More than business as usual

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26  | Psalm 1 | 1 John 5:9-13 | John 17:6-19

Our religious tradition provides us with much I love–namely stability, form, and structure. We have the framework to understand our roles and responsibilities, at least generally. We have our annual meeting at the local level, our diocesan convention at the diocesan level, and General Convention every triennium so we can account for what we’ve done in the past, work we need to do now, and where we’re going in the future. As with your place of work, there are just some things that have to be done, and hopefully these are daily tasks we get to do rather than a daily grind that wears us down. One might say these are the hallmarks of a “job.”

Our lessons and psalm today reinforce the work we do as Christians. In Acts there’s a vacancy among the apostles, so they dutifully and prayerfully cast lots to fulfill that role. (And I’m rather glad they went with the simple election of Matthias so we don’t have to keep up with which name to use!) They took a chance and trust that it will be good. In psalms, we have a traditional song contrasting the wicked and the righteous, and of course we want the rewards of righteousness; it’s like a reminder why we do what we do. Our epistle, the first letter of John reiterates our belief in the Son of God, our key to eternal life. The whole brief first letter emphasizes the unity among believers and insists upon following the command to love one another, for God is love (1Jn 4:8). Even going about our daily business, there can be discord and differing views; the letter aims to restore alignment and unity.

So, carry on, brothers and sisters! We could move right on to recite the words of our neat and tidy faith in the words of the Nicene Creed . . . , but we’re also given our gospel lesson this day. And God bless the gospel according to John, where often words twist and turn like a circular stage, spiraling through different levels of meaning and challenging us in our understanding.

What is Jesus really trying to say here? How does it affect my life today?

If we return to the place and time of the reading, we’ll remember that John 17 is still part of Jesus’s last meal with the disciples, those whom he loves, and he knew it was his last meal with them from the beginning. This is the meal that begins in Chapter 13, where we’re told they gather before the festival of Passover, and Jesus washes their feet, as we continue to do on Maundy Thursday. In this meal, Jesus foretells his betrayal with a beloved disciple reclining against his chest, Judas betrays him, and Jesus gives a new commandment to love one another. Jesus tells Peter he’ll be denied, and though Jesus again and again says he’ll be leaving them, he promises to send an Advocate, the Holy Spirit. Jesus says he’s the true vine and speaks of the world’s hatred and persecution, and the disciples wrestle with what all this means, Jesus’s words about leaving them. Jesus speaks of being one with the Father and gives the disciples his peace . . . and then he prays for them, as we heard a portion today.

There’s not an “Our Father” in the gospel according to John, but there is this prayer that holds all the context of the meal with the disciples and Jesus’s love for them as he prays. Jesus prays for the disciples and all whom he loves, and it’s terribly hard to imagine the magnitude of this prayer. But we can imagine this: a Christian mother’s prayer for her child/godchild, one who knows her duty and fulfills her mission with faithful obedience.

Imagine this nurturing, life-giving, beloved mother offering her prayer–either silently or aloud–in the presence of her charge. In her prayer, she’s almost reminding God that she has done her work; she’s made God’s name known to the children given to her care. She knows all are from God and the magnitude of her responsibility.

She knows the children have kept the word of God because as it’s been given to and received by her, the children have witnessed the genuineness and authenticity of her belief, her trust, and they receive it for themselves so much that it becomes their own belief and trust.

A mother would rarely wish to be separated from her child, but if circumstances require it, we know that this mother would do all she could to protect and bless those in her care. She will make petition to God, emphasizing again that all that she is has been made possible only through God, and as if to make sure it’s understood, she clearly names the children as truly God’s. What’s yours is mine, and what’s mine is yours. There’s little more precious and beautiful than that.

If she has to be away–even to be united with God–she’s going to ask, nearly beg, for God to protect her children, lest all her work to protect and guide and guard them have been in vain.

She has a sense of the joy and anticipation of being united with God, but the pain of humanity, of attachments and persecutions in the world, are all very real. How many times does a mother pray for protection over her children? Let alone when she’s separated from them?

Ultimately, a mother blesses her children with her love. Her prayer to “sanctify” them is to make them holy and also to set them apart. Sanctify can also mean to purify or redeem. This mother wants only the best for those given to her care. Giving the truth, the Word, is the most loving thing she can do to keep them in the company of the divine, even when she’s not there.

This is how I’ve tried to understand Jesus’ words and prayer: through the person of a mother. But maybe every mother’s prayer is really a taste of Jesus’s prayer for all whom he loves, for everyone and everything that thirsts for love and communion with God?

In all our business–or busy-ness–we mustn’t forget this intimacy and yearning that is at the very foundation of who we are as a church and who we are at the very core of our being as children of God. Maybe the “Our Father” is easier to memorize and pray, but every line of that prayer contains all the glory, love, and tenderness of this prayer for the disciples. On this day, may we also hear it as Jesus’s prayer for us as we return to our work and strive to glorify God.

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Boundaries of Limitless Love

Acts 10:44-48 | Psalm 98 | 1 John 5:1-6 | John 15:9-17

I’m not exactly sure why, but this is one of my favorite verses: “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” Maybe it’s because reading this every time feels like Jesus is speaking to me (I hope you feel Jesus is speaking directly to you because I really feel like he’s almost whispering this to me). There’s intimacy here of a beloved friend. And joy. Ah, sweet joy. If you’ve ever seen the movie Inside Out, they capture the inner workings of our mind-controlling emotions, and I think they do it quite well. Joy is one of my dominant emotions, and she wants to be fed and seen and expressed and complete . . . whole. For me, joy made complete feels nothing less than a mountain-top experience: radiant like the sun soaked into every pore, full-bloom, fulfilled and ready to burst into love outpoured. That’s my joy, but it’s not always mountain-top highs. Sometimes it’s more subdued in those everyday moments that still bring that sense of fulfillment, contentment, abundance, and desire to share all of that with those around me–not by force but by mutual desire.

Jesus says he’s told us the things to complete our joy. We’ve all heard them. So why aren’t we all walking around 100-percent joyful all the time? Jesus says he’s given us the key. We have full access.

Peter has the key, too. (Literally, doesn’t he hold the keys to the kingdom of heaven? Mtw. 16:19) Peter’s love has been reaffirmed in Jesus’ resurrection (remember he has to repeat his love for the Lord three times, enough to counter his three denials, yes?), and Peter continues the work of a disciple, proclaiming God’s love and the power of belief in Jesus Christ. And like Philip evangelizing to the eunuch last week, Peter is crossing social norms to evangelize to the Gentiles.

When I read these verses, I can’t help of thinking of Peter as being sort of a Great Showman, like Barnum speaking to new recruits, surprised to learn that they are truly gifted. If we read these verses in the context of Chapter 10 from the beginning, we get a better sense of Peter’s attitude through his resistance to eat unclean foods (though he’s been told all things have been made clean) and his continued resistance to associate with the Gentiles. Maybe Peter just really doesn’t want to be there. These aren’t his people, aren’t his friends. They’re of a different culture, from a different neighborhood. He’s been brought up not to associate with this kind.

But bless Peter for following Jesus, for going into forbidden relationships with love of God put above all things–even above himself. Low and behold, the Holy Spirit shows up, gifts the Gentiles and opens Peter’s eyes and mind again to realize: who can withhold the power of Spirit? Who could dam up the water God makes abundant to baptize those who desire it? For the grace and power of God are free to all and are not limited by social labels or barriers. Thanks be to God!

Last week I mentioned the “loving, liberating, life-giving” theme of General Convention. This week I found myself wondering: why liberation in regard to our relationship with God? God’s grace and power are free, unconditional, and limitless. But Peter’s story illustrates perfectly why we need liberation. We, with our beautiful, blessed free will, don’t have to recognize or even realize God’s grace and power, and we’re awfully good about creating all the boundaries and barriers that separate us from one another and from God. Separate from God, it’s a race to see who or what has the most power in our lives. Even within the Church, there’s competition or at least comparison to see who has the biggest, best, most.

Even if we had the greatest Sunday attendance, biggest, best building, I don’t think that would make my–or our–joy complete. That’s not what Jesus was saying. But what Jesus did say gave us the keys to our own liberation so that we can live into that loving, life-giving way he made so readily available to us.

