We Have All We Need

 

Isaiah 58:1-9 | Psalm 112:1-10 | 1 Corinthians 2:1-12 | Matthew 5:13-20


Knowing how different each of our lives are, I still think I can say with much certainty that we all have a lot on our plate right now. Before we even bring our offering to the Lord’s table, we bring all our anxieties and distress with us when we walk through the door. So, please . . . take a deep breath, drawing in the peace of Christ, and exhale, letting the yoke of all your burdens rest beside you or at your feet, yours to pick up when you leave, if you can’t leave them altogether. Breathe in . . . and out in the luxurious security of this place, with one another, in the presence of Christ. Whatever else is on our plate for today, right now we’re given this time and taking these moments to make way for the light of Christ to break into our reality, perhaps even, as our collect says, to set us free from the bondage of our sins. We need this time more than we realize.

We’re in a place of being perilously close to losing our way, losing our heading of what is true and real.

I share with you a question I was asked on MLK Day. Speaking to a small but beautifully diverse gathering, I was asked sincerely: after all that has happened and is happening, can we be a united people? Sitting here, together, with all our different views, the answer is easy: Of course! We’re all children of God, and we come to the table as one Body in Christ.

But who are we when we’re not gathered on Sunday morning?

The news and media represents all of us as what I call “a hot mess.” Everyone is slapped with a label whether we like it or not, and we navigate our community as part of the majority or minority, the left or the right, the us or the them. A rare news or media outlet will create the safe place of a small group where we can be who we are. Tuesday night at the human trafficking panel, I caught a glimpse of who we are. With care and respect, we delved into a difficult topic. As beloved children of God recognized their woundedness, especially having been harmed by others, they were not helpless victims but strong survivors. Saturated with the Spirit that empowers them to carry on as love warriors, loving of a power greater than themselves and loving of themselves, these women sprinkled their salt generously on those of us present. We couldn’t help but be enriched and hopeful that lives will continue to be touched by grace and saved from harm. However damaged or broken the body might be, the dimmest flicker of light could be tended and kindled to grow ever brighter. At no point did anyone say they did the hard work alone, even though they had to make hard choices for themselves. Their truths sent out ripples of righteousness to all of us gathered.

Beloved child of God we are, but we are also part of a much larger family. We are each of us unique, bestowed with particular gifts and talents, skills and experiences. Unless we have reached a certain point in our life, chances are we’re not sitting still, hiding our light under a bushel.

What are we doing for ourselves and others?

Many of the women who have escaped trafficking or drug abuse find that even getting their life back on track with a steady job, safe home, and healthy kids isn’t as satisfying as reaching back into the darkness to help another escape the pits of destruction. Many today reading the news find that they cannot remain immobile and silent while their neighbors are afraid. That light bearing the brightness of a city on a hill bears the Light of the Body of Christ not to be dampered by the bushels of fear, anger, and indifference the world might try to construct.

Some days we are just trying to breathe under the weight of everything we bear; we’re just trying to survive. Eventually, though, like a candle under a glass jar, the isolation of our self-focus deprives us of the oxygen that fuels our light. Like a single tear dropped into a tub, the saltiness is lost. Even if we’re the most introverted of introverts, we need relationship. We need a friend, a mentor, a teacher. We need the Word, a prayer, and Jesus. We need to listen and be heard. We need to see and be seen.

In our relationships, we have the opportunity to untie some of the complicated knots of deception and injustice, to untangle ourselves from the bondage of sin, of turning away from God, by doing what Jesus tells us to do: to Love. Love God so much we can’t help but love ourselves, and that love is so overwhelming and rich, we can’t keep it all to ourselves but have to share it with others. That doesn’t mean we dance around singing Broadway songs, kissing everyone we meet. It does mean we question our motivations behind our decisions. Is where I spend my money perpetuating justice or enforcing injustice? What am I doing to help release the prisoner trapped either in mind, body, or spirit? Who do I know who is hungry? What am I doing to help feed their hunger? Who needs shelter from whatever storms they are facing? Who is naked and vulnerable? In my wealth and responsibility, what does Jesus command me to do? How can I best love my neighbor?

“Why are you helping me?” someone asked me last week.

“Because you’re a child of God,” I replied, our eyes connecting so he could measure my truth, my heart and soul laid bare.

What are we doing? At our best we are sending out ripples of righteousness not for our sake, not in empty selfish prayers and false piety but for the glory of God, without whom all our works are but dust.

Where do we go from here?

One could say we’re all headed to our death. All living things die as part of our natural order, but we are also a spiritual being. As we move forward in time it seems we make decisions that are either headed toward destruction or restoration, toward isolation or community, toward inadequacy or fulfillment. We move toward death or toward eternal life, to the grave or to the heavenly banquet.

