Trust & Lament

Genesis 15:1-12,17-18 | Psalm 27 | Philippians 3:17-4:1 | Luke 13:31-35

Maybe you, too, have an uncle or family member who has shared a similar thought: I vividly remember him telling me that the harder he tried to do good and actually did acts of kindness, the worse things got. This comes to mind in a week when I’ve invited us to reflect on gratitude this week as part of our Lenten journey. When we’ve made it through the wilderness, through times of trial, what is it we’re grateful for? What are we grateful for in this moment? Each week in our Prayers of the People, we offer thanksgivings for our blessings, and since there’s not enough time to name each one, we at least pause in a moment of thankfulness. Intensely focused on what is good, what is going well, we come to late Thursday evening or maybe Friday morning with the tragic news of the mass shootings in New Zealand. In mosques. In places of worship. An outright hate crime. 49 dead. At least 40 more wounded. What does that do to our sense of gratitude?

I suppose it depends on who we are and how we choose to react in situations of adversity, when it seems like the Adversary is making an outright attack. I made a quick decision not to click on any links to videos or manifestos so as not to feed more attention to the horrendous crimes that were intentionally set up to grab media attention and go viral. I let our Muslim community here know of our support and solidarity with them. I am genuinely thankful for them. I went to one of their Friday prayer services, where I listened to their prayers spoken and chanted in Arabic. They reminded me of the Ramadan calls to prayer I heard when I was in the holy land. I wore a scarf I bought in Israel, where tensions run high between Christian, Muslim, and Jew, yet they live side by side and have for millennia. I listened to the lecture from the leader who spoke about anger being a natural reaction but one the faithful are not inclined to embody, lest they sound like a braying donkey. I continue to be grateful for faith witnessing to peace.

What in my faith, as a Christian, led me to wear a scarf and go sit among our female Muslim neighbors and some of their children? Sincere love of neighbor. Compassion. Compassion sees suffering and shares in it. That suffering might be anger, grief, or deep sadness. With empathy, we can feel what one another feels. My faith response to trial and grief is to turn to prayer first, so in support and solidarity, I offer not only my own prayers and condolences, but I go and sit with those who are scared, angry, and/or sad.

And what of our prayers? Are they always “Lord, have mercy,” “thank you,” and “thy will be done”? They can be. That’s enough. But my experience is that life is more complicated than that. Our tradition shows us that prayers to God get challenging, but they are nothing that God can’t handle.

Take what we hear in our lesson from Genesis today. The word of the Lord comes to Abram in a vision. This is before Abram is Abraham, before he’s fathered a child, and that is the focus of this encounter. God has promised Abram that he will be the father of many descendants, but so far the only children in his household are those born to slaves, not his children (this is even before the birth of Isaac). Much time has passed since Abram first had this promise from God, so here in Chapter 15, God speaks to Abram not to be afraid because Abram is afraid that the promise isn’t going to come true. Abram fears that something isn’t right, that the promise won’t be fulfilled. Abram offers his lament to God, and God responds, renewing his promise, making a covenant with him–that’s what all that business with the animals is. The original promise is made and even more is promised, with the land being promised, too. God heard Abram’s lament and responded, not with the actual fulfillment yet but with promise for even more. And Abram believed. And the LORD reckoned it as righteousness. In faith, Abram trusted that God was remaining faithful, that the covenant made would be kept.

Most of us don’t have direct encounters with the word of God. For most of us, we have a more one-sided prayer that mirrors that of the psalmist’s, which again portrays great faith and trust in God yet is not without lament. The psalmist speaks of trouble and enemies, pleads for mercy and attention, and begs not to be forsaken and to be delivered. There is physical, emotional, and spiritual turmoil present for the psalmist, a holistic view of someone in distress, crying out to God in pain and suffering and yet with faith and trust that “the LORD is my light and my salvation,” “the strength of my life.”

This psalm speaks to me deeply, to my great faith and to times of trauma in my life when it feels nearly like an out-of-body experience. Yes, my faith is strong, but, O God, this reality can be too much to bear. The worst thing imaginable in that moment is to be forsaken even by God when all that I know and have evidence of seems to have turned against or away from me. The trust of the psalmist is that the LORD will sustain us, won’t abandon us, will be our comfort, and is our salvation.

The mosaic on the altar in Jerusalem in the chapel where the Lord wept.

I would like to think that we wouldn’t have to have times of trial and despair to experience the tremendous love of God, but in the times when we feel most abandoned, when we hunger and thirst most for fulfillment, that is the feeling that I imagine gets closest to the yearning that God has for us, the desire to share that unconditional love, the desire that Jesus expressed as a longing to gather “children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” Why could Jesus not gather the children of Jerusalem together? Because they “were not willing.” They didn’t have the trust or desire to partake in the work of God that Jesus presented, yet Jesus is entirely about doing the will of God, not bending to the powers that be or even protecting his bodily interest.

As the letter to the Philippians emphasizes, our being Christian and following the way of the cross, the way of life through Christ, is not about self-preservation, self-fulfillment, personal glory, or materialism. Our Way of Love through Christ is bigger than any one of us, and, like Paul, we experience sadness when others suffer with despair, without recourse to a broader network of faith, hope, and love.

Like the image of the good shepherd seeking out even the one lost sheep, the image of the hen gathering all the chicks under her wing gives us a glimpse at an aspect of God we might not expect or might shy away from. The image of a hen protecting her chicks is not only intimate but also vulnerable, yet is it no less vulnerable than a man hanging on a cross, an image we might also rather shy away from, preferring instead the resurrected Jesus, full of Light and Glory?

God knows our trust and our fear, our faith and our doubt, our joy and our lament, and God does not shy away from them but stands all the stronger in the midst of them, especially in our weakness. How can I continue to breathe through my racing heart and shallow breath in times of great fear? How can I continue to live in the face of great tragedy, especially if it is someone I love so deeply? Because we are so loved. Because we have been so loved, so are we called to love others, regardless of what evils we face, what persecution we experience, what fears we have in this body and this life.

There is so much we don’t know, that we can’t see, that we can’t describe. Yet we have experienced an ineffable, unexplainable presence of God working in our lives that has changed us into people who live into our faith, not without trials or doubts or suffering, but with resolve to act in ways of love. Our belief in Jesus Christ as our Savior and the understanding of our relationship with Jesus and thus with God enable us to be incredible witnesses to the love of God. How we act day to day may evangelize more than anything else we say because we never know who is paying attention. We do what we do out of love, without expecting anything in return, because we already know that we are loved by God.

But when we return the gesture of love, isn’t there great joy? When we are the stranger at the mosque and are welcomed with a smile . . . when someone replies with gratitude for a kindness offered . . . for me that seems to get close to what it feels like willingly to be gathered into mutual love, to be enfolded in the embrace of sheltering arms or wings. We need not hesitate to live into our faith and trust. We don’t need to hold back when we want to rage or lament to God, even against God. God can take it. God won’t drown in our sorrows or tears or be tossed about by the tempest and chaos of our lives and actions. As the psalmist instructs the reader to wait patiently for the LORD, trusting that God fulfills promises faithfully in God’s time, God waits for us with infinite patience and perfect love.

Continue Reading

Going Through

Deuteronomy 26:1-11 | Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 | Romans 10:8b-13 | Luke 4:1-13

There’s an unapologetically somber tone to our Lenten services. Lent, after all, is a season of penitence. You may recall from the Ash Wednesday service that Lent is a season when those who had been excommunicated–denied communion for one reason or another–were invited to pray, fast, repent, and return to commune with brothers and sisters in Christ. The season meant something to them, and I hope with all hope that it means something to us.

Because if we live a self-aware life, even in fleeting moments, we realize where we fall short. If we’re paying attention to our thoughts and intentions, our actions and inactions, we see pretty quickly our imperfections–unless you live into the prayer “God’s will be done” in every moment of every day. Because I don’t, as much as I would love to. My confessions are as earnest as yours. I promise. So we come to this holy season with humble and faithful obedience, aware of our mortality and imperfection. This humility takes us off any high horse we might have been on and brings us to our knees before our Almighty God.