Jesus says:

  1. Get off your high horse and abide in my love.
  2. Keep the commandment to love one another as I have loved you.

That’s it. That’s the key.

Getting off our high horse means putting God first. God’s love shown through the love between Father and Son. Effortless yet requiring everything. In their very nature. Selfless, whole, unconditional. Chosen. Beloved. Jesus loves each person with this kind of love, and we’re called to be loved and love in return, to abide in this love. Soak in it until we’re saturated. Be loved, beloved. Abide can mean accept. Can we accept our belovedness?

If we can accept our belovedness and abide in love, the second point is easier, though not easy. It’s easy to love those who share our station, beliefs, and opinions. It’s not as easy to love with any manner of grace those who differ completely, especially if they challenge us directly. But it does get easier. If we can try to comprehend how beloved we are, even with all our faults and imperfections, we begin to truly believe that “others” are beloved, too. And even if I don’t like what someone does or how they live their life or what they profess, I can at least try to love them as Jesus loves them. The doors that closed in Jesus’ and the apostles’ faces as they brought peace were closed by people Jesus loved. Yet he didn’t force his way in. That’s true love, right–freely given to be freely received. I guess God’s unconditional love is conditionally manifested–we have to unlock its potential.

Thursday was the National Day of Prayer, right? And it wasn’t until I was reading about it on their website that I realized our National Day of Prayer is particularly Christian. This works for me, for us Christians, but I wonder about the millions who are about to start their prayers and fasting for Ramadan next week, those who sit in silence according to their philosophy and as a means of contributing to their right living, or those who whether they go to church or not when they’re outdoors they marvel at creation, its beauty, and feel close to something they can’t quite name. This is why we keep Time to Breathe as a time set apart for silence, meditation, prayer, or whatever it is you call your time to sit and be, your time to abide in your belovedness.

I want to give myself accolades for being so open and loving, but then I’m walking to the square on Friday evening, having parked at Christ the King. The weather’s gorgeous, the place abuzz, and then this car with two huge Confederate flags waving above it, nearly as big as the car, passes by for everyone to see. I can’t hide my face, for that’s how I feel about it. I notice a couple who doesn’t exactly look like they’re from around here, though maybe they are, and I read their lips as they say something like, “Did you see that? Really?” They look my way, their face matching my expression, and I say, “Classy, isn’t it?” “I know, right?” was their response. And then I realize what I’ve done, in my out loud voice. I’m so glad I wasn’t in my clericals, but then I was in my All Saints’ shirt, where “All are welcome.” All except that guy, right?

I may not agree with that guy, but I can love him as a neighbor. I won’t agree with what he’s suggesting, and I would stand between him and a friend should he pose a threat or my friend threaten him. Violence works both ways, and it’s not the way of love. It gets complicated fast, and it demands our sense of presence and awareness to truly see the love of God in all things and above all things.

That’s what all of this love business is about: manifesting the power of God’s love in our lives.

In society it looks like justice. In relationships it looks like mutual respect and nonviolence. In our education it looks like wisdom. In our prisons it looks like reconciliation and redemption. At our table it looks like radical hospitality.

All of this is readily available to us, just waiting on the next willing heart to open to receive the power of the Holy Spirit. What’s to come when we unlock the love of God in our lives truly surpasses our understanding, but it might be something like joy made complete.

 

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On Hope

Acts 3:12-19 | Psalm 4 | 1 John 3:1-7 | Luke 24:36b-48

Have you ever noticed how long it takes you to really ingest the meaning of something? At home, we’re super fond of The Series of Unfortunate Events, and the author Lemony Snickett, narrates throughout the story, and is prone to providing not only definitions of more sophisticated words but also the meanings of idioms like being in “the belly of the beast.” Snickett always forewarns how horrible the story is and how we should really look away rather than watch the tragedy unfold, and in the last episode of the second season, he says that the phrase “the belly of the beast” will be repeated three times, which it is.

On a far different note, what I’ve heard distinctly at least three times here of late, has to do with hope. I know, it’s Easter, the season of Resurrection: of course I’ve heard about hope.

But listen with me.

When I was at the Cultivating an Interfaith Mindset in Rural Arkansas gathering in Conway, Teri Daily, the priest now at All Saints’ in Russellville, shared again the story of how St. Peter’s in Conway got involved in a project in Syria, supporting a school there through The Wisdom House Project primarily under the leadership of Mouaz Moustafa. Through his contacts in Syria, he was able to get supplies to the teachers and thus the students, and they were actually able to video conference so they could communicate as directly as possible with the donors here in Arkansas. It’s amazing, really, and Teri shared how meaningful it was and is that they were able to do something so directly impactful on a horrible situation that we know has only gotten worse. In fact, the school the group supported had to close in its previous location due to bombing, yet they regrouped, meeting in various smaller locations and homes, very much an underground system. In all of this, what stands out to me most is this: Teri said that the Syrians were most grateful to know that someone in the West cared. She said they repeatedly said, “Thank you. Thank you.” They so emphatically thanked them because they had been told by the regime that no one cared, that they were forgotten by those on the outside, by the Western world (a hub of civilization and affluence). The regime was attempting to extinguish their hope, going as far as dropping flyers that told them as much. If the people fell into despair, they would lose all hope, and they would stop trying to resist. But … if they had signs that someone cared, tokens of recognition, then there was still hope, still a chance that things could be different, that they might survive the present horror.

That was during Lent that I heard the story again. Then comes Holy Week and Easter.

All the hope of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, that Jesus was the one that would completely turn the tables of oppression, was crucified with Jesus on the cross. “Here’s your king,” the sign above Jesus mocked to those who had been “foolish” enough to follow him, to hope for the kingdom of which he spoke. Throughout Jesus’ life, he met people where they were, in their pain and suffering, their oppression or ostracization, and he saw them and ignited that spark of hope that there could be another way, a way that empowered them, too, with a role in manifesting a society, a world, where they mattered, where they were valued. In this scriptural raising the valleys and lowering mountains, it also meant that those in power were also called out on their hypocrisy and complicity. It stung those in power when Jesus addressed them, and we get a sense of the discomfort again in Peter’s words to those who advocated for Jesus’s crucifixion. But that’s not the end of the story, even for those who shouted “Crucify him!” There’s hope because death was not the end of Jesus Christ. There truly is a way to life everlasting. The images Jesus painted of the kingdom of heaven reveal for us–in a way we can understand it–of God’s dream for humanity. And the powers that be in this world are not strong enough to annihilate that dream for us.

And then there’s the lecture at Crystal Bridges, where Patrisse Kahn-Cullors, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, addresses a full audience. I went because Black lives do matter. I went because I’m so increasingly aware of the inequity in our society. I went because I see so many Episcopalians there, even ones who may not be here at services. Her 45 minutes went too quickly. She spoke briefly about being an artist. She spoke mostly about working with others to make viral and public what was happening to black-skinned folks at the hands of the people who are supposed to protect and serve them or what’s happening to them once they’re within the not-so-seemingly just justice system. She spoke again about art and imagination. And she said that if you want to annihilate a people, if you want to dehumanize a person, you kill their imagination . . . because without imagination they have no hope. They see no other way. The way things are become the way things are, and the stop and frisk and shouting and yelling and drug war and violence and innocent murders and invisibility are normalized.

As if this wouldn’t have been enough of a moving presentation, I bought her book on impulse and have been engrossed in it, in her life. The book’s called When They Call You a Terrorist. As I read and remember and think on the way things are, I realize that most people would understand if Patrisse had lost hope, if she were numb or immobilized. But thank God for her persistent imagination, her persistent faith, her dedication to love. Her hope endures, and because she can imagine a different future, she has goals that give her actions. In Ethics of Hope Jürgen Moltmann says, “If we hope for an alternative future, we shall already change things now as far as possible in accord with that.” Patrisse, who has studied not only art but also theology and community organizing, knows this. She knows it in her very being.

