the capitol. But our remembering God’s faithfulness strengthens our faith in God’s will and fortifies our hope, our imagination of what is to come. Not yet are we transformed ourselves or as a community, but there is hope that it can be.

When we have this faith and hope of what can and will be done through the grace of God and our cooperation, if this is our belief, we can’t help but act upon it. Paul, sitting in prison, writing to the Philippians, couldn’t help but strain toward the future, toward what is to come. Paul wants to know Christ fully, even to the sharing of his suffering. In commentary on The Working Preacher, Edward Pillar suggests three ways that Paul demonstrates how the knowledge of Christ could be obtained. To me they sound like Paul’s three ways of love because they include

  • Letting go of status or significance in our culture–value is only rooted in love;
  • Being obedient to the values and ethos of God, which is love; and
  • Maintaining love and loving even to the death, even if it’s at the hands of the powerful/unjust/corrupt.

We are given how Paul does this, having given up his status as a blameless leader. We know that this is the very model of Jesus in his life and death, which is why by our experiencing these things, we are more inclined to know what it is to live in Christ, to have the Christ-mind, to be Christ-like, to be truly Christian.

In our gospel lesson today, we are given a couple of people through whom we can see how they are orienting their lives toward knowing God through Christ, or not. Martha and Lazarus are there at this dinner party, Martha serving as she does and Lazarus living his resurrected life (wouldn’t we love to hear more of his thoughts?). But it’s Mary and Judas who are the two characters we focus in on today.

We don’t know what Jesus said during the meal, but at some point, Mary gets the perfume and anoints Jesus, filling the room with the scent of nard, a fragrance that takes me back to Jerusalem in a heartbeat. This fragrance, they would know, is the fragrance of a burial anointing. Six days before the Passover . . . maybe Jesus had said something again of his coming death, of going to be with his Father. Maybe Mary is letting go of her attachment to Jesus in recognition of him living into God’s will and is showing her utmost act of love in supporting him, encouraging him, and loving him up to his death. She’s the one who sits at the feet of Jesus and listens to him intently. Whatever he says, this is how she responds, acting in faith, hope, and love. Her act is tender and heart-wrenching, if she truly anticipates his death. This isn’t to say it couldn’t also be an impulsive act of adoration, but either way, Mary is giving herself over to Love, offering probably one of the most precious material possessions she has.

Judas, however, I imagine him going from being annoyed at Mary’s affection to disgusted that she would waste the nard. The value of the perfume–I read that it’s about a year’s salary for a laborer–could have filled the disciples’ discretionary fund, providing him with more for his own pockets. Not only are we told here that Judas will be the one to betray Jesus, but he’s also a thief, a dishonest treasurer. How, we might wonder, can Judas be with the disciples all this time, even up to the end, and be so cold-hearted? Quite obviously, the way of love is not Judas’ way of living. There’s something he benefits from being among the disciples, if even it’s the status of treasurer or being among the band of misfits making a ruckus. His values are self-centered, and ultimately he doesn’t show love in his betrayal, even to himself.

Who do we see leaning into God’s grace in their actions in this life? Judas never lets go of his self-interest. In Mary we see repeated acts of her following the guidance of Spirit or love or impulse–whatever we want to call it. In those moments, we can see where her actions reveal something of love made manifest in unexpected ways. There’s something sacramental about it because it is making visible and tangible something invisible and spiritual. Mary’s act demonstrates grace, which is an offering of God’s love. It’s unwarranted, unearned, and unconditional. Grace is always ready to be received.

At the end of our wilderness pilgrimage, or after a long period of struggle, we know that point when we say “I’m done” or “I can’t do this anymore” or “I don’t want to.” Those of us advocating for the rights of the poor and marginalized might feel like it’s an endless uphill battle. What does it mean for us to hear these words of Jesus, spoken to the one who does not embody or understand the importance of love? What does it mean to hear Jesus speaking to cold-heartedness, “Leave her alone,” she’s doing work for what is to come. This is her act of faith and hope, and my receiving her act of love lets my grace be fulfilled with mutual affection. Does it prevent what is to come? No, but it emphasizes the importance of moment to moment actions, the significance of one act of grace, one donation given, one kindness exchanged, one life transformed.