And we might wonder “Why?” Why do I have to or need to feel penitent? Why can’t I just skip church this week or this month and put my time, talent, and treasure into whatever I feel is most important right now in my life, in the life of my family? Now is when we might start to get squirmy. I start to feel guilt coming on, that guilt from all the “shoulds” building up. But hear this: we have the power of choice. We can do what we feel we’ve got to do. Like I tell my kids, you decide what you’re going to do, but know that your decisions have consequences.

Cue our lesson from Deuteronomy. The book of Deuteronomy may be constructed as one book of laws and exhortations from Moses, but scholars tell us that this is a compilation of 150 years’ worth of writing. As such, it’s still considered part of the law of Moses, and I find it fascinating how these teachings find relevance in the lives of the faithful.

The lesson we have today focuses on when the Israelites have settled into the promised land, the land of milk and honey, and are given instruction on harvesting their first fruits. We may jump to the conclusion that they’re taking their gifts to the altar, giving them to God as an offering to God alone, but we’d be mistaken. The instructions are carried out in obedience to God, yes, but the reason for taking the first fruits is to provide for the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, the Levites who don’t have their own land, who aren’t self-sufficient. Those blessed by God know that the land they’ve settled, that they’ve come to “possess,” is theirs only by God, and if God commands them to provide for others as they have been provided for, so be it. God has proven to be faithful; the gift of land is certain yet conditional. It is theirs if they continue to be faithfully obedient.

In Deuteronomy, there are about 30 instances of the Israelites being instructed to remember and teach their stories, as if it were known that once they were settled, were comfortable, that they would be at risk of forgetting who they were, where they had come from, and who God is. If they forgot their story of once being an immigrant, of having made it through the wilderness, of having been protected and provided for by God, they were at risk of being protective of themselves only, of being competitive, of seeing all resources as theirs alone, of not providing for the other at the margins–the consequence of such behavior being exiled from the promised land.

Remember, I’m talking about ancient Israel, but this is part of our story, too. We bring our offerings to the altar in faithful obedience. We include the marginalized. We remember our deliverance. We celebrate a meal. We do so proclaiming a faithfulness to God through Jesus Christ. For us who confess Christ as Lord, who call upon the name of Jesus Christ, who believe in our hearts in the Resurrection, there is salvation. It’s not a one-time thing, this salvation. It’s an ongoing commitment, the ongoing retelling of our story of deliverance, of redemption, of practicing hospitality, of following the way of Jesus.

According to the gospel of Luke, Jesus is led by Spirit to the wilderness, where he fasts for 40 days, tempted all the while by Satan, the Adversary. Satan tempts Jesus with scripture to provide food, power, and deliverance. Jesus counters back with scripture in ways that truly say, “Not today, Satan.” Jesus knows the Word of God, is the embodiment of the Word. As he is fully human, he is not immune to temptation, nor is he immune to suffering. Jesus’ story in the wilderness is part of our story, too, collectively and individually.

Jesus doesn’t avoid the wilderness, putting it off until later or avoiding it altogether. He goes through it. At no point is God not present–in the person of Jesus and in ways beyond our understanding. As our ancients expressed an understanding that God sees us and hears our cries, like them, we believe that God pays attention, feels compassion, and is active in our lives through love and care, from which we are never separated even in suffering and death. Our understanding of God comes through our experience of Jesus Christ. This wilderness story is one of many that tells us Jesus has been there, too. He always has a way of having gone before us, and it is entirely of our own free will that we follow him.

We follow him in acts of love that provide for widows, orphans, strangers, and others without means to provide for themselves–through pantries, fostering, programs, assistance, mentoring, and advocacy. We do this because we know that it is not of our own position of privilege and power that we experience abundance: nothing is ours that wasn’t God’s first. Yes, that’s a strong theological claim, and you can disagree with me on it, but you would be hard-pressed to change my mind. I know I’m not the first person on this planet, nor do I believe I will be the last. I’m not powerful enough to lay claim to absolute ownership or possession to anything, despite what my ego might say and how we have to navigate our lives in this world.

And how we navigate our lives in this world reveals a lot about what we believe about who we are and whose we are. Do we live into our stories as a people of faith? Do we know our individual story as a child of God?

I said that I would offer us prompts to help us find words to use to benefit our own understanding so that when we have the opportunity to share our love of God with others, we don’t freeze. This week, the prompt (until I send the new one out on Wednesday) is “trials overcome.” If we really want to know who we are as Christians and who we are as a child of God, we can think about a major trial we’ve  faced in our lives. What did we do? To whom did we turn? Did we make it through on our own? Where was our understanding of God in that picture then or now?

Or think about an everyday aggravation we face. Why does it bother us so much? Why is it there? What is needed to solve it or accept it? Chances are the situation is mostly out of our control, but our response to it and how we handle it speak volumes. Are we called to turn swords into ploughshares and get to work? Are we to turn the other cheek? Do we need to bring offerings to the altar? What witness are we in the situation?

In whatever trial we’re facing—big or small—chances are there’s not one right way to respond except with love of God. Is it loving? Is it life-giving? Is it liberating? Or does our response tempt us with satiating self-sufficiency, power, or dominance? If we truly are a people fed, provided for, and protected by God, our actions will speak to that, our lives will reveal that, though probably not all the time.

That’s why we go through the season of Lent, why we fast and pray—not to be gloomy or downtrodden but because we’re doing the hard work of amending our lives to live more fully in the resurrected life of Christ, the ultimate expression of the love of God. Though we may not understand how, especially when we’re in the middle of those times that try our souls, we have written upon our hearts in faith the words the psalmist shares as if spoken from God, guiding us to make it through whatever challenges we face:

“Because (you are) bound to me in love,

Therefore will I deliver (you);

I will protect (you), because (you know) my Name.

(You) shall call upon me, and I will answer (you);

I am with (you) in trouble;

I will rescue (you) and bring (you) to honor.

With long life will I satisfy (you)

And show (you) my salvation.”

This means everything to me. I hope it means something for you, too.

Continue Reading

Unveiled

Exodus 34:29-35 | Psalm 99 |  2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2 | Luke 9:28-36-43a

When we think about talking with God, we usually mean through prayer, and we trust that by offering our words out loud or in our heart and mind, that God receives them and “hears” them, in whatever way works for God. Because we don’t know. Prayer is one of our constant actions done in faith, and it is one of the building blocks of our discipleship, how we live as faithful Christians. Especially in times of trial, the words of Paul to pray without ceasing come to mind, but I know I’m not the only one who finds the thoughts in my head on an average day filled with a one-sided conversation with the Almighty. Probably more often than I’d like to admit, it’s filled with me telling God how I think things should go. On better days, it’s filled with “Your will be done.” On truly hard days, it’s filled with surrender, acknowledgment that I need God’s help.

But in all of this praying, I don’t think about actually meeting God face to face. Maybe I don’t think about it because it just doesn’t happen. Sure, it happened for Moses, and, sure, it happened for the disciples with Jesus. But it doesn’t happen for us. Look what happened to Moses, anyway. His face had some divine perma-glow that terrified his people, even his brother Aaron. He wore a veil to help others feel more comfortable. Yet Moses continued to be an intermediary between God and the people. Moses went from seeing God in the burning bush, to seeing the backside of God from the cleft in the mountain, to talking with God face to face, so to speak. And Moses was a changed man. Not only was he a leader of the people, but he was one who had survived being in the presence of God. And he shone for it, even if it was off-putting to others. Intimidating, maybe? Moses was physically changed by his encounter with God.