And so do we, as Easter people. We know there will be times or powers that be that try our souls, but we have hope. Sometimes it’s harder to sustain, but it’s in our very being. It’s ignited when we’re in the presence of that which reminds us of the presence of Christ. Like when the disciples realized that their hearts burned within them as the risen yet unrecognized Jesus opened the Scripture to them as they walked toward Emmaus. Like when we stand in the midst of our friends and neighbors, united in a common cause for a greater good–be that a march or rally or at a bedside in the hospital. Hope is a part of the very air we breathe as I think of Jesus giving the breath of the Holy Spirit to the disciples as described in the Gospel according to John. Jesus brought forth a new Way and gives us the power to carry on to fulfill God’s dream for us.

Even if we find ourselves in “the belly of the beast,” we have our Christian hope–the same today as it was for the martyrs of old. While we–I pray–don’t have to worry about the threat of the horrors of the arena, we are at risk of being consumed by injustice, lethargy, and apathy, the things that may very well be direct opposites of faith, hope, and love. But our Christian hope, grounded in our bond and affection with and for the divine imagination, yearns for beloved community in which all abide in love, where righteousness and peace kiss each other, and where love meets our fears, anxieties, and worries, and with full faith says, “Peace be with you,” the same words Jesus greets the disciples with and still speaks in our hearts and minds today.

 

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Written on our Hearts

Jeremiah 31:31-34 | Psalm 51:1-13 | Hebrews 5:5-10 | John 12:20-33

On this fifth Sunday in Lent, it seems like being so far into the wilderness journey that I should be bowing my head parched in penitence, wearing my sackcloth and ashes. Especially revisiting Psalm 51, the same psalm we recite as we receive the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday. But I got to attend an ordination this weekend, and to me those services are nearly as joyful as baptisms. I get giddy with joy, even though I know the life in ministry is full of its own trials and tribulations. The bishop ordained six new deacons into the church, one of whom was our own Greg Warren, and it was a delight, honor, and privilege to serve as one of his presenters, alongside Mark. This solemn-joyful contrast reminded me of the video I sent out along with the newsletter this week, the one where Jesus needs some time alone and embarks on the forty days in the desert. Along his way, halfway through, he finds a flower, another day he chases birds, gazes at the sunset, or whistles with a bird. These are portrayed as pleasant experiences, in sharp contrast to the circling vultures, chapped lips, and tests of Satan.

Just because we’re going through a season of acknowledging our sins, of recounting the commandments, of bowing before the Lord in prayer . . . this doesn’t mean that there won’t also be moments of wonder, delight, awe, and even joy. This is life, right? If you’ve ever gone on a strict diet or done a cleanse (I’ve only really done it once or twice), after the first three days of feeling really yucky, there’s a sense of clarity that arrives with being more healthy.

Having let go of that which we don’t need, there’s a lightness and new perspective that’s especially focused around that which we really need.

The Greeks on their way to a festival decided they needed to see Jesus. They did what any of us would do: they go up to someone like them who has a connection to the one they seek. Philip then goes to Andrew, and then they go to Jesus who then says the time has come and again remarks about the kind of death he would die. We don’t know if the Greeks got to see Jesus, but something about their seeking was enough to signify to Jesus that the time was ripe, that his mission was drawing near to completion. For no longer was it just the inner circles who were hearing the message of Jesus; news about the new Way was touching the hearts and minds of others. There was a desire to see Jesus.

When I think about where desire comes from, I think it comes from somewhere deep within. I think of desire as a yearning of the heart. For those of us who just can’t stay away from the church even when we’ve gotten mad or doubted or just wanted to be lazy on Sunday morning, maybe we feel a connection to the Israelites upon whose hearts the LORD had written the law so that God would ever be their God and they God’s people. This was a new covenant for the Israelites because it focused on an internal knowing and God’s forgiveness–not a new law but a new covenant, one that indicated an inward transformation of the human heart that (would) allow the people to know God intimately and to be obedient to the commandments.” This sounds strikingly familiar to us Christians who believe God sent Jesus Christ to bring us a new covenant that transforms the lives of those who believe and commands us to love.

If only we could read what was written on each of our hearts, what the mark of our Creator has spoken to each of us.  How many layers of barriers do you think we need to peel away before we get to a place where we not only recognize with our minds but truly know in our heart, in our being, that we are not only created with love, commanded to love but also worthy of love?

How different do you think our society would be if we lived into what is written upon our hearts?

We’re wrapping up Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy this week in our Lenten Soup and Study (so if you haven’t been and want to see what that’s like, this is your last chance!). Last week we discussed the chapter titled “Mother, Mother,” which shared stories of women who had been incarcerated, separated from their children. This is tough, painful material. Particularly we focused on the story of Marsha. Marsha and her husband both worked but still didn’t have enough to make ends meet. They lived with their six children in a FEMA trailer, their house having been destroyed by a hurricane. The trailer was right by their ruined home so they could keep the kids in the same schools, for these are devoted parents, determined not to fall back into a life destroyed by addiction. Stevenson captures beautifully the love and devotion Marsha has for her children: what she can’t provide for them monetarily, she makes up for in her love and affection, spending time with the children, reading and playing with them, staying clean and sober. When she finds out that she is pregnant, she does what many a poor mother has done and sacrificed her healthcare rather than deprive the rest of the family. She figures she’s been pregnant many times before and pretty much knows what to expect. She would love this child as much as her others. Without prenatal care, however, she missed or ignored the warning signs that her pregnancy showed complications. On a particularly tiresome day she went to soak in the tub of their previous home that still had water . . . only she was met with a fierce and quick preterm labor, and she birthed her stillborn child. She loved the baby instantly and grieved its loss. The family mourned together and held a burial for it at their home. But we know there’s no rest for the weary. Life marched on for them.

But a neighbor . . . a neighbor noticed that Marsha, who had been pregnant, was no longer pregnant, and there wasn’t an infant in sight.

If this were the case for one of our neighbors, mightn’t we wonder what had happened? Wouldn’t we take a deep breath to fortify ourselves and approach our neighbor to gently ask how she’s doing, what happened? I certainly hope I’d be brave enough to ask directly.

But that’s not what the neighbor did. The neighbor reported her to the authorities who came out and searched the place, took pictures of an unflushed toilet and a beer can which was used to testify to the improper, unclean living environment. The baby’s body was exhumed and examined by a fraud of a pathologist who declared that had there been medical attention at the birth, the child would have lived (this wasn’t the case, as determined by credible doctors who testified). But Marsha ended up serving ten years in prison before Stevenson helped her get released. Ten years of being separated from her children. (Children of incarcerated parents are so much more likely to end up drug addicted and/or incarcerated themselves.) One of our study group questions was “who was the most guilty one in Marsha’s case?” We unanimously agreed that it was the neighbor. Instead of showing an ounce of concern or compassion, she had made a judgment that ended up dividing a family, sending them into a wilderness more harsh than the one they were already traversing. She didn’t bother to ask what happened, to know Marsha’s story, to even get a glimpse at what was written on her heart. Lest we be quick to decide that this neighbor was just one of those gossipy women who has her nose in everyone’s business, we don’t know her story, either, what pains and hurts she carries that has blinded her to the call for compassion and love of neighbor. Maybe she thought what she needed to do was make sure that someone else was following the law of the land, blind to the command on her own heart that comes from God.

How well are we listening to the true desire of our heart–not the superficial ones that we mask with whatever makes us feel good in the moment but the deep desire that pulls us in the direction of Christ? Following this desire will definitely lead us into the wilderness where we will have to make choices on whether we hide and build up more barriers or let go and persist along the Way, calling out to God to “Create in me a clean heart . . . and renew a right spirit within me” (Ps. 51:11). It is the clean heart and right spirit that guides us with clarity toward what is written on our heart, that delights in the joyful even amidst the darkness, and that keeps us tethered on our way to seeing Jesus in everyone around us. It’s also this clean heart and right spirit that we’re refining throughout Lent that painfully become part of the crowd who shout, “Crucify him!” in the Passion Narrative. We’re working so hard, dear Christians, to seek Jesus, to see him in our neighbors. Let us not forget how easy it is to slip into darkness and judgment and be the mob quick to crucify and to deny the message of love written on our heart.