Remembering our stories and promises sustain our faith. Seeking the transformation of nightmarish realities into dreams of God’s will made manifest in the kingdom of heaven speaks to our hope. Above all of what is “almost” and “not yet” is what already is in the prevalence of God’s love for us from beginning to end, through and beyond. How are we leaning into God’s grace, acting in ways of love, especially when we are most ready to give up and walk away? Do we turn away from God’s grace, or can we act in love and take that next step into new life in Christ?

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Prodigal Son, Revisited

Joshua 5:9-12 | Psalm 32 | 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 | Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

As I’ve mentioned before about Godly Play lessons, the parables are set apart as gifts. Parables convey a special and usually simple story with a spiritual lesson for us. I say “for us” because we’re the ones hearing and reading it today, but in the gospel, Jesus shares the parable for the pharisees and scribes, who are grumbling about Jesus welcoming sinners and–God forbid–eating with them. Before the parable of the father and sons, Jesus tells two other parables: the parable of the lost sheep and of the lost coin. You already know this, but to jog your memory, the lost sheep is about the shepherd going after the one lost sheep who has strayed away from the other 99. The parable of the lost coin shares the story of the woman who searches high and low in her home to find the one lost coin. So our context is that the scribes and pharisees–law abiding, faithful men they are–are given these parables by Jesus about people looking not for what they already have, but for what is lost.

And there was a man who had two sons. The younger one decides that he needs to go ahead and get his inheritance so he can go and live the high life, doing whatever he wants for immediate satisfaction and personal pleasure. Before long, he has nothing. Not only that, but there’s famine in the land. This younger son hires himself out to a pig farmer and finds himself at the brink of starvation, imagining eating the pig feed. In a moment of clarity, he thinks about the hired hands on his father’s estate, who never wanted for food. In this “a-ha” moment, he prepares his speech to his father, where he will confess that he’s not only sinned against heaven but also before his father. He will admit he’s not worthy to be called his son and beg to be a hired hand. We can cue the scene of him walking off into the sunset with a knapsack with a renewed resolve, a much different man than the one who blew through his inheritance.

If we were the young man returning home to say all this to our father, we would have to know that this could go a couple of different ways. Jesus doesn’t leave us in suspense for long, though, because we’re told that while the younger son “was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion.” We might smile with tears in our eyes as we picture the heart-weary father, who had probably heard rumors and figured his son was as good as dead, taking his son his in his arms, kissing him and holding him, making all the noises a parent makes when showering a child with affection. As practiced, the son makes his confession, word for word: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” Before he can ask to be hired on, the father calls his servants to adorn the son as royalty and to prepare a feast. And why? Because “this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And like in the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin, there is much rejoicing and celebration.

But unlike the other two parables, where we don’t get the perspective of the other 99 sheep or the woman’s other material items, this parable gives us the perspective of the elder son. When he approached the house, hears the festivities, and finds out from one of the servants what’s going on, what’s his response? . . . “He became angry and refused to go in,” even when his father begs him to partake in the festivities. The older son explains with a voice many of us know, especially us first-born and perfectionists. “Listen!” he begins with a voice that makes me almost cringe, because that is not a voice I’ve been taught to use with my parents or elders. The son goes on to vent his frustration. He’s worked like a slave and always obeyed, yet never has he been rewarded. His brother, on the other hand, has brought shame to their family and is now being treated like a prince. It’s not fair.

With parental excellence, the father showers this son with affection, too, though in a different way. “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” The father and older son have been co-existing in full relationship. Does the son not know that he is so fulfilled? “But we had to celebrate and rejoice,” the father says, “because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” Does the brother not realize what had been lost? Did he not feel the grief of losing a member of the family? I don’t think it’s an accident that we’re given a trinitarian parable here. The father and the two sons have a triune relationship. When one is missing, the fullness of the relationship is missing. We’re left without knowing how the son responds to the father’s explanation.

But if we’re the pharisees and scribes listening to this parable, how might we respond? We might resonate with the elder son. We see ourselves like the brother who works like a slave to keep the letter of the law and to uphold all righteousness, and we might grumble about not being recognized by the popular guy in town. But in the presence of the compassion of Jesus, through the voice of the father in the parable, can they hear what Jesus is saying? If they are living to the letter of the law, what are they grumbling about? They are part of the kingdom, counted among God’s chosen.