We’re more comfortable with our way of praying, aren’t we? We’d rather whisper or think our prayers or say them together comfortably and predictably than experience what Moses went through because we understand Aaron’s and the other’s terror. What if that happens to us? We certainly don’t want to alienate ourselves. What would it mean for our lives?

It might mean that people know our relationship with God has changed our lives. It might mean that we share our stories because we can’t hide the fact that we have lived through encounters with God in our lives. It might mean that we’re like a friend of mine whom I met in Hot Springs. She was living in a tent at the time with her dog. She came to the church because she needed some more blankets. We talked a while, and she came back a time or two. Eventually she was able to lease a place, and we helped with furniture. Mostly when we talked, though, it was about her accomplishments, her determination, and her recovery. I would know when she wasn’t doing so well, when she’d smell of alcohol or when I met her in the detention center. She was both embarrassed and grateful to see me then. We struck up conversation, same as we would if we had seen each other in the church or out and about. “Will you be okay?” I’d ask. She had faith. She was praying. She was reading the Bible, finding verses that inspired her and kept her going. Even now I see her on Facebook, not just her pictures of her highlighted Bible verses but pictures of her face, a life-worn face that smiles through hardship and smiles with grace, shining in its own way for knowing the love of God, experiencing it in her life.

I know I keep harkening back to diocesan convention, but there was a statement Jerusalem made that I want to make sure we all hear again: We have to use our words to share the Good News of Christ. We can give all the tents, blankets, and food there is, but if we don’t share WHY we’re doing it, how will they know we’re not just part of a charitable or service organization? “Preach the Gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.” We typically attribute this quote to St. Francis. Jerusalem says that today, it’s necessary.

And Paul, he says that because of Christ, our veil is removed. We don’t need to hide from the light. It’s not terrifying . . . it’s glorious, and we’re meant to share it. Don’t get me wrong, to live in the Light is terrifying at times, uncomfortable to us and to others. Why? Because it threatens to change the way things are. If we are mirroring the image of God through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are bringing into this world evidence of God’s mercy, experiences of transformation. But if we practice over and over again, it becomes less scary, changing into glory can become our expectation, if not a norm.

But what do we practice?

People like my friend from Hot Springs know what it is to hit rock bottom and have little left to lose. But she found a thread of hope which was intimately linked to her dog, through her love of another, that empowered her to act with great boldness. And as she grew to understand more and more that the love of God was hers, that God wasn’t punishing her, she began to act more boldly for herself. And along this journey she was sharing that she had love of God, that God was working through her to live better, and maybe her witness could help others live better, too. She didn’t get to a place of sharing publicly overnight.

Like Peter, we might experience something truly marvelous and make a claim to capture it then and there, freeze it in time and place. In this action, we, too, might not know what we say or what we mean. In our belief, Jesus wasn’t just a man who lived and died in ancient Israel, doing really great things, many of which are accounted in the season of Epiphany that we conclude today. With his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ continued the story for us. The Transfiguration during his lifetime, when he was radiant as ever and in the presence of figures who had gone before him, gave us a glimpse that in our lives lived in God, amazing things can happen, surpassing human understanding. These experiences happen not just in one time and place but everywhere we go bringing with us the Light of Christ.

In our baptism we are given a candle as a symbol of that light of Christ, that it would go with us into the world. It’s a symbol of the light within because I don’t know anyone who carries that candle with them everywhere. It’s a physical thing that doesn’t have enough wax to last out the day. But that light of Christ, which comes from the glory of God, that’s eternal and everlasting.

So what, exactly do we do? Start small, which is really starting big because we have to train our way of thinking. Do we want to do good? Are we already doing good work? Why? Because we’re supposed to? Because we don’t want to be hard-hearted? We do good because we love. We love because we are loved, and if we believe that, the rest stems from there.

What in our lives has been hard but we lived through? What kept us going? We don’t always or even often start with love of God. Maybe, like me, you had a loving family and lived a pretty sheltered life and have continued to live a good life, given a few trials and tribulations but nothing insurmountable. But we don’t take that for granted. Great religious figures of the past, even when surrounded in comfort and/of luxury, went among the suffering and had empathy, had compassion for them, and it changed their worldview, guiding others to shape their perspective, too.

One time of doing something does not make a practice. My kids wouldn’t be great swimmers or musicians if they just jumped in and swam a lap or picked up an instrument every once in a blue moon. We have to practice our skills, and that includes living a life in Christ without fear. Fear to me is embodied in that unclean spirit from the gospel lesson today. Fear with thrash about and throw us to our knees rather than go boldly into the light of God. But with God’s help through Jesus Christ, we can be healed of our fears, return to the Way of Love, and astound others with the greatness of God, rather than scare them.

This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, and I will share a practice every week that will encourage you to find words to share your story as a child of God. You wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t experienced God either knowingly or because you seek God in your life. Maybe all we need to do is remove the veil to see clearly that God is already at work.

 

Continue Reading

Superpower

Genesis 45:3-11, 15 | 1 Corinthians 15:35-38,42-50 | Luke 6:27-38 | Psalm 37:1-12, 41-42

I can’t help but wonder if, when the lectionary committee was deciding which Old Testament reading to put with today’s gospel, they had to draw straws as to which story was the most gut-wrenching story of forgiving one’s enemy. Because there are loads of stories about people doing wrong by their neighbor but mostly doing wrong by their family, and not every story gives us an illustration of forgiveness, either.

Recall that Joseph, beloved son of Jacob, was thrown into a well and then sold to traders by his brothers, was accused of raping an officer’s wife (because he wouldn’t have an affair with her) and imprisoned, and then because he interpreted Pharaoh’s dream, was released and rose to power, second only to the Pharaoh himself. It was Joseph’s planning through the seven years of plenty that prepared Egypt for the seven years of famine, that not only made Egypt the breadbasket of the world but also saved the people from starvation, including the very brothers who had cast him away, good as dead.

You’ll have to go back read Genesis 42-44 to get the full story of how the brothers go to Egypt for their stores, experience the dramatic irony of the brothers not realizing that it is their Joseph who is their lord, their saving grace. The recognition between the brothers does not start with our lesson today. Chapter 45 begins:

“Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, ‘Send everyone away from me.’ So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it.” (vv. 1-2)

And then we begin with today’s reading, when Joseph addresses his brothers, re-introducing himself and inquiring about his father. Is he still alive? But the brothers can’t answer him, “dismayed” at his presence. Dismayed? The Jewish Study Bible contains a more accurate description, I think: “…his brothers could not answer him, so dumbfounded were they on account of him.”

After all he has been through and all that he has done for them, Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers, and he breaks down. Breaking down doesn’t give Joseph credit, though, and perpetuates the stereotype that to show emotion is a weakness. This man who is second to the Pharaoh sobs before his brothers so loudly that everyone in the vicinity can hear him. The floodgates of emotion–of grief, loneliness, heartbreak, anger, worry, fear, anxiety–all of that and more, I’m sure, are finally released. Of course the brothers are dumbfounded. They tried to kill Joseph, and when they finally meet him again, he’s a great man of power, sobbing, and inquiring about his father’s well-being. They don’t know what to do.

They don’t recognize him. Do you think that’s because if he really was their brother, this isn’t how they expect him to react? Maybe Joseph realizes this might be the case, too, so what does he ask them to do?

“Come closer to me.”

Come closer to him so that they can see into his eyes, recognize the familiarities that persist through time. Listen to him as he says he knows they’re the ones who sold him into slavery. Listen to him as he says that he sees God’s hand at work because in all of this, it is Joseph’s presence in Egypt that has saved them. In fact, he says that it was God who sent him there, ultimately to serve as lord and ruler of the whole land of Egypt. He tells them what to do, essentially to go get their father and all their things and come live in Goshen near him, and he kisses them all, weeping with them, and only then are they able to speak with him, covered in his tears and affection.