 

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His Mercy Endures Forever

Numbers 21:4-9 | Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 | Ephesians 2:1-10 | John 3:14-21

Our Fourth Sunday in Lent finds us drawing nearer to the Passion of our Lord, when he will, inevitably, be lifted up on a cross. In our Gospel, Jesus foretells his end and purpose by recalling the familiar-to-the-Jews story of the Israelites in the wilderness who were struck by the snakes but saved by God through belief in God, demonstrated by their belief in the bronze serpent on the staff.

“Moses and the Brazen Serpent on a Pole” by Hoet (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

This might be confusing to us because we’re fairly certain God prohibited false images of God. Rest assured that the bronze image wasn’t of God but of a snake Moses cast at God’s command. God once again gave an instruction to the people, and those who heeded the words did something in particular–in this case, looked upon the staff–and were healed of their malady. Once again, it’s God’s word that’s at work here. Neither Moses nor the staff are doing the healing; it’s God who is doing the work. The people are given the opportunity to heed God’s word, given the opportunity to believe in God and thus remain in covenant with God. Now, in this case, their life is literally on the line. If they don’t look upon the staff, they’re going to die from their bites. One might say they’re not really given any option, but their decision carries a lot of weight, making it a powerful story of survival. When the Jews are recounting the journey through the wilderness, when Paul recounts it to his audience, the failure of the people at this point in the story remains one of those vivid moments when they failed in their obeisance to God. “There’s no food or water,” they complain, “along with “We detest this miserable food.” Ah, so there is food; you just don’t like it. (There’s a distinct shortage of short-order chef gods in the desert, apparently.) What did they expect? They’ve been delivered from slavery, released from their bondage under pharoah, and now they’re discovering deeper levels of their bondage, the many ways they can displease God. But all is not lost because they are given a way to be healed, to be saved from death.

Even when people anger God, as our psalmist proclaims, “His mercy endures forever.” Even when the Israelites have gone astray again, “He sent forth his word and healed them/and saved them from the grave.” Do we realize the profundity of the fact that God’s “mercy endures forever”? Mercy, dear folks, isn’t forgiving with a blind eye or foolish love. Mercy is seeing what the trespass is, naming it, seeing the suffering that both led to the trespass and resulted from it, and still recognizing the person as a beloved child of God, worthy of grace and redemption. We humans aren’t always good at it, but God’s mercy endures forever.

I say we humans are bad at it because there’s a small group of us who have been reading Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy during Lent. I’ve mentioned before that my faith in Christ is way up there, but my faith in humanity struggles to stay on the chart: this book reminds me why my view of humanity gets low. The discriminatory and sometimes outright illegal way certain folks get channeled into the prison system appalls me: pray for those who have various shades of brown skin and those who are poor. That we confine people behind walls and bars because we don’t know how to deal with them and then continue to punish them because they don’t understand or physically can’t follow the “rules” appalls me: pray for those who struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health illnesses. That we say we value the sanctity of life yet tear families apart, inadequately provide physical and mental healthcare, and execute people . . . that appalls me: pray for the human family.

That God knew the Word made flesh would walk among us and ultimately be crucified by us and for us . . . that amazes me. “His mercy endures forever.”

The Son of Man must “be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life, . . . that the world might be saved through him.”

God didn’t have to send serpents when Jesus walked the earth. We were already destroying ourselves. We needed a beacon of light bright enough to shed light upon the error of our ways and save us from our self-destruction, evil’s favorite way to work. Either set us up for self-destruction or set us up to think we’ve got it all under control and don’t need God: either way works to get us off track and turned away from God and on the path of sin. Forget about love of God, of neighbor, and true love of self. Let’s just focus on what we want to do and what works best for me, gives me power, makes me feel good. This kind of thinking led to Jesus getting mad enough to overturn the tables in the temple. This way of life affirmed to Jesus that his life would have to be lifted up on a cross to save us from our way of sin, our disobedience to God. The way of sin leads to death, and Jesus brought to us the way of life.

We know that Jesus triumphs over death and makes sure the way of reconciliation and redemption is open to all who believe in him. (Thank God!) In our tradition we have the cross alone and not the crucifix because we focus on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus: Jesus doesn’t stay on the cross forever. But we can’t ignore that part of the Paschal mystery. That Jesus died by crucifixion is part of our story. Without the Love and all its mercy and grace embodied in the death of Christ, we on our own would be swallowed in darkness. Left on our own, we’re not all that different from the Israelites in the wilderness, being attacked by all manner of toxicity, certain to die.

Last week, the collect said we have no power within ourselves to save ourselves. This week, it’s the belief in Jesus Christ that saves us, that feed us to give us life–his life in us and ours in him. I don’t know if you sense the urgency of the imperative we have to get out of our “me-first” thinking. Fifteen years ago it seemed almost new-agey, speaking of the ego and the True Self, and then even in terms of Christian spirituality it seems kind of mystical or elitist to think of being one with God or to embody the Christ-mind. But here’s where I’m at with this . . . and it’s not even monetary greed that I’m thinking of today, though it’s still at the back of my mind. I read an article in The New York Times (“Suicides, Drug Addiction and High School Football”). Please note that this contains material that is both violent and heart-wrenching.

In the article, it describes an idyllic town of about 12,000 on the National Historic Register with a lovely Main Street. Tourists come and go. But this journalist was approached by a waitress who heard him giving an interview.

She checked over her shoulder to see if anyone was listening. There was an urgency in her whisper as she said: “I lost my son last month. He hung himself from a tree in our yard and shot himself in the head. I cut him down myself, with my own hands. So many suicides.” She wiped away tears. “We need your help,” she said.

The shadow that’s coming to light is that this pretty little town is drowning in suicide, depression, drug abuse and addiction (remember, the opioid crisis has been declared a national emergency), and child neglect. Of course, all these are inter-related. Of course, no one really wants these things to come into full light. It might hurt tourism and businesses. And really, everything seems like it should be fine on the surface because people are working and employed (if they’re not in rehab or prison). They live in a nice place and have work. Kids are in school . . . but they’re killing themselves.

The article highlights that the football team, that hasn’t garnered a trophy in over 20 years, is an oasis for the players. The football team gives them a family when most of the time the parents are working one or two jobs (if they’re not in rehab or prison). It gives them something to focus on when they’re struggling with the grief of losing a sibling or friend to drugs or death. The coach of the team says it’s not the wins he’s focused on as much as it is staying a role model and a contact for the kids. The coach’s brother had been a heroin addict.

This is a sad, sad article. It’s a sad article because it portrays what is in Madison, Indiana. It’s sad because it reveals the suffering of our neighbors. It’s sad to me, mostly, because it ends without resolution. A light is shone on a crime scene, and all the death, evil, despair is in full view.

This is a sad article because I feel like it could have been written here. If we’re honest. With serpents of stress and anxiety nipping at everyone’s heels to perform their best, look their best, do their best “or else” be cast aside . . . or maybe there’s not even a chance of living up to expectations or getting out of the cycle of pain, so why not use whatever it is that numbs the pain this time and a little more next time . . . and if I’ve given up on myself, I can’t stand to think about the kids, so I’ll neglect them, too, and there’s not even a shred of evidence of God in my life, so why should I bother?

If you wake up with an inkling of purpose or joy or hope in your life, blessed one, give thanks and stay strong. And if you believe in Jesus Christ, then you better give God a wink of thanks and get to work not only shining the light in the darkness but sharing that which sustains you. Share the bread that feeds you. You come to this altar and are fed with the Bread of Life. You believe you have received grace upon grace, that God’s mercy endures forever, that the Holy Spirit has given you the power to share the love of God in this time and place. Some part of you believes that, or you wouldn’t be here. And a friend of mine said recently that we should be exhausted and panting as we race back to church on Sunday because we are so depleted from sharing Jesus with others that we can’t wait to be refilled and renewed, receiving more of the Word of God and the Bread of Life so that we can go back out and share some more. “If we’re not, then what are we doing?” she asked, almost sadly.

The critical point is this: the whole “me-first” thinking isn’t working for us; it didn’t for the Israelites, and it isn’t working for us now. As Christian monotheists, we put God first, and we believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior. As people who walk a way of Life, Light, and Love, we have the power to share that with others, not to abuse them with it but to shine the Light their way and see if and how Christ might work in the midst of those gathered in that moment. Look in your pew. Anyone missing? Maybe reach out to them, or let me know to reach out to them. Have you talked to your neighbor lately? Have you voted? Have you called your relative out of state? Are you praying for the nation and the world? You have Jesus in your life. We know the pain and suffering he endured for us, and it was no match for his mercy . . .