What does it take to move beyond our fear of death long enough to taste true Love, true freedom?

I was reminded of what it feels like to let go in a very physical way when I was at Disneyland just over a week ago. In the 8 hours I was there–from 4pm until midnight–we rode as many rides as we could. Of course not all rides are equal. The caterpillar ride through Alice’s Wonderland differs greatly from the Indiana Jones Adventure ride complete with oncoming boulder I thought I must dodge physically. (I couldn’t get any lower in my seat!) It was on Space Mountain that I felt certain in the twist, turns, and utter darkness that I would die. At one of the crests, I relaxed my death-grip and let my heart leap and expand. In that moment of darkness with pinpricks of light like galaxy stars, I let my eyes be wide open and smiled with peace and sheer joy . . . before being yanked into a valley and slung around another curve, surely going faster than the 35mph the stats say it goes.

As I watched a video being circulated from the New York Times of people at the top of a 10 Meter dive tower, I wondered how different it was for them. They weren’t strapped in a moving vehicle. They climbed the tower stairs and walked to the edge, some more bravely than others. Nearly all the people shown backed away first. Would we willingly take a dangerous plunge? Would we go weak at the knees, or give ourselves a pep talk? Would we give up, declare it an impossibility, and ease ourselves back down the steps we ascended, or would we listen to the encouragement of a friend? Could we dive into the deep end, completely vulnerable, breaking through our irrational yet resounding fear? “I’ll go first,” more than one person said to their companion.

In this high-speed, one-way life of ours, we die many deaths; we take many risks. The Good News, dear Christians, is that we have all that we need to be a people united if we choose to keep moving toward God. We have all that we need to be free, to love fiercely. We have the gift of each other to help us in areas where we are weak, others who are honest, sincere, and righteous. God gave us discerning hearts to know the truth, that we could follow the light and love of Christ and keep moving toward eternal life. This isn’t idealistic spiritual talk; this is our true north. Following the Light, giving glory to God, we’ll not lose our way.

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“What Are You Looking For?”

 

Isaiah 49:1-7 | Psalm 40:1-12 | 1 Corinthians 1:1-9 | John 1:29-42

 

When I was in college, the class that had the most profound influence on my life was a Buddhism class. To be honest, I don’t know why I signed up for it except that I’m sure it fulfilled one of the general requirements and fit in my Freshman schedule. I was a Baptist, newly engaged, almost 19, and an English major. I wasn’t necessarily doing everything by the book, but I was ticking off those things on my life’s to-do list.

One day at the end of one of the Buddhism classes, during which I had asked a question about something, the professor met me at the bottom of the steps in the small classroom auditorium. Looking directly in my eyes, he asked me,

“Where do you come from?”

He asked it slowly and deliberately, like it meant more than what he was simply saying, but there was another student nearby. I needed to get to whatever was next, so I just replied quickly, “Bentonville? In Northwest Arkansas?”–questioningly in case he wasn’t familiar with the state’s geography or in case that wasn’t really what he was asking.

“Where do you come from?” he asked again intently. I didn’t get it. I glanced at the other student who was smiling. He probably got it, but I was clueless. In the rush that is the end of class, other students with hopefully more understandable questions took my place, and I politely and quickly left, still wondering. I told him where I was from. What else could it possibly mean?

+++

John doesn’t give us a description of Jesus’s baptism, how the dove descended or the voice came from heaven. What he gives us is his testimony, testimony that “the Spirit descend(ed) from heaven like a dove” and that “the one who sent (him) to baptize with water said to (him), ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’” [The one who sent him, of course, is God (from 1:6).] I imagine John’s utter excitement when he sees Jesus in the flesh, all the Truth brought to life. I imagine his, “Look, guys! There he is! The Son of God!!” If you’ve ever seen a celebrity somewhere unexpectedly and no one really believed you until they saw for themselves, I figure it’s something akin to that feeling. But this isn’t Julia Roberts or George Clooney. This is the Lamb of God.

Do you think Andrew and his buddy follow Jesus respectfully because what John said makes complete, rational sense? Are they genuinely curious about this man John seems so absolutely certain about, or are they following like would-be bullies? I can’t help but think of Jesus walking past, knowing their hearts, waiting for them to choose to follow. When he turns, they all stop in their tracks, looking intently at one another. And Jesus, with full presence of Spirit, asked the two who followed, “What are you looking for?”