This story takes any story we have of sibling rivalry to a whole other level, doesn’t it? And it says something about Joseph’s sense of presence, character, and faith. He could have easily recognized his brothers and had them imprisoned, as he nearly did to a different end. The Pharaoh would have his back, as he did on recognizing the brothers and assisting their move. It could have gone the other way very easily. Some decisions are like that, balanced as they are on the edge of life and death.

In our gospel lesson today, we have a mighty checklist of do’s and don’ts for disciples. Jesus tells us to love our enemies. “Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Don’t strike back, give generously, and don’t expect things to be returned. “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Be merciful. Don’t judge or condemn, and forgive.

Are these things that only the ancient Joseph, ultimately mighty in power and favored by God, could do? No. They happen every day. Only God knows the extent to which the Golden Rule helps preserve humanity itself, let alone the goodness conveyed in our true love, mercy, generosity, and forgiveness. And only God knows the strength that these actions have in moving us closer to the kingdom of God.

If you listened to Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s nearly hour-long sermon from the Yes to Jesus Revival that I posted a couple of weeks ago, you heard him share the story from the documentary about Jackie Robinson called 42. Baseball had been divided into all these different leagues to keep it segregated, but there was one man named Branch Rickey who loved baseball so much that he wanted the best of the best to play together. Now, you’ll have to watch the documentary or listen to the sermon for more details, but essentially, when Rickey, the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers made the proposition to Robinson, he acknowledged that there were going to be people who would say and maybe even do ugly things because he was a black man and that’s the way the country was in the 40’s. The man also said that he wanted Robinson not to retaliate. At this, Robinson said, “Oh you want a negro who’s afraid to fight back,” and the man said, “No, I want a great ball player who has the courage not to fight back just like our Savior Jesus Christ.” Rickey pulls from his desk a book of sayings of Jesus and reads to Robinson words that include our words from Luke today. When he put the book down, Robinson shook Rickey’s hands, and as Curry summarized, they went on to change baseball and America because they followed the Way of Jesus, the Way of Love. At our best, we have the power to change the world because of our love, because of Jesus’s love, God’s love.

You might still be thinking that all this is fine and good, but these are extraordinary circumstances with heroes from our past. I’m sorry. I’m sorry that we don’t hear more about our everyday courageous warriors who fight with love. I’m sorry that our news is filled with anger, division, fear, and violence. I’m sorry because for all the time focused on the evil of the world, there are countless others upholding the Golden Rule, doing right by their neighbors, strangers, and kin, and practicing the Way of Love, even if that’s not what they call it.

And I bet there are times in your life when that’s just your m.o., and I also bet that there’s a time in your life when you felt it more poignantly. When these words of Jesus, that have revealed themselves to be written in your heart, revealed your belief of them in your actions and proved yourself to be a warrior for love, too.

Someone I love dearly was in an abusive relationship, and she had escaped–not her first time to try to get out, but this time it was sticking. (It typically takes 7 times before a woman leaves her abuser.) I received a call from the abuser late one night. He was looking for her. He was saying things, telling me what I thought of him. And I don’t know if you’ve ever had an encounter where you felt like you were facing demons, something truly evil, but my heart was racing. I felt stunned, but I stayed on the phone, words coming out of my mouth that came from a place I didn’t know I had. At one point, I said, “No, I don’t hate you. I love the good person you can be, that you are at your core, but I do not like what you’ve done. And I won’t tell you where she is or help you get in touch with her.” There are other times in my life when I realize how much I love people, especially people I don’t like, and there’s a sadness that washes over me, a lament at the loss of what could be.

The Way of Love, following the Way of Jesus, does not make us passive doormats. It doesn’t mean that we will always be protected from danger, nor does it mean that we see everything as sunshine and roses or always see the silver lining. What it does mean is that we know that love is a powerful thing, that God’s love is our superpower when we find ourselves tapped into it.

God’s love enables us to be wholly in relationship with others, even if that person is so other that we can’t see eye to eye. God’s love enables us to act in ways of justice and mercy, to heal and seek reconciliation rather than bury ourselves in grief or anger or grudges. Most importantly, God’s love transforms us, turning us into Christian superheroes capable of amazing feats that most often won’t make the headlines but make all the difference in someone’s life. I hope this week or even today that you get the chance to share a moment when you tapped into that superpower, when you did something you didn’t think you could do but were keenly aware–if not in the moment then at least in retrospect–that it was God working through you, living through you, loving through you.

Come closer, and recognize the power of God’s love in our lives.

 

Continue Reading

Good News in Level Places

Jeremiah 17:5-10 | Psalm 1 1 Corinthians 15:12-20 |Luke 6:17-26

Isaiah’s call to lift valleys and lower mountains, to make the rough land level and the rugged plain so that all might see the glory of God (Isa 40:4-5) to me is about making sure everyone has equal opportunity to experience that glory, maybe even bask in it. That kind of terrain provides a level playing field. We want everyone to have equal access to God, and Isaiah gives us a vivid visual.

So when I hear in today’s gospel lesson that Jesus and his disciples go down to a level place to be with the multitude of people from all over the region, I’m not surprised. Of course Jesus is going to give everyone a fair chance. He’s here to fulfill scripture, and there’s no time to waste.

But there are a few things to notice.

  1. A level place means more than geography.

The connotations for what a “level” place means, doesn’t necessarily refer to the lay of the land physically. It might well be an even place, but what it could have meant at the time was that it was an unclean place, a place for corpses. A “level place” is for the suffering, the disgraced, the mourning, misery, and hunger. The place where idols were located were often in a plain, a “level place.”

This is where Jesus goes, into the midst of the suffering, according to the Gospel of Luke, unlike that of Matthew where he goes to the mount. It is in this level place that the people come to Jesus, bringing their suffering, seeking his healing power. Jesus goes into a place where one might least expect God to be.

2. The people who were in this level place probably haven’t come from the mountaintop.

Whether the people who were coming to Jesus in this level place were probably already there or felt they had nothing to lose in being there, chances are these weren’t people of privilege who had other options. The people coming to this place likely didn’t have strict codes of conduct telling them not to be seen in certain places, not to risk their reputation, their purity, and/or their honor and dignity–not just theirs but also their family’s.

Yet this is where Jesus chooses to go and take a stand, and there’s a multitude of people who come to him.

3. Jesus looks UP at his disciples and speaks to them, probably with everyone looking on these beatitudes.

Jesus stood on a level place and still looks up at his disciples. Geographically, this isn’t a level place. He went down. He’s looking up. Maybe he’s kneeling in the middle of the crowd. Maybe he’s so far into the crowd, the disciples can’t quite bring themselves to go into the thick of it. Still, there Jesus is.

Not that we blame the disciples. Ever since I was pregnant with my first child, my nose has taken on some kind of supernatural maternal sense of smell. My husband makes me smell the milk or food and watches my face for my instant reaction. Imagining first century Israel, given its hygiene practices of the time, given the sickness of all those seeking Jesus, I almost get one of those instant reactions: that place isn’t going to smell like someplace I’d want to go. Don’t we often hear the adage, “follow your nose”?

But I remember one of those powerful moments when I was in the deep water of my discernment, trying to decipher if I would really enter into the process of discerning if I was called to ordination, Suzanne from St. Paul’s was listening and talking with me, the wonderful mentor that she is. I don’t know if she said it and I visualized it, or if something she said prompted me to see it. But in my mind’s eye, I was keenly aware of the putrescence of humanity, a cesspool of manure, so to speak, and there were people in it, going to and from it, though nobody wants to go there because it’s so awful. With tears in my eyes and speaking through my sobs, I managed to say that I feel called to go there, that I have the stomach for it–which makes no sense because I don’t think I have the nose for it! But it was a visual that I believe the Holy Spirit gave me because in that near waking dream, I saw myself being present in a way not many can or will. When I go to stand up for controversial matters or sit with someone in a hard place or hear or experience things that I don’t think anyone should have to bear witness to, I know that I am not alone, that there’s no place I can go that Christ hasn’t already been. Jesus didn’t avoid the level places, and his presence goes with us when we go there, too.