 . . . for his mercy endures forever.

 

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Words to Live By

Exodus 20:1-17 | Psalm 19 | 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 | John 2:13-22

Back when we had the Works of Light series in Epiphany during Christian Education, Cathy Luck came and spoke to us about a local program modeled after the Magdalene House (Oasis NWA), and Deacon John Reese spoke to us about efforts to get an Oxford House started. Both of these programs helps people who might otherwise be homeless. The Oxford Houses are specifically geared to be homes for those in recovery. They’re not halfway houses or transition homes: they’re an Oxford House, which brings with it nationwide credibility and accountability. Places like this are desperately needed not only because affordable housing is a critical need but also because addicts who are striving each day to stay in recovery are among a very vulnerable population. If ever a time we needed to step in and offer assistance, it’s now. I learned just this weekend that as far as mortality rates go, the mortality rate in working-age adults has actually risen, in large part due to the opioid crisis. We need homes like these to help people who are pushed to the margins, forgotten about, and sometimes even left to die. I’m reminded of the Collect for the Day: “we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.”

The Oxford House is a successful model in large part because they have a 43-year history of refining details that work to help. About 80% of their folks stay clean, and they never remove someone from a house unless they break one of the three rules. The basic rules are: 1) participate in the democratically-run house; 2) stay clean–zero tolerance for relapse; 3) share in chores and expenses. That’s it, and the houses are financially self-sustaining by the rent the residents pay per week. Now, they probably also have further charters or agreements particular to each house, depending on where they live, but the ground rules are set, rooted in the nine traditions of the Oxford House program. These rules and requirements create a safety net and an accountability network that helps people stay clean–in body and house (they really are particular about keeping a clean home!).

Likewise, in the Magdalene House model, the are 24 Principles that the women of the house follow, things like “cry with your Creator,” “find your place in the circle,” “forgive and feel freedom,” and “laugh at yourself.” These principles shape the sense of who each woman is in the house community but also helps form the important Circle with consistency and intention, deeply rooted in listening to self and other around a single candle.

So when I hear about Moses receiving the words of the Ten Commandments (and I have to try hard not to just picture Charlton Heston with his white beard and outstretched arms holding stone tablets!), I absolutely hear them as law coming to the people of Israel as a means of helping them survive so that they’ll make it to and through the Promised Land to live out their lives and that of their descendents as faithful chosen ones. These are their rules to live by, though they’re not the only ones. They begin with “I am the LORD your God.” God is making sure God’s people know that it is He who has delivered them from Egypt, and it is only God who will keep the covenants with them. God is the only God they’re to worship–not that there weren’t other gods to contend with in the polytheistic culture they lived in–but that this God is the only one for them. These Ten Commandments are basically broken down into the first four being about duty to God, in believing and trusting in God, and about duty to neighbors, in loving them as ourselves and doing to them as we would have them do to us. The Catechism in our Book of Common Prayer offers more of a present-day read on the Commandments, because it turns out that these laws remain valid in our Christian life. As the Jews did, we’ve done, too: we’ve added a lot of charters, agreements, and even unspoken rules and cultural norms.

But at the Interfaith workshop at Hendrix I went to yesterday (“Cultivating an Interfaith Mindset in Rural Arkansas”), Dr. Jay McDaniel pointed out that when we’re trying to understand people from different faith traditions, we don’t go up to them and ask them what their 10 guiding principles are; we don’t say, “What are your 10 Rules for being x?” If we do, we might get a sense of why the do/don’t do what they do, but we lose sight of who they are in relationship with others around them.

When Jesus entered the temple and fashioned a whip bound by his righteous anger, he cleared the place and overturned the tables. It was all wrong, apparently. Often we hear that Jesus was angry because people who come to make sacrifices have been taken advantage of, being forced to pay inflated prices for whatever it is they needed. (I liken it to having to pay for gas at the only gas station for 50 miles; convenience comes at a price.) But this year I read this as Jesus clearing it all out. All the material, all the consumerism, all the stuff that also includes the ridiculously complicated laws/rules/requirements for living and practicing a faithful Jewish life. I say this because Jesus clears the temple and then draws the attention to the true House of God in their midst, his own Body, the Temple that will be destroyed and risen again in three days. This doesn’t make sense to anyone, and they would rather have a miraculous sign now. But Jesus has given them a sign, told them what to look for. When they look back on this moment, the disciples remember his words. Jesus’s whole ministry has been about providing signs, working miracles, showing the incredible power in their midst–if only they had eyes to see and ears to hear, if only they weren’t so jaded in their self-perceived wisdom.

In the human body the Divine worked to break down the boundaries and barriers that all the laws and rules and regulations had created. Jesus supped with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus defended the accused, healed the leperous, spoke with the outcast even if it was the opposite sex, and never turns away anyone who recognized the Life and Love he offered. Jesus tells them and us what the most important commandment is: to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. We’re also to love our neighbors as ourselves. It really hasn’t changed, though everything changed with Christ. In Jesus Christ, God gives us our new covenant that knows no boundaries. In Jesus Christ, the new word that God gives God’s people is Love, Love revealed to us in the Word made flesh.

And how are we doing with that?

In Northwest Arkansas we have a child poverty rate of 27%. While homelessness in Arkansas statistically had dropped 10% since 2010, there are still just over 2,400 homeless in Arkansas, if the counts have collected everyone. The nation-wide Poor People’s Campaign–and we have the Arkansas Poor People’s Campaign in our state–there’s a call for a moral revival because the sins we’re living with now aren’t market extortion for sheep and cattle and doves but the sins of hunger, fear, and poverty. And if we look to the children, about one in three reflect that we’ve fallen behind in duty to our neighbor, and we’ve fallen behind on that because we’re obviously having a hard time with our duty to believe and trust in God. We’ve become pretty good at being self-sufficient at the surface level; most days the market’s going just fine. But the currents of fear that ripple through are eating away at our hearts. For all the measures of success, we’re having to turn a blind eye to more and more of the signs we have now that we’re forgetting our greatest Word: Love. We’re forgetting Jesus Christ.

Maybe we’re waiting for Jesus to come back with a great whip and clear the marketplace and make all things new in a great dramatic show. But in three weeks, we get to recount the Passion that Jesus underwent. If our heart, souls, and minds have been marked by Jesus Christ, when we experience the Passion, we don’t want anything like that to happen again. We certainly don’t want to be an advocate for it. Yet each fatal shooting, each overdose, each homeless, each hallowed face from hunger, each chronically ill and uninsured, each uneducated mind is a sign to us that we’ve put other gods before our God and that the Word God gave us in the Body of the Son, well, there are more important things that have to be done. That’s not the love Jesus brought to our awareness. That “take care of me first” kind of love actually reduces God’s place, and, again, we see signs of that at every corner, in every report about society and environment.

“We have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.” Thankfully God gives us the power through Christ and the Holy Spirit. But first we have to open our hearts and minds and souls to receive the Love that God gave and continues to give and have to courage to change everything because of that Word, that Love.

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Our Minds Are Set

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 | Psalm 22:22-30 |Romans 4:13-25 | Mark 8:31-38

Last week, on the first Sunday in Lent, our gospel lesson from Mark recounted Jesus’s baptism, his 40 days of temptation in the wilderness by Satan, and his call that the time is nigh to repent and believe the good news, beginning his Galilean ministry. Jesus goes on to cleanse and to heal, to call his apostles and to preach to all, sprinkling in a miracle now and then because calming a storm, walking on water, and feeding thousands make quite an impression and aren’t actions of a run-of-the-mill preacher. And then, “quite openly,” “Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected . . ., and be killed, and after three days rise again.” Again, we know the story; he’s offering a foretelling to his followers so they can be prepared. Judging by Peter’s reaction, they need all the preparation they can get. Poor Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. Peter rebukes the Son of Man. Imagine that conversation a minute.

Peter: “Jesus, c’mon. You’re doing amazing things. We need you. They need you. Don’t be silly with all this death talk. We know who you are (because Peter’s just called him out as the Messiah, Mk 8:29), but keep your head in the game.”