But what about those sinners? What about what the younger son did? What makes who they are or who he is okay?

This is where this parable also differs from the other two. In this parable, we’re given insight into the thought process of the one who is lost. In the first two parables, we don’t know what the sheep was thinking, and we can assume that the coin didn’t have the capacity to think. But the younger son we know made a conscious decision to get his inheritance and squander it in ways that made his position as a hired hand on a pig farm seem like the position he deserved. “But when he came to himself,” Jesus says, when the young man is in his right mind, he has a moment when he realizes who he is and who his father is. He becomes aware of what he has done and names it as sin. “I have sinned against heaven and before you,” he practices saying to his father. Just as he made a conscious decision to go on his self-indulgent spree, he now makes a conscious decision to turn back toward what is right, to return to his father, and to accept his position with all humility, unworthy as he is. The son is self-aware. The son is honest with himself and with his father. He’s penitent, repentant, and humble.

If the parable played out with an eye-for-an-eye ethic, the father could have punished the son, not with hiring him on as a field hand, which would have still been gracious, but by meeting him with a harsh consequential punishment. The father could have cast the son out of the family. You wanted to go on your own, then go. Don’t expect to be welcomed back.

But that’s not what happened.

When the kids were much smaller, I told them at night before they went to bed that I would never be far from them, that I was in their heart as much as they were in mine, with invisible heart strings connecting us. This comes to mind for me, as I imagine that even if the younger son wanted to go out on his own and turn away from his family, the heart string of the father never disconnected. As soon as the son was in proximity, that heart string was tugged, and the father reeled that son in as quickly and as closely as he could. He hadn’t lost hope, but things were looking bleak. Now the connection was restored, the bond made all the stronger by the reconciliation that took place, verbally and nonverbally. It’s a moment of grace, which is by its very nature unwarranted, undeserved.

And no matter how much we do to garner merit and increase our worthiness, we are no more nor less deserving of grace. When we’re living a righteous life, we swim in grace, be it grace we receive or grace we give–it’s just the air we breathe. But when we live a pious life for the sake of looking good, or do things so that we can increase our esteem in our eyes or in the eyes of another but not for the sake of goodness itself, we risk losing ourselves to greed or isolating ourselves from the fullness of living into relationship with others.

Our parable today gives us not only the illustration of one truly repentant and one full of compassion and grace but also of one who has yet to realize they are in need of repentance and are also worthy of compassion and grace.

We can get so caught up in doing what is right and good and expected that we do it out of obligation. We come to church on Sunday. We drive the speed limit. We pay our taxes. We follow the commandments and do good deeds. I’m convinced that obligation can breed resentment over time if we lose sight of why we do what we do, and that’s the pressure I see the elder son releasing when he goes off on his father. Think of how surprised we are when we thought someone was doing what they did because they enjoyed it, but they were just doing it to make us or someone else happy. For all the grief the younger son gets for squandering his inheritance, he fully expressed himself, his thoughts and intentions; he was honest. The older son, working like a slave, did what he did because he was supposed to. While the father still felt like the heart strings were attached, the older son had replaced the loving relationship into one of duty. Work without relationship is transactional. Work with relationship, however, is meaningful, rich, and fulfilling. It is hard, often focused on the greater good rather than personal gain, humbling in both our honesty and vulnerability inherent in authentic relationships, and surprising when the things we least expect happen. I never cease to be amazed at the true kindness and sincerity of people.

It is when I get those glimpses of sincerity, those moments of true compassion, that I feel like I get a glimpse of the presence of Christ manifest in the here and now. It can be in the compassion shown toward ourselves or the compassion shown toward another, but when those heartstrings are pulled close and reverberate with the electricity of being in relationship with one another, that’s when I think we find the frequency of Love, the pulse of God.

With this in mind, I invite you to go back and re-read Paul’s message to the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 5:16-2), where the ministry of reconciliation is one of the ministries we are all called to.