Where are our level places here in our community? Where have you been or seen that was a place of suffering? The ER? The walk-in clinic? The DMV? Walmart or the Dollar General when you meet the gaze of the person or the child with the sad eyes? The street corners not far from the Salvation Army? The cafeterias where kids are surrounded but alone, insecure? The jail, the bus depot, the camps in the woods? The gym with everyone plugged in and trying to sweat away their worries and fears? The nursing home or rehab?

If we start thinking about it too much, we might begin to think that we don’t live in such a well-off community after all, that we’re really surrounded by suffering and disease. We might be tempted to cloister ourselves in our nice little bubbles of blessedness. We might rather stay on our mountain tops.

But Jesus looked up at his disciples and proclaimed blessedness upon the poor, the hungry, the sad, and the defamed. Jesus cautioned woe to those who were already fulfilled and self-sufficient, those more likely to trust in the flesh and material world than trust in God. Jesus not only had the power to heal the sick and the diseased, but he also knew that there was more to this life, more to the story, that the suffering and death that everyone feared and knew was coming was not the end. There was hope. Hope in the kingdom of God. Hope in the fullness of time. Hope in the joy of the Lord our God. Hope in the glory of heaven. The kind of hope of believing that Christ was resurrected on the third day–beyond all our reason or comprehension but that there is Truth in that Resurrection–speaks to the triumph of life over death, of love over fear and hatred. God loved us so much that God gave the only begotten son to walk among us, to live among us, to be present in all the suffering and also the joys . . . and to die only to rise again. This is our Good News: that we are loved. That the love we know gives us life and liberation, and this blessedness is ours to share, even and especially among the suffering.

Evangelism was the focus of our diocesan convention keynote addresses. Jerusalem Greer asked us,

“Who stays up all night waiting to hear the Good News?”

We got the socio-demographic data of our area in a handout at our table, and we began looking at the map and the numbers, but we didn’t have enough time to get at the heart of the question. We didn’t go quickly to seek out the level places in our midst or brainstorm ways we are particularly suited to meet the suffering and share our Good News with them. And that’s okay. A handful of us from All Saints’ aren’t going to figure out exactly how we evangelize to our community in 15-20 minutes.

But if you love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and you have an experience of knowing where the story of Jesus intersects with your life at least on one occasion (and hopefully time and time again), then you have something to share with your friend and neighbor, something to share even with a stranger, if they look like they’re hungry for some good news, especially if they look like they’re alone and are hungry for the kind of love that only God gives.

We might not want to follow Jesus into the “level places,” but what does Jesus often remind us? “Do not be afraid.” If we love the Lord with all our being, we are also invited to trust in the Lord. Rather than imagining cesspools of suffering, we start imagining pictures of trees planted by rolling streams. Trees strong in their roots, nourished by the life-giving water. Trees green with leaves, not anxious, not fearful, continually bearing fruit. Trees extending a branch to those in need, offering good news in their level place, showing the way of love.

 

Continue Reading

Called

Isaiah 6:1-8, [9-13] | Psalm 138 | 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 | Luke 5:1-11

Our scriptures are filled with stories of people who are called, and by “called” I mean that faithful people have discerned that God is offering direction and purpose in their life and making a proposition to them. A “call,” then, might also be described as a divine invitation. A “call” is certainly a mile-marker for where we sense the presence of God intersecting in our lives.

A prophetic call from God, or from the voice of the Lord however we discern it, is a multi-stage process. God chooses a person, usually at a moment of crisis when some intervention is needed and puts forth a message to proclaim or action to perform (typically an impossible task). The person denies it because of their inadequacy. God basically says, “I’m gonna be here with you,” usually offers an affirming sign, and keeps the promise as the calling is fulfilled.

Fortunately, our calls are not typically like Isaiah’s, who came directly in the presence of the LORD almighty. And what did he encounter? The presence of the LORD on a high throne, the LORD’s hem–the LORD’s glory–filling the whole temple. This is saying that God of heaven also fills all of creation with God’s glory, and Isaiah was seeing it. Seraphs are in attendance. Seraphs, not chubby little cherubs but seraphs, six-winged fiery beings. They sang their Sanctus that we sing a version of at every Eucharist. “Holy, holy, holy Lord,” we sing. As they sang, the very ground shook, and the air filled with smoke. Isaiah is struck by his unworthiness, his uncleanliness yet is still awe-struck that he has seen the LORD of hosts. A seraph flies to him with a coal from the altar and touches his lips, departing from Isaiah all guilt, blotting out all sin. And now when the voice of the LORD asks “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” what does Isaiah say?

“Here am I; send me!”

This person Isaiah, whom we know so little about, becomes one of the most renowned of the Prophets, a mouthpiece for the voice of God. And the optional text for today shares that what Isaiah is called to share is not good news, not what people want to hear. There’s a reason not many clamor to be a prophet or even to do the work of God. This passage, this call story of Isaiah is one of the Old Testament lessons suggested for ordinations to the priesthood in our Church. More than likely it points not to the magnitude of God’s commission (which is still great) but rather points to the reality that God calls and equips all of us to holy work, to ministry in our particular context, be it in the church or in the world at large. Isaiah can represent the universal believer.

Peter has a way of filling in for us as a type of “every man,” too. Simon Peter has a very different kind of encounter with God, one much more down-to-earth. Peter’s been working all night and is working with his fellow fishermen tending to the nets. Jesus has come near the Sea of Gennesaret, another name for the Sea of Galilee, and is preaching to the crowd that’s pressing in. Jesus gets in one of the boats and asks Simon Peter to push it out a bit so he can teach the crowd sitting down, perhaps to let the wind carry his voice to the people. Peter and crew hold the boat in place, maybe enjoying a bit of rest after a night of work, listening to the voice of Jesus while they man the boat on autopilot. They do what they do with ease.

Then Jesus tells Peter, calls on him, to go out deeper and to cast the nets, and Peter doesn’t hold back his resignation. “We’ve already fished all night and got nothing,” Peter says. They must have exchanged looks or something nonverbal because Peter goes on to say, “Alright . . .okay . . . if you say so,” as if his mom has just told him to do it because she said so. And they catch more than they can handle. In the chaos of the moment when the weight of their catch is about to sink them, Peter falls at Jesus’ feet, confessing his sinfulness–not unlike Isaiah in the presence of God. Jesus tells Peter, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” Jesus hears Peter confess his inadequacy but still chooses him, calls him to a greater purpose, and in telling him not to be afraid is also affirming what he says repeatedly, “I’m gonna be with you.” Peter, James and John bring their boats to shore and leave everything to follow Jesus and become fishers of people.

The call of the apostles lives on in faithful disciples, including Paul, who knows he’s called to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ. Paul is quick to remind us of his past sins and the grace he’s received. He reminds us today how hard he works, as if he’s the hardest worker of all time. His confidence always strikes me as boastful, but maybe his self-assuredness is an affirming characteristic, one meant to give us strength and confidence, too. Paul never fails to acknowledge his past sins, how he was unworthy, too. Yet  he continues forward, advocating for the faith, shaping the church as one Body in Christ.

Where would we be if any one of these people has stopped at their claims of unworthiness: Isaiah emphasizing his uncleanliness as he must have been where he wasn’t allowed in the Holy of Holies; Peter, who could have stayed with his boat, focusing solely on the fish he may or may not catch; Paul, if he would have let his blindness lead him to despair? Sure, God could move on to the next person, and we don’t know how many were before these chosen ones. But these are the people who answered God’s call in their life and said in one way or another: “Here am I; send me.”

Send me to proclaim the Good News of God through Christ. Send me to learn the skills to heal and comfort the sick. Send me to build homes. Send me to teach the children. Send me to defend the accused. Send me to raise a family. Send me to change policies. Send me to care for our roads. Send me to protect the citizens. Send me to fill our community with music or art. Send me to fill hunger. Send me. Send me. Send us. Here we are.