Jesus hears what Peter is saying. Dramatically, Jesus turns (away from Peter) and looks at his disciples, now doing the rebuking himself, not even looking at Peter.

Jesus: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Peter, who is so eager to follow, so willing to get out of the boat, anxious to mark the revelation of the Divinity, and to name Jesus as the Messiah he is, gets the brunt of Jesus’s admonishing. This is more than a cold shoulder, this is outright denial of what Peter represents in this moment.

And what is it that Peter does that is so wrong?

If a beloved friend and teacher says they’re going to suffer, be rejected, die, and somehow rise from the dead, it’s plausible to imagine a healthy dose of denial and skepticism. It’s not what we would want for someone we love and care about, and it’s not exactly something that makes sense. But it’s not Peter’s heart that Jesus focuses on: it’s his where his mind is. “For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” In our own imagining, everything Peter might remind Jesus of is based on Peter’s attachment to Jesus here and now in their ministry. It could be Peter’s personal attachment to Jesus, or it could even be a more selfless thinking of all the good Jesus is doing everywhere he goes. This is a classic example of sticking to a personal agenda and either forgetting/ignoring/not recognizing God’s will or intent. This is us thinking, “We’ve got this.” At least Peter has Jesus with him. He knows who he’s keeping company with, but he’s lost sight of the magnitude of God’s work that will be accomplished not only in Jesus’ ministry but also through his death and resurrection.

This is hard for us to comprehend, and not just hard for us but for the disciples, too.

In Mark’s gospel there are a total of three times that Jesus repeats the same foretelling of his suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection. In both of the other times, too, the disciples don’t understand, can’t comprehend what Jesus is saying. They are attached to their finite, worldly thinking: they’re debating who’s the greatest or who will sit at Jesus’s right and left hand (James and John have dibs). In both of the other times, there’s still the contrast between the focus on the human and the divine.

In this first foretelling, though, Jesus does a clever thing in turning his back to Peter. Because if you really want someone to pay attention, you pretend not to be talking to them. Jesus chides Peter for being focused on human things, not divine. Jesus knows that the disciples and the crowd don’t really understand, but, again, their hearts are in the right place. They need something to do. He tells them to take up their cross and follow him.

Is he talking about wearing pretty jewelry or carrying the cross around town or in the procession, showing off our cross so everyone can know how pious and devout we are? Of course not. The cross for these early people of the Way was a symbol of humiliation. If you were to die upon a cross, you had not only lost your honor and dignity, but you had dishonored your family and community. No one would willingly take up a cross because it would be shameful. Yet this is exactly what Jesus is telling them to do. Do something unpopular for my sake. Do something that is so far outside our comfort zone that we have to get over ourself, knowing that what we’re doing isn’t for our own sake but for something far greater. And if we’re too ashamed to do it for Jesus’s sake, he’ll also be ashamed of us.

What would that look like today? What would it look like today to do something that shows you are a follower of Christ? What do Christians do that is unpopular or disrupts the norm, crosses invisible barriers? Where/when do we risk not only being uncomfortable but also risk being judged by others, often negatively (not to mention how harshly we judge ourselves).

On Ash Wednesday, I saw that Father Roger and a priest he works with held “Ashes to Go” in their neighborhood in New York. We just had the traditional service here, but Ashes to Go provides an accessible invitation to a holy Lent and a mark of the cross to signify the day and one’s observance. In Hot Springs, my rector heard from a parishioner who had experienced it in Key West and thought we should do it, too. My rector thought it was a great idea and told me to do it. Obedient curate I was, I vested in my cassock, surplice, and stole, put up a sign, and stood beside the street with ashes from the service earlier. Folks drove up and walked up, happy to get their ashes. For others it was indulging in trying something different. For me, I’ve never more imagined that this was what it must be like to be a prostitute. A woman, standing by the street in downtown Hot Springs, offering something to passers-by, hoping they would want what I had to offer. And I wondered, “God, what are you trying to teach me in this?” I reminded myself this was a holy day, that this was holy work. Nearly everyone who drove by looked my way, saw me in my vestments, saw me smile at them. They couldn’t hear my prayer of blessing for them, nor could they hear the struggle within as I stayed out there, publicly displaying my faith, completely outside the safety of the church walls. Maybe that’s something of what Jesus means in taking up a cross: carrying the burden of showing our faith to the world around us, putting the beliefs in our heart into action in our lives for others to see. How else do we expect them to see Jesus?

Any time we reveal what is within, we step into that realm of the vulnerable. I definitely felt vulnerable. I felt like people were judging me, and this sense reminds me how attached I am to the human things, the self-centered, ego-preserving mindset that Jesus rebuked, even when our intentions seem good. Letting go of this, for Jesus’s sake and for the sake of the gospel, is losing our life as we often understand it. It is through this loss of self that we gain eternal life through Christ. By bringing a proclamation of faith in the good news of Jesus Christ into the world–with our crosses seen and unseen–, we mark the space and time with the presence of Christ, bringing more light and love into the world.

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Our Humanity & Transfiguration

2 Kings 2:1-12 | 2 Corinthians 4:3-6 | Mark 9:2-9 | Psalm 50:1-6

You may have read in this week’s newsletter that this weekend is The Clergy Letter Project’s Evolution Weekend, the 13th year of pulling together clergy of all traditions to advocate for a relationship between science and religion rather than putting them at odds with each other. Our Bishop Benfield signed onto the Letter, as did I. As responsible citizens and faithful Christians, we have a responsibility to know how our actions impact our environment, how science enhances our understanding of the world around us. Our growing understanding of the world around us does not negate the existence of God. If anything, this understanding enforces the magnitude of the beauty and mystery of Creation, in what we know and the growing expanse of what we don’t know.

This year the theme of Evolution Weekend is “Our Shared Humanity.” Because of the divisiveness in our societies worldwide, emphasis is placed on our shared humanity, our commonalities even and especially at our genetic level. Often, divisiveness is based on “race,” which is itself a human construct, a designation based on geography or melatonin levels. We’ve used race and ethnicity to sort people throughout history, so much so that we’ve shown a tendency to reduce a person to their race or ethnicity, losing sight of their humanity: that’s how we end up de-humanizing people and finding ourselves in the midst of discrimination and oppression to outright racism and genocide. This seems particularly appropriate during February, Black History Month. So neglected from our American narrative, the black story needs at least a month a year to get recognition as an affirmed part of our collective narrative. We need incentive to pay attention to what often gets the attention and recognition, let alone how we use language and imagery. Think how often we associate darkness with what is bad and light with what is good. We need to think. We need to be aware. We need to wake up more often to our shared humanity.

This Epiphany season we’ve been focusing on how we manifest the Light of Christ in our humanity. We’ve been highlighting wonderful organizations and efforts to serve our neighbors, especially those who are suffering. We recognize the brokenness in our humanity that enables the perpetuation of this suffering, and we realize the desperate need we have for Jesus Christ to be in our midst, the wholly human and divine one that opened our way to reconciliation and redemption.

The transfiguration story we have in the Gospel of Mark highlights the contrast between the humanity of the apostles and the divinity of Jesus, while still holding on to Jesus’ humanity, too. Jesus needed these witnesses, even if he didn’t want them to share anything just yet. There was a hill to climb, a revelation to be had, and a moment to be savored.

There’s so much meaning in the details. Note that when something significant happens, it’s often someplace hard to get to, set apart, or up high. On this high, set apart mountain, Jesus, radiant in glory is accompanied by two who were thought to be ascended directly to heaven (Moses, whose burial site is unknown, though the was buried, and Elijah taken by chariots in the whirlwind): this moment is a revelation of God. In Greek tradition, a transfiguration or transformation occurred when the gods walked the earth in human form and then manifested their divine glory or radiance. Peter’s response to make three dwellings was completely in line with the Greek tradition to build a shrine on the site of an epiphany of a deity, as was their response to be in awe and fear of the divine manifestation.