 

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Not Consumed

Exodus 3:1-15 | Psalm 63:1-8 | 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 | Luke 13:1-9

Recall the story of Moses, the Hebrew baby who was sent down the river only to be taken in by the pharaoh’s daughter and raised as an Egyptian. As an adult, he witnessed the beating of a Hebrew slave and killed the attacking Egyptian. He thought no one knew of his deed, but another Hebrew the next day called him out on it. Moses knew that others knew, and it wasn’t long before Pharaoh knew, too. So Moses fled to Midian, where he ends up defending the priest Jethro’s daughters from other shepherds and shortly thereafter marrying one of them.

Now Moses, our family man, was tending to his father-in-law’s flock, venturing a bit further than normal, perhaps. He came to Horeb, the mountain of God, which we commonly call Mt. Sinai. We’re told straight away that it’s an angel of the LORD appearing to Moses “in a flame of fire out of a bush,” but can you imagine Moses either suddenly seeing a shrub burst into flame or rounding a corner to see a ball of fire? Surely a fire in the dry mountains is a dangerous thing, and a first response would be one of fear in anticipation of the fire spreading. Whatever his first reaction, Moses looked at this sight, the bush blazing in flame, and observed that “it was not consumed.” He couldn’t know right away that the fire was the presence of God, but in his assessment of the situation, evaluating whether he and his father-in-law’s flock were in immediate danger, he observed that the fire wasn’t spreading, which would have been natural. More than that, the bush itself was not consumed. Instead of disintegrating into ash, this desert shrub was holding its shape, its form: it was holding this flaming fire.

Then the perception of what Moses is contending with shifts. He’s dealing with something unnatural. He must now turn to look at this “great sight” indirectly. He wants to know why the bush isn’t consumed, but he knows from his tradition that humans cannot survive the full presence of God. If this is something of God, he doesn’t want to take unnecessary risks. So he looks aside, sort of askance. As if now the possibility of the presence of God is an option for Moses, what happens next? The voice of God calls out to him: “Moses, Moses!” To which Moses responds, “Here I am.”

Transfixed by this voice emanating from a burning bush, Moses is told to come no closer and to remove his sandals because the ground he’s on is holy. The voice introduces itself as the God of the forefathers, and Moses is afraid to look upon God. God goes on to share that the plight of the Hebrew people hasn’t gone unnoticed, and now it is Moses himself who will go to bring the people out of Egypt. Moses protests, of course, but God reveals further the name above all others: the great I AM. God promises to be with Moses and the people.

Moses is called. The presence of God is revealed to him in a way that captures our attention, in a way mysterious and indescribable. Moses is given a mission, something that sounds so simple yet seems impossible. It would be impossible, without God’s help.

How is this familiar, this story of Moses? Is it solely emblazoned in our memories through movies or mere repetition in our lectionary, or is it more than that? Before Moses was the deliverer of the Hebrew slaves, he was a guy doing his job, being a good son. He had been a good and helpful stranger to Jethro’s daughters, but he was also a murderer fleeing persecution. At his birth, Moses was born in a time when his people were oppressed. The Hebrew people were growing too numerous, too strong, so the Pharaoh ordered the male babies to be thrown into the Nile. Moses was fleeing persecution the day he was born. He had been surrounded by so much, knew anger and rage, knew fear, yet he had not been consumed by them. He still had faith in God. All of who Moses was was known by God, and still he was called by God to do the impossible.

Does this story of Moses feel familiar, more deeply than that we know of the story or have seen or heard it before? Can it be that we’ve experienced it ourselves? Could it be that we are experiencing it now?

So much has happened between the time of Moses and today. Paul reminds us that the Jewish people were not perfect in their time of deliverance. They made mistakes along the way, as we all do. We know Moses himself was not above the crime of murder. We all go along our way and do what we do. Nations, empires, rise and fall, and people navigate the stresses and strains of living in relationship with one another, guided or not by their concept of the Divine and its import in their lives. In the unfolding of our world, we believe that God revealed God’s self again this time not in a burning bush but in the flesh of a man.