Even if we’ve known since we are a child what we want to do with our lives, there will come a point when we want to say, “Whoah. Not that. Not me.” We may think we don’t have the skills, or we may think we’re not worthy. We’re sinful. We’re not the right person. And we may not be wrong. But when we enter into holy work, we’re not doing it because we can cover it all on our own. Actually, we cannot do it on our own. We depend upon God’s help, in any way it comes. It’s going to come from mentors and teachers, friends and allies, and even opponents who strengthen us along the way. There may be those auspicious times when things just seem to align in the perfect way, reminding us that we are where we’re supposed to be, doing exactly what we’re supposed to be doing. There may be times when everything seems wrong and we think we’ve messed up, missed the call, but there’s a still, small voice that reminds us not to give up, that it’s just temptation prowling at our door trying to keep us from doing good work.

When the boats were laden with their catch, Peter turns to Jesus, falls at his feet, and tells him to “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Peter, who had been listening to Jesus, maybe halfheartedly, confessed that he had turned away from God. Peter was working night shifts and probably wasn’t keeping the law as well as he was supposed to be keeping it. But mostly, Peter, in his resignation to do what Jesus invited him to, was hinting at his greater distrust of God. Almost like he was saying, “Fine, I’ll throw the nets in; it’s not like it’s going to make a difference.” Peter didn’t trust, until he saw that it did make a difference, and then he, like the others, was amazed. And if Jesus can lead them to a great catch, what if everything else he was saying was true and could happen? Jesus tells them, “Do not be afraid.” He’s going to be with them every step of their way.

Just like with us when we are called. In all our questioning, all our discernment, all our doubts, and all our resignation or faithful trust, Jesus is with us. God is with us. Yes, it’s scary when we are called to proclaim what people don’t want to hear. Yes, following the Way of Jesus might take us in new directions. Yes, it’s okay to be self-assured and confident in faith, so long as we know that it’s grace that makes us whole and not any effort of our own. Yes, when we discern the call of God, it’s up to us to go through the process and choose whether or not we want to answer or not. We always have a choice, but only God leads us to life abundant, love eternal. This I trust. This I believe, as one who like you has been called.

Continue Reading

Fanatacism & Love

Jeremiah 1:4-10 | Psalm 71:1-6 | 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 | Luke 4:21-30

“Today,” Jesus says, “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

And the people are amazed at his gracious words–more like his prophetic words. In their amazement, they’re asking, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” It’s a question that both questions whether or not they really knew him when he was their neighbor, but it also questions whether or not they can believe him as a prophet or teacher.

Jesus doesn’t mince words or hold back. He’s all in. He is who he is, and he knows their hearts, their questions, their doubts. He knows they’re going to want him to perform a parlor trick to prove himself. He knows the precedents that say it doesn’t go well for prophets, especially in their hometown.

And just like that, the crowd goes from amazement to rage in the presence of  one so self-realized, the embodiment of Truth, a mirror held before them a little too clearly for their liking, if they even understood. The challenge presented in the person of Jesus was too much for them to deal with, so they try to throw him over a cliff. (But Jesus’s time to be killed has not yet come.)

When I say that Jesus is “all in,” I can’t help but think about all the fans gathering in Atlanta that we’ve been hearing about on the news. Maybe you know a fan or two, if not for the Rams or Patriots, at least for the Razorbacks, right? One of my faults as an Arkansan is that I’m not fanatic about sports. Don’t get me wrong: I can be competitive, and I’ll cheer for my kids with gusto. I’ll also cheer for the “other” team and wince when anyone gets hurt or makes a bad move. I’ll watch games, even play games with focus and presence, but it’s not what I consider myself fanatic about.

When we’re “fanatic” about something, our enthusiasm defies all reason, doesn’t it? A quick definition search reveals that “fanatic” is defined as “a person filled with excessive and single-minded zeal.” It’s easy to shorten the word and end up with something that sounds harmless, right? A “fan” just sounds like someone who’s rooting for a certain team/party/religion. Surely they aren’t zealous, are they? But “zealot” is a synonym for “fanatic.” Paul was zealous for his religion. Paul took his fanaticism to an extreme and persecuted those who didn’t conform to what he thought was the only way. I hope that all the “fans” at the big game this weekend keep their fanaticism in check and don’t lose sight of the common humanity and sportsmanship to be shared between good neighbors and responsible adults.

Paul has much to teach us about maturity. “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child,” he says, but “when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” If you’ve ever tried to reason with a two-year old, you get what Paul is saying here: the efforts are futile with an unreasonable child, likewise with someone excessively and single-mindedly zealous, for whom there is no other way. But, “when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end,” Paul also says, when we can “know fully” even as we “have been fully known.” What happens when we can see in the mirror fully, when we have a clearer picture, a broader view, a fuller perspective of the greater picture?

And what is it that enables our completion, our fulfillment, our knowledge, and our perspective?

Love.

Love of God. Love of neighbor. Love of self.

That’s why Love is the greatest of all gifts, as Paul says, the most excellent one, the one which if we don’t have, we can scrap all the rest because it won’t bring us closer to God.

Often First Corinthians 13 is used in weddings as one of the readings because of the emphasis on love and the characteristics that are exceedingly helpful in maintaining a successful relationship. But this love isn’t the romantic (eros) or brotherly (philos) love; this is agape love, the highest form of love, of charity–the kind of love that exists between God and all of us. It is this kind of love that completes us because it’s what we all seek.

With the love of God, we know whose we are and who we are. We are more likely to find what our calling is because we have an honest, open relationship with God. Self-knowledge and self-awareness are powerful things, particularly when lived in relationship to God. It doesn’t mean we don’t doubt or question–all the prophets do that, as we heard in Jeremiah and can find in every call of every prophet. But there’s clarity.

Following his baptism and temptation, Jesus was fully known and beloved publicly, for all with eyes to see and ears to hear, and he was coming out to his family and friends in his wholeness. In his openness and honesty, in the fullness of his being, there were people who couldn’t handle it, who couldn’t comprehend what he meant, what he was saying, what he was representing. It was “other-ness” to them that was threatening, and their survival response was to get rid of it, even if that meant killing a person.

Singleness of vision doesn’t always present itself in such fanatic ways. Status quo is upheld by a majority’s concession to one way of being as the norm. It can just be the way things are, and people go politely about their way. It can be unnoticed, latent, until something happens, and a greater truth is revealed. And someone comes along and says “this is who you are” and “this is what you’re standing for,” and it’s unrecognizable as Truth because we’ve conditioned ourselves to see ourselves as good people who could never do or be something so ugly and unrecognizable. It’s not what we meant.

Again, we need–we rely upon–that agape love, that unconditional love to see us through the hard work of seeing ourselves and being who God created us to be. It’s a given that we are beloved children of God as we are right here, right now, but if you’re like me, we have a lot to learn about being Christ-like, about being the best Christians we can be.

I say this because it’s Black History Month. I know woefully little about black history in Northwest Arkansas or in Arkansas generally. At the bishop’s suggestion, I researched Bishop Edward Demby, the second black suffragan bishop in The Episcopal Church, who was here in Arkansas in the early 20th century. He was one man to support the segregated congregations, initially without receiving compensation or housing. I plan to attend as many events as I can throughout the month, starting with Raven Cook’s talk in Fayetteville Sunday entitled “Celebrating Black Women’s Resistance.” I have a stack of books to read, including White Fragility by Robin Diangelo, which will be the focus of our next few Continuing the Conversations, and the community college has a section of books relevant to black lives for everyone’s greater understanding. If we don’t understand why having a Confederate Statue at the center of our town square is offensive to many, I guarantee that we have a lot of work to do on self-awareness individually and as a community. And we need agape love to see us through the learning, the healing, and the reconciliation that will take us into a more beloved community.