But what of Jesus’ response of silence, of not knowing what to say? That might seem odd to us–thankfully we have the voice of God speak up–but Mark doesn’t have a problem showing Jesus’ humanity. His divinity has words, but the human doesn’t. We so often don’t have words for the most intense moments of fear, grief, sadness, joy, or love. We just have our witness to those moments. I have no doubt that Jesus brought a full-bodied awareness to the moment with the apostles, with all their fear and awe and wondering. The wisest people have a way with silence, and it’s not always what they don’t know that calls for silence. Think of all that Jesus didn’t say during his wandering in the desert, in his times of prayer, and during his trial and crucifixion. When Jesus does speak, he tells them to hang on until after Easter, which the guys didn’t understand yet because they hadn’t experienced the resurrection yet.

But we have.

And we’re neither Greek nor Jew, nor East nor West, nor male nor female . . . but we are humans, created in the image of God, gifted with the saving grace of Jesus Christ, whose glory we believe in because it shines in our hearts (as Paul says). But because there’s still suffering in the world and God’s glory hasn’t been fully realized in me (and maybe not in you, either), there is need for transfiguration, for transformation. There is need, and there’s a way: through Christ’s reconciliation and redemption.

We start with ourselves. We climb the climb of whatever struggle we’re facing and do it again and again until we’ve seen and tasted the image of God long enough to bring it back into our daily lives, until we’ve heard the Word of God and take it with us, working through our fear/resistance/oppression until we trust in the power of the resurrection to see us through death and even hell itself. We do this because Jesus showed us the power of eternal life. We do this because Jesus Christ is alive, pulsing with every beat of our hearts.

We nurture this pulse of Christ with our prayer, worship, and fellowship. I read an article that addressed the trend of churches giving up time-consuming worship to emphasize sharing a meal and doing deeds. That hits close to home because I find great value in meals shared and service in the community. But like the article emphasizes, the time we share and the service we do outside of our worship times and prayer practices are an extension of our gratitude for all God has given us, our way of sharing in God’s glory, our way of manifesting the Christ Light into the world around us that others might recognize it for themselves. That’s what I think of when I think of ministry. It’s not about doing good to make people feel good about themselves or make them think that our church is “the” place to be. I apologize if I haven’t made that clear.

What we do is an extension of our praise and thanksgiving to God through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. We’ve been saved from death, we’ve died to sin in our baptism. We’ve been redeemed by Jesus Christ. We’ve been given the greatest gift, for which we don’t have the capacity ever to repay. But we’re told to love one another. And our loving one another with thanks and praise to God–genuine worship and gratitude–manifests the Light of Christ in our communities. It shows in the fellowship we share, in the works we do, and we have room to grow and improve in this area, for we have so much to be thankful for. I’m going to continue doing my best to make sure we have beautiful, meaningful, prayerful worship together as a first priority. And I’m going to continue to encourage living out that meaningful faith in acts of service to our neighbors.

When I went to the Q Commons event, Sister Lisa from Mercy shared her 8th Street Motel feeding ministry. The motel was a site for sex trafficking, abuse, drugs, and violence. Since they began the feeding ministry, which occurs once  a week, reports of violence reduced drastically. Relationships built over time also helped former motel residents establish more stable lives. My ears perked up when she said she was starting the same program in Bentonville at a motel that showed great need for positive influence, a place that often houses those who are homeless, addicted, impoverished, and otherwise marginalized. I can imagine a so-called transfiguration story of those who are in the midst of battles making it to a bounteous buffet, receiving the love and hospitality of willing volunteers, and going back to their friends to share the good news of a free meal. That story seems kind of flat. More meaningful is the story of people being fed, listening to one another, encouraging each other, empowering the weak and afraid, and showing up month after month to check in and share where they’ve seen points of hope in their lives, where they’ve sensed grace and experienced faith. More transformational still is the story of those who thought they were easily dropping off a portion of a meal but who stayed with people who might otherwise challenge them–even frighten them–and stayed with them long enough, built relationship with them deep enough, to recognize their shared humanity and develop a common bond, not for their sake alone but because they loved God so much they wanted to share it with others. 

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Healing

Isaiah 40:21-31 | Psalm 147:1-12, 21c | 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 | Mark 1:29-39

When Cathy Luck was here last week, sharing her work with Oasis NWA, she asked how many people were familiar with Becca Stevens. I was surprised to see not everyone knew who she is. If you already know this, bear with me, but there are some things in Episcopal culture everyone needs to be aware of. Becca Stevens founded Magdalene House in 1997, a house of refuge and healing for women who have been trafficked or addicted. Now it’s called Thistle Farms, which started out as the social enterprise side of things, selling oils, cards, and body products made by the women themselves. Now it’s over a million dollar industry and has expanded to include many other products from other countries, focusing on fair trade goods and teas made by women so that they can support themselves, their families, and their communities, too. Meanwhile, the model of the original Magdalene House has been replicated throughout the country, including Oasis here in NWA, Serenity House in Fayetteville, and Coming Home in Little Rock (which is still in development). The unaffiliated religiously and non-governmental model focuses on assuring that the environment is safe, non-judgmental, and holistic. A woman can stay up to two years, spending the first getting the health treatment she needs and the second to continue to heal and to build up her self-confidence and job skills.

A sexual assault survivor herself, Becca knows that healing is a monumental effort, and she said that reading the Gospel, she couldn’t help but hear over and over again how it was God’s love that brought about healing. So when she started selling oils, it was with the intent to heal not magically but with the intention of love and care, with the practice of unction in mind, with anointing those whom we love. How better to put into practice God’s message of love and healing? The motto and the title of her most recent book is “Love Heals”–plain and simple.

The gospel stories affirm the simplicity of God’s power to heal. In fact, there’s a pattern to the healing stories, just like there’s a pattern to a prophet’s call in the Old Testament. As we hear in Mark’s narrative today,

1) there’s the description of illness: Simon Peter’s mother-in-law has a fever, apparently a pretty bad one.

2)Then there’s a request for healing. Simon, Andrew, James, and John hurry back to Jesus to tell him about it. (Like when I tell my kids their room is a mess, I’m really telling them to pick it up.)

3)Following the request, there’s action done by the healer. Jesus takes the woman by the hand and lifts her up.

4)As means of affirmation, the fourth step in the pattern provides evidence of restored health. After the fever’s gone, she’s healthy enough to begin to serve.

So if we take this pattern and apply it to our lives, I agree with steps one and two. We identify our illnesses and make our requests, our intercessions, praying for health to be restored. But at step three, when in the Bible every time Jesus intervenes, health is restored (even if it takes a second try), what do I do with the times healing doesn’t come, when prayers aren’t answered? Because our model is that God has the ability to make all things new, to intervene on our behalf. When the good results come or good things happen to us, don’t we say, “Thanks be to God”? I know I do.

But true healing isn’t as simple as that. Just as true love isn’t as simple as it sounds. God’s love for us is abiding and unconditional. God’s love affords us–all of us–free will. God’s love, God’s healing participates with us, in relationship. And always, when we are in full relationship with God, we are moving toward our fullest restoration into God’s image. If that can happen in a miraculous recovery or if that can happen in death, I imagine that one is not greater than the other, if we have the fullness of understanding that God has. We hurt and anger and fight and doubt and turn away because sickness and death are not what we want. We don’t want the suffering and pain. The words of Julian of Norwich sound trite when she says, “All shall be well,” just as when someone tells us everything will be alright when our whole world is crashing in on us: everything is not well and alright. We may even scream it in rage at the well-intentioned speaker. But Julian’s “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well” comes from a deep well of wisdom, prayer, contemplation, and practice. She knew it. She knew what being healed meant in body and spirit, and it was well with her soul. Times of tribulation truly try the sagest of souls, for when we are wounded or in danger, our defenses are up, our ego on watch though completely vulnerable. It’s painful to watch a wounded animal. Humans aren’t that different when we’re deeply hurt. What we need to be fully restored isn’t always diagnosable or treatable, if there even is a cure. But the peace of mind, body, and spirit that Julian speaks of connects to the healing love of God that guides us through the times we wonder if we’ll make it through. And all the while, whether we realize it or not, God is ever present, loving us, guiding us, healing us in ways we can’t even comprehend, let alone name.