This time, in the Incarnation, God called not one but twelve to join in a particular work to deliver a people oppressed. Wearing their sandals they traveled around to share a message of peace, of healing, of wholeness, and even a message of repentance. The sick and the suffering flocked to Jesus, and they were numerous. The powers in charge did not want these people to gain strength as they were increasing in number. Jesus was crucified, seemingly consumed by the hatred and anger, the fear of others, especially those in power.

But death did not consume him any more than the presence of God consumed the burning bush. Instead, the resurrection of Christ revealed God again to those who believed, and brought a message of deliverance available to anyone and everyone who identifies this story with theirs, of being brought out of bondage into liberation, of living a life whole and restored to live and love as we have been loved by God.

These stories aren’t merely familiar, they are ours. We know the presence of God in our lives, and whether we realize it or not, that presence has filled us, especially at particular moments. While we may have felt broken wide open, filled with fiery passions that maybe even presented as anger or rage, we were not consumed. If we had the presence of mind and spirit to hear the prayers of our heart and the whispers of wisdom, maybe we, too, heard what God is calling us to do, with God’s help.

I realize this is a powerful theological claim: that the presence of God is not merely outside of us but that as Christians we also embody the presence of God. This means that at once we can be both the burning bush and the one being called.

In the context of the parable of the fig tree we also heard today, this feels pretty scary. If we can be a burning bush and a prophet, can we also be a fig tree bearing fruit or not? If we’re not fruitful, does that mean we’ll be cut down, judged to death? In my readings, this parable was offered as an impetus to repent, to bear fruits worthy of repentance, because the second coming was near–it hadn’t happened yet, but it was due any day. They were fortunate to have the extra time to do what needed to be done. They were fortunate to have the extra time in the first century, as we are fortunate to have the time now. The story itself gives us an impetus to act, as fear of death is very motivating.

There was a story I heard that described Inuit storytelling and how it conveys their values. The essay is about how Inuits teach their children to control their anger, and it also mentions how stories with a dose of danger are told to their children. The stories might involve scary monsters and dire consequences, which can raise caution in the children. They might be afraid of going into situations that could very well harm if not kill them, like getting caught in the frigid air or water, because they have an association of a monster. The emphasis is not on traumatic, paralyzing fear but a notion of playfulness, grounded in nurturing love and care.

I think of this means of storytelling to get us to do what we are called to do in relation to the parable of the fig tree. Yes, we need to repent for our sins, the myriad ways we turn away from God and don’t build up the Realm of God, which is what the Gospel according to Luke is all about us doing. And it doesn’t need to be done at a later time; it needs to be done now. We don’t have to, of course. We can get quite good at redirecting that burning we feel, the passion we have. We have many options for numbing or distracting ourselves, some even considered healthy. But that’s now what we’re called to.

On more than one occasion I’ve spoken with someone who rounds a corner in life and finds him- or herself completely consumed. Instead of a cautious, “Here I am,” it’s more of an on-their-knees, “yes, here I am but why me?” And perhaps we know what we are called to do, but it seems impossible. Others may laugh it off or shake their heads in ridicule. When we’re able to stand again, we can’t help but see it everywhere, this that we’re called to. Maybe we see it in ourselves or see evidences of it or its consequences all around us. No one else seems to notice, except maybe a few with whom we share what we see and feel to make sure we’re not crazy.

So here’s the thing: what is the seed that God has planted within you? What, given the nurturing of others and the unconditional love of God, would bear fruit in your life or in the community around you? Don’t judge yourself. Don’t listen to the judgment of others; we don’t know. God knows. You might not even know what it is exactly, and the mere thought of fueling the passion, the desire, the yearning, may be terrifying because surely it will consume you and lead to destruction.

Strangely enough, being consumed by love of God can be like death. There are lots of ways we die when we fulfill our relationship with God. Some of them may be consequentially negative, but they can also be rewarding in untold ways. We don’t know any more than we can know how a bush can burn without being consumed. But we do know or at least trust in faith, as Paul said, “God is faithful, and … will not let (us) be tested beyond (our) strength, but with the testing (God) will also provide the way out so that (we) may be able to endure it” (1 Cor 10:13b).

All the things we do and are called to do in this Christian life, we do them with God’s help, and God has a way of bringing us together so that we don’t have to walk this Way of Love alone. We do this hard and often scary work together, which will always make us stronger.

 

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