I also say we need the kind of love that Paul speaks of and that Jesus embodied because we’re about to show a documentary about homelessness. In Northwest Arkansas. To present such a film and discussion says that maybe everything here isn’t wealth and abundance, roses and sunshine. When temperatures dropped into the single digits on Wednesday night, Padre Guillermo called me to ask me where a homeless person goes in Bentonville because a parishioner was trying to help someone from sleeping on the street. Apologetically, I told him that the Salvation Army is the only place in Bentonville. Otherwise, you have to go out of town. If you’re not a domestic abuse victim, the women’s shelter isn’t an option. If Soul’s Harbor or any of the other homes are full (for which there’s usually an application process), you’re out of luck. A hotel room is often your only choice, which is what they did that night–not unlike the generous donors in Chicago and probably thousands of other untold cities and towns. Holding up a mirror and realizing the reality of a situation is one of the first steps to addressing a solution. Identifying common practices, common hurdles, and characteristics of poverty are all part of being able to look honestly at homelessness and start chipping away at creating pathways to safe and stable environments for everyone. They might not look like what we think they should look like, but with love and mutual respect, we can create relationships that honor one another and bear fruit for the kingdom.

To do this work of being Christian, the only thing we need to be fanatic about is keeping love at the front and center. In all that we say, think, and do, does it reflect love of God, neighbor, and self? If not, why not? If so, what’s the next step?

We might have people who want to push us over the cliff, but we mustn’t forget that God is our crag and our stronghold, that rock jutting out to give us footing when we’re on the edge of our comfort zone and entering the dangerous territory of doing truly good work. God is our hope, our confidence, and our sustainer. Let us never be ashamed of the work we do in the name of God and for the sake of Love.

Continue Reading

Fulfilled and Yet to Be

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 | Psalm 19 | 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a | Luke 4:14-21

When my oldest child is home and knows I’m ruminating on the scriptures for the week in my sermon preparation, she’ll most likely ask, “What’s the gospel reading for this week?” I offer her a quick headline or summary statement. This week, in a kind of frustration, I said, “It’s when Jesus is in the synagogue, reads from Isaiah, and says the scripture has been fulfilled in their hearing.” And I kind of shrugged my shoulders as if to say, not that exciting, huh? It’s not like he turned water into wine like he did last week–that’s the good stuff.

So I read yet again, and the words Jesus chose to read from the scroll stand out anew:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, 

because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Not only the words but what happens afterwards–the attention to his movements of rolling up the scroll, handing it back to the attendant, and sitting down with all eyes fixed on him–slow time. There must have hung a pregnant pause in the air before he says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

We might be tempted to say, “Jesus, you’re getting ahead of yourself. Your ministry is just beginning.” He was baptized and survived wandering in the wilderness for 40 days, and now he’s filled with power of the Spirit to teach with authority in the synagogues, even in his hometown. But at least in the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus has yet to perform any miraculous deeds of liberation or healing.

While we might be inclined to focus on the remarkable acts, what Jesus reads from Isaiah is about having the Spirit of the Lord upon him, being anointed to bring good news, being sent to proclaim liberation and restoration. If anything, he’s likening himself to the Prophet Isaiah, who was called to bring the good news to the people of Israel, to announce their deliverance. But those prophecies were already fulfilled

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” Jesus says with both continuity and disruption of tradition. Continuity because he calls to mind the familiar words of Isaiah, pulling from Chapters 61 and 58 (as we know them), and disruption because he’s saying that today the scripture has been fulfilled. There’s yet another era of people who need good news, who need to be freed from their prisons and oppression, who need vision, and who need restoration. And those people were likely sitting among the crowd or would be among the people who heard the reports of this man proclaiming good news. Also sitting among those in the synagogue were likely people who felt uncomfortable at the calling out of those who are oppressed, people who would be uncomfortable with someone filled with spirit and chosen by God to be the one to bring about the year of the Lord’s favor for those vulnerable people, a year of jubilee when people’s fortunes would be restored, debts forgiven. A year of jubilee sounds an awful lot like valleys being raised up and mountains brought low, and those in position on the top don’t necessarily want to move lower, even if it means a more level playing field. We’ll continue with this moment in Jesus’s ministry next week to recall the response of his teaching.

“Today,” Jesus said, and that “today” was over 2,000 years ago. “Today,” our scripture reads in this time and place, and the power of the Holy Spirit hovers about us, waiting to see if we are willing conduits for the work at hand. I imagine it has similarities to the moment there in Nazareth when the people listening to Jesus got to contemplate what he meant.

Of course I’m not saying I’m Jesus in this moment! What I am saying is that I am a child of God, having been baptized in the name of the Trinity like most of you, I presume (if not, we need to talk about baptism!). I’ve been given gifts of the Spirit, marked as Christ’s own forever, and confirmed by the bishop to assume responsibility for my journey in faith. I strive daily to live into the promises I’ve made, and some days are better than others. And like you, I am one of many who make up the Body of Christ in this world.

Paul, advising the church in Corinth, is trying to maintain cohesiveness among the peoples. He’s told them there are many gifts, and now he’s telling them there are many members, each with their own role to play, individually and collectively. Not only is Paul trying to overcome personally competitive behaviors, but he is also trying to overcome a communal mindset that is governed by a top-down political view that was inclined to see Jesus as Caesar more than Jesus as shepherd. An egalitarian view of the body, incorporating all members be they weak or strong, was not normative. Striving as a corporate body for a greater good challenged the Corinthians then as much as it challenges us today.

So here we are, members of the Body of Christ, lingering in this holy place with the Spirit of the Lord hovering, ready to course through all of us and each of us like a central nervous system activating us for a greater good.

How does that make us feel, knowing that all of us, rich or poor, weak or strong, are an invaluable component of the Body of Christ?

How does it feel to hover for an extended moment at the threshold of what is yet to be?

In that kind of moment, do we feel vulnerable? Scared? Intimidated? Would we rather put our head down and pretend we haven’t seen or known or experienced delight in the Lord our God, effectively hiding our light under a bushel? Do we feel helpless? Or, do we feel well-equipped, ready to rise to the challenge? Elizabeth Gilbert in her book Big Magic writes about creativity seeking outlets and how if one person doesn’t latch onto it and run with whatever idea is trying to be conceived, that it will find another conduit through which to be birthed.

Thankfully, the creative Holy Spirit with which we identify is already finding willing conduits in this place and in our community, and because of that, the work that Jesus began continues. The work of Christ continues to be fulfilled, but it’s not yet complete.

Work like sharing good news to the poor. The food pantry at Christ the King, our discretionary assistance, our openness to everyone regardless of their financial or spiritual portfolio are ways we share the message that God loves–inclusive of and especially–the poor, be it in body, mind, or spirit. The simple message of “God loves you” is a powerful one. There are other churches and organizations that share this message, too, and collectively we partner with them to be advocates for the poor because we have the privilege to do so. Because if people of privilege don’t advocate the poor, who do you see in our governance that does? If I am an immigrant from Guatemala, who do I see in our city/state/nation who represents me and my interest, my struggle?

Work like release to the captives, setting the oppressed free. This doesn’t mean that we go to the jails and release all prisoners. When we commit crimes, we do suffer consequences. We also, however, offer means of reciliation, and when it’s called for, priests and bishops can offer absolution. We believe in being released from the bondage of sin, of making way for reconciliation. This is why we support recovery and rehabilitation programs. We’ve already put word out that when there’s an AA or Al-anon group who needs a meeting space, we’re available. Padre Guillermo and I have ability to go into our county jail. David Myers, a deacon at St. Andrew’s, is instrumental in the gardening program at the Benton County Jail. The Episcopal Church advocates for the abolition of the death penalty, incarceration reform, and support of refugees, those seeking asylum. Remembering that our prisons or what binds us aren’t always visible opens the gates of empathy and compassion to relate to one another on a level plane. We all stand to benefit from the message of liberation from the bondage to sin, captivity to our self-will. We have the Way to be released to something greater.