When we are healed in a manner that allows for evidence of our restoration, what is it that we do with our lives? The mother-in-law gets up and gets to work, serving her guests. As a feminist, this might make you cringe a little bit. Shouldn’t she be getting rest? But so full and complete is her recovery that she is able to fully live into her honor as the head woman of the household. A servant or Peter’s wife could have done the work, but this was an important event, Jesus and all the disciples gathered in her home. It would be like me as a young woman offering to make my grandmother’s chicken dressing at Thanksgiving. She wouldn’t have dreamed of it as long as she was well enough to do it.

Today, a 30-years sober alcoholic might faithfully facilitate a meeting, carry a coin, and mentor someone new in recovery. A cancer survivor might lead support groups. The bereaved share in grief groups. Former sex slaves share their story to prevent others from being kidnapped and trafficked. Parents who lose a child advocate for legislation regarding gun violence, car seat safety, bullying . . . the list goes on and on.

However complicated and individual the story, it does appear that the pattern is simple: love heals. But it’s mighty hard.

It’s hard to say what’s hurt, sick, or broken.

It’s hard to ask for help.

It’s hard to be at peace when the action we’re asking for isn’t visible or visibly doesn’t happen, to trust that God is at work loving and healing us.

It’s hard to live into the fullness of health when things still seem hurt, sick, and broken.

It didn’t seem to be incredibly easy for Jesus, either. He retreats to a lonely place and prays, knowing full well the weight of everyone hunting and searching for him with all their dis-ease. But he had shown them hope, brought his message of peace, and proclaimed the gospel message: that the kingdom of heaven had come near. He offered them words but also showed evidence in his healings.

In our own ways, may we be so empowered, so loved, so healed.

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Free

Deuteronomy 18:15-20 | Psalm 111 | 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 | Mark 1:21-28

When I was at St. Paul’s, the Servant Leadership classes they offered enriched my spiritual growth and development. The classes taught and introduced me to ways of expressing my experiences that I didn’t get by attending church every Sunday. (It seems funny to me that we would think that an hour or so a week will give us all we need to make our joy complete, but I digress…) One of the classes was on Compassion, one of the main tenets of servant leadership. It was in this class that we talked about the effect we have on one another. If you’re like my husband, you think this is where I start sounding new age-y: we read about studies of coherence, how researchers quantify the feeling, the energy, the aura–if you will–that we put off ourselves and that we experience when we’re in the proximity of others. I’m pretty open-minded and tend to let my experience guide me. It seemed to me like we are measuring our heart rate, how calm we are, but still . . . that sense of presence extends beyond us, and  invites or distances others from ourselves. So when I talk about imagining being in the presence of Jesus and how compelling it must have been, I’m trying to imagine being in the presence of God made manifest, in the presence of holiness, in the presence of the imago dei–the image of God, that says, “This. This is who you are called to be. Beloved. At one with me.”

Coherence defined is “the quality of forming a unified whole.” In physics, coherence is “a fixed relationship between the phase of waves in a beam of radiation of a single frequency. Two beams of light are coherent when the phase difference between their waves is constant.” So in class when we focused on compassion, among other things, we talked about being coherent with ourselves and one another. If we want to feel at one with one another, in sync, we focus on recognizing suffering and not inflicting it ourselves: we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. As Christians, this looks like recognizing the lack of belovedness that’s present in the world around us, and we show love.

One of the greatest exercises we did in the class and that I’ve done in small groups many times since, is a compassion exercise of taking a moment of love and joy in my life, breathing it in and exhaling it, intentionally spreading it beyond myself until it expands to God beyond the cosmos . . . and bringing it back in to me, here and now. I think we often forget that we have a great capacity to make a difference in our world, near and far.

This matter of forgetting is of critical importance. In the Jewish tradition, recall the imperative behind telling the stories to the children, to the future generations so that the people wouldn’t forget who they are, whose they are, the imperative behind maintaining their identity. Isn’t that true in every cultural group? What’s your story? What’s your narrative? What do you know in your bones, tell to others, and share with the world? What are the most used words on your social media sites? Who do you surround yourself with and share in the same narrative?

We are inclined these days to align with our social or interest groups, right? A big game is happening next week: are you Eagles or Patriots? People get passionate about their recreation. We also identify with our employment or lack thereof. Politics, too. Republican or Democrat? Conservative, mainstream, progressive, or liberal? Our place of origin. East or West? North or South? Legal or Immigrant? Our very identity: gender; ethnicity; sexuality; fertility . . . every which way we have to classify and sort ourselves, we accomplish it by furthering whatever story we have to affirm for ourselves, even if that means part of our story is to separate or alienate ourselves from others.

I’ve mentioned Brené Brown so many times, and she preached in the National Cathedral last week, so I’ll revisit her words again: she states flat-out that we’re in a spiritual crisis. Our spirituality is based on belief that we are connected, not only to ourselves but also to something greater. Sure, our spirituality can be that we’re die-hard Eagles fans, and we’re bonded with other Eagles fans. But is the Eagles that “something greater”? We’re dyed in the wool Democrats or Republicans, Yankees or Rebels . . . but is our political or geographical homeland that “something greater”? I’m a priest in The Episcopal Church. Is the National Cathedral or even the organizing bodies at 815 my “something greater”? Our “something greaters” have a tendency to become idols, false gods, lifted up by false prophets, stumbling blocks to the weak. These idols don’t sever our connection with one another even from the “other” who doesn’t support or understand where we’re coming from, why we do what we do; they can’t sever that connection anymore than they can destroy the frequency between us: it can make it incoherent. The idols have a way of distancing ourselves from what is truly greater, making things in life so discordant and segregated that we forget what is truly great. As Christians, what is truly great is God, the God who imprinted God’s own image in each of us, whose divine imprint is breathed within every living thing. Especially as humans, who bear the image of God, we are inextricably connected to one another, and this is so important that we make vows in our baptism to respect the dignity of every human being. And when one person hurts in the whole world, our compassion compels us to recognize that suffering and work to alleviate the pain that it might not be inflicted upon them or us so that we can be whole with God.

Buddhism taught me the word compassion. “This is what Christ is all about!” I nearly exclaimed to my professor. “Why have I never heard this word before?” I had never heard the word, but I had seen it in practice. We see it now. Students are dying in schools from gun violence, and we hurt. MOMS Demand groups sprang up five years ago after Sandy Hook to say no more children will die this way . . . my child won’t die that way. Every week, the possibility draws closer to kids we know. God forbid it be our own. What are we doing to bring coherence? To manifest compassion.

We all know someone affected by the layoffs, right? Maybe you’ve experienced in the past if not now. Maybe you’ve had to deliver the news yourself if not with Walmart then in other lines of work. No one wants to fire or lay off anyone. We want everyone to have gainful employment. We want to plug people in and make deeper, truer connections, enable fruitful labor. Yet I hear rumblings that people are recognized as humans but rather as just another employee, just another calculation affecting the bottom line. What are we doing within our places of employment to reinforce our dignity and humanity and connection? Our work isn’t the greatest thing we do. Our lives are the greatest thing we have to show forth the love we have. Yes, we need to pay the bills in our homes and offices and churches, but at the end of the day, even at the end of our lives, how did we show the world our love of God and God’s love for us?

Jesus taught with authority in the synagogue and cast out the demon from the man who never speaks for himself. And those gathered around him wondered at his words and work. Great crowds followed Jesus. Where was their focus? Where was their “something greater”? They made famous a man who did amazing things.

The unclean spirit, however, called Jesus “the Holy One of God.” The demon, the embodiment of evil knew the coherence of Jesus, perceived the frequency, knew the divinity Jesus possessed, and the demon was powerless at His command though it did not leave without convulsions and crying out. The unclean spirit made a scene.

Our idols or our demons don’t call out divinity when it appears, but they are mighty strong at enabling us to forget our imago dei, to forget the Christ Light we bear, to forget our connection with others, even to forget our connection to God. If we’re inclined to forget all this, how dim becomes the story of Jesus, the life he lived, the death he suffered, the resurrection and ascension he showed us as he returned to full Glory in God, in unity, wholeness, and perfect coherence.

Hear our prayers, O God, and grant us peace, that we might be free from all that binds us and blinds us to the power of the Life and Love of Christ to restore us all to God.

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For further reading on compassion, I commend Karen Armstrong’s work on compassion, highlighted by this article on Brainpickings.

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