Giving sight to the blind can be enabling one another to have the vision to see God’s dream for us, the “something greater” of which we are all a part. Enabling each other in hope and imagination helps restore the ability to see things that maybe we thought were impossible or had lost sight of given the way we’ve always experienced the world. One way we do this is through Continuing the Conversation, where we talk about racism and prejudice and where we see that our eyes are being open to see injustices that take place in our lives and in our world. Sure, Jesus restored literal sight to the blind, but we are much more likely to remove blinders in our worldviews, revealing the Truth of what really is.

The work of revealing the year of the Lord’s favor would be a tremendous accomplishment. Imagine erasing all student loan debt and mortgages. Imagine everything being returned to its natural state so that we remembered that all of Creation is actually God’s, and we are merely stewards of Creation, no one of us more entitled to “ownership” than another. God’s blessing is unbounded by human limitations and is available abundantly to all. In our burial rite, we offer the same message of resurrection, offer the same liturgy, use the same pall, whether you were a high level CEO or a homeless addict with multiple felony charges. God’s favor is for everyone.

As always, it’s up to us to decide what we do in any given moment. Maybe it’s our moment to be on the receiving end of the good news, liberation, and abundance. If that’s the case, you’ve come to the right place–the table is set for you. Maybe it’s our moment to rise up, and bow our heads and lift our hands in “Amen” like the people listening to Ezra, receiving the law, repentant for their disobedience, and turning the to joy of the Lord for their strength. They were hungry for guidance, for direction, and the law of Moses filled them.

What are we needing now? Personally and communally? The Holy Spirit surrounds us, waiting to fill our hunger, waiting to empower us, if we are ready to receive and be sent to do the will of God.

 

Continue Reading

God’s Hour, This One Life

Isaiah 62:1-5 | Psalm 36:5-10 | 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 | John 2:1-11

Last week we heard the story of Simon the magician-turned-believer. Witnessing what the people did after they received the power of the Holy Spirit, he brought his silver to the apostles so that he, too, could get some of that power. But remember what Peter told him? “Your heart is not right before God.” Peter chastised him for thinking he could buy the power. Peter had the wisdom, knowledge, and discernment to know this person Simon (maybe Philip had advised him) and Simon’s intent to use the power of the Spirit for his own grandeur. We can hope that Simon’s repentance is sincere, that he truly changed the course of his way, and that he finally did get his heart right before God.

In the frenzy of the moment and not at his best, don’t you know that Simon would have loved to have been at the wedding at Cana in Galilee, to have been the one who changed the water into wine? Wouldn’t he have thrilled to tell Mary, the mother of God, not to worry, that he’s got it taken care of, to go up to the steward with a sly, knowing look and ask what he thinks of the wine, only to take full credit (after trying to play the humble one first) for the best wine in the house. Maybe he would even mention to the bride, groom, and family that he had saved them from humiliation but not to worry because he did it out of the goodness of his heart.

All this is exactly what Jesus didn’t do.

Sometimes we take for granted that our tradition is full of rich poetry and well-written stories. This vignette about Jesus and the water-turned-wine whisks us behind the scenes of a wedding banquet, reveals to us the wisdom of a mother, the gifts of her son, and the obedience of the servants. While the party carries on seamlessly, Jesus performs a grand miracle, surrounded by silent witnesses whose lives are forever changed, having encountered the glory of God. Those at the head of the table don’t even know what’s happened, happy they are to enjoy the richness and abundance of the newly found wine. This, the first of Jesus’s signs in the gospel according to John, revealed God’s glory and led disciples to believe.

That’s the beauty of someone whose heart is right with God: there’s no false humility or piety, extravagant showmanship or self-aggrandizing mannerisms. For one who lives out of right relationship with God, there’s godly revelation. We witness the attributes that Psalm 36 enumerates, characteristics like love and faithfulness, righteousness, justice, refuge, loving-kindness, and abundance. People who experience and/or know the love of God as the source of life are a beacon of the eternal light. But it doesn’t mean they’re always perfect.

The churches Paul writes to are a good example. Our epistle today shares part of Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, and he’s talking about spiritual gifts. They’re believers and gifted with the power of the holy spirit in various ways. Paul, however, is as tactfully as possible trying to present them with a teachable moment. He’s trying to emphasize the value of wisdom and knowledge to help prevent the squabbles or the competition that can wreak havoc on any community.

There are many gifts (and Paul lists several of them), and no one person is going to have all of them. We learn from Simon and Peter’s exchange that we can’t buy the gifts. Paul’s main point is that these gifts are chosen by the Spirit and meant for the common good. Many gifts, one Spirit. Many services/ministries, one Lord. Many activities/deeds, one God, who activates all in all. Again, we get the lesson that the true end is not ultimately about us–it’s not about “our hour” but about giving God the glory.

Yet our lives are intimately connected to each of us, and that we have free will means that we play a vital role in how much attribution God gets, for better or for worse. Maybe that’s why Simon’s story is open-ended. Like him, we get to choose what to do in the error of our ways. At best, we repent and return to the Lord, returning to ways that are loving, life-giving, and liberating not only for ourselves but for everyone. I’m reading Michelle Obama’s biography, and I’m at the part where she’s encountered the deaths of loved ones and is realizing that pursuing her legal career through a traditional trajectory isn’t as fulfilling as she thought it would be. She’s also become engaged to someone who is encouraging her to see things from a different perspective and with a less fixed course of direction.

That’s what happens when we are in truly loving relationships–we are no less who we are, but we become open to being more fully who we are as God created us to be. It makes sense that Love would be an activation key, doesn’t it? When we love God, we realize the value in truly knowing ourselves and valuing our gifts, whatever they may be. There’s great joy in celebrating our gifts, especially when we get to use them for the greater good, like when Lily can use her Spanish to speak with the refugees, help them find their home, all the while reminding them that they are “mi amor.” Even our adversities, hurts, and struggles teach us more about who we are, and in overcoming them, we garner skills that make us that much more adept at navigating difficult situations in the future.

This loving relationship between God and ourselves and for ourselves takes work and faith and belief and trust and courage–all that. Where I think the Holy Spirit really gets energized, though, is in our loving relationships with each other. Where two or three are gathered, right? When we join our efforts to build community, to work for the greater good, to manifest some aspect of the kingdom of heaven, there is something amazing at work, something recognizable yet out of our reach of control. To me, that’s Spirit at work. It’s nearly electric. It’s bright, a beacon of what is at work.

It’s also vulnerable. When we break down barriers to love, we’re at risk for letting things like hurt, shame, doubt, fear, pride, greed, etc., in. Maybe that’s why our baptismal covenant asks us about when we sin and not if. Because if we’re living a Christian life, chances are we’re gonna get hurt and fall and get off course. The important thing, though, is that we get back up and turn again to Lord, remembering that we have important work to do, important work that only we can do.

On January 17th, beloved poet Mary Oliver died at the age of 83. While she spent time honing her skills and practicing her art, she undoubtedly had a gift for written art, for poetry. I say written art because the poems that she wrote take you out into the natural world she loved so dearly, that she spent countless hours wandering in and observing. And a good poet describes the obvious in such a way that it can depict not only the thing that is but also look deeper into it or beyond it to a greater truth, asking without asking about our own experience or encounter.

As Christians, we believe in God, are empowered by the Holy Spirit, and strive to fulfill our lives in service to God through many and varied ministries. We know we are to give glory to God, but each of us needs to ask ourselves how we’re going to do that . . . or maybe how we’re already doing that. The question that comes to my mind is one I see oft-quoted from Mary Oliver from the end of her popular poem “The Summer Day.” If we haven’t before, we need to be asked now, as Oliver does, “What is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” The good of all depends on us.

 

Continue Reading

Whose We Are

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


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

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

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

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

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

But there’s even more to the story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue Reading