Maybe caught a bit off-guard, they fall back on pleasantries, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” That sounds so much better than saying, “Well, we’re just looking to see if John’s as crazy as he sounds.” Because surely Jesus couldn’t be the one foretold, the Messiah himself? Have you ever done that? Been thinking about something but asked or said something entirely different to mask your true thoughts? It’s awkward and rarely convincing in most cases. Can you imagine trying to pull it off in front of Jesus? Fortunately, Jesus invites the budding disciples to “Come and see” where he’s staying, and they remain with him a while. As they remained with him, the more they came to believe in him. The longer they stayed in his presence, the more assured they were that they had found what they were looking for. They believed enough that they could give their own testimony, as Andrew did when recruiting his brother: “Simon, we’ve found the Messiah!” They hadn’t even given voice to what they were looking for until then. Up to that point, Jesus was showing them who he was by letting them abide in his presence. Being with him, don’t you know they felt the dawning of understanding, the first glimpse that this was the promised deliverer?

Hoping that we’ll stay with him, too, Jesus asks us today,

“What are you looking for?”

And the beautiful thing is that we don’t have to know specifically. We can feel clueless. Maybe we’re looking for the faith–however imperfect it may be–of the apostles. Maybe we’re looking for an occasion for our own testimony, an encounter with the Almighty that transforms our life and gives us a clear heading. Maybe we’re looking for a glimmer of light and hope that will bring us into a truly unified country. Whatever it is, Jesus knows if we draw close to him, we’ll find what we seek. Like a wise teacher, he tells us,

“Come and see.”

We have to understand, though, that just being with Jesus won’t be all sunshine and rainbows. We can pray all day long, “Jesus, I want to be happy; Jesus, I want all my friends and loved ones to be healed; Jesus, if I had just a little more money, life would be so much better . . ., and I promise I’ll give more to the church.” Jesus doesn’t promise that walking with him will lead to happiness and success as we understand it: those things are fleeting. Jesus does, however, mention joy and being made complete, being blessed in the kingdom of heaven–not #blessed on our license plates or social media statuses–being truly blessed when the world is turned upside down … and the leader of our hearts and souls and minds is our Lord and Savior … and we show genuine love for God, our neighbor, and ourselves. People wouldn’t have to wonder who’s “really” Christian then, would they? The song says, “They will know we are Christian by our LOVE.”

What about others looking to us?

What do we tell others who might be inclined to follow us because they see we have something they want, too? I have to admit, I find myself prepping people at the jail for their first experience of our church, our community here in this building. They love what they experience outside these walls and inside theirs at the detention center. “What church is it, again? The Episcopal Church?” they ask. I make sure they know where we are.

But what happens between there and here? After working to build up their worth behind bars, they get released back into the world that broke them in the first place. If they make it into our pews, how do we receive them? “We start our services in silence mainly,” I tell them. “People are going to be dressed up, but not everybody. The choir sits in the back couple of pews. Everything is in the bulletin, but feel free to just watch. We have coffee between services most Sundays…” I wonder if I’ve already scared them from coming in the first place; I’m already apologizing for their first experience.

I should take my cues from Jesus and do like CB does, telling folks to just “Come and See.” If and when others, the stranger, our neighbor comes, we welcome them and remain with them with humble, open hearts. Jesus gave us the best evangelical advice we didn’t know we were asking for. Just “come and see.” Just stay with Jesus a while, and he’ll show us our heart’s deepest yearning. He didn’t say WE would know what that was, but He does. “Abide in me,” doesn’t he say later in John?

We’re not here to boost our membership or pay off mortgages or have the most beautiful stained glass in town (though those things are nice, right?). We’re here to draw close to the Lord and share that Good News to the world. If we’ve ever come close to God, we’ve been touched by the Light and Love of the grace of God, and Spirit lingers with us. And since Jesus already came into the world for us all, we’ve been commissioned to bear that light not to our own loved ones, not just to our nation, but to the world. The least we can do is share it with our neighbor.

For my friends in the jail who are looking for a church, I tell them to go where they feel the presence of God. Because if they don’t experience the presence of God in a church, even our church, I tell them to keep looking. The burden of proof on whether God is in our church, in our homes, in our country lies on each of us. Are we close enough to God through Jesus Christ to be honest about what we’re looking for, to even let our hearts be open to the truth of what we’re looking for?

What are we all looking for, really? The presence of God. Yes, our worldly treasures and lack of suffering make life easier, but that’s surface level. Wanting a better life for others, not just my family and friends, but for those around the world–opportunity and health and safety. That’s good. I want all those things, too, but there’s something deeper, something more. I can’t quite put my finger on it. I’m not sure I can even name it. Maybe because it’s too big, I’m too scared, it’s too much, and it’s not within my power. I’m looking for that ocean of love that is God.

We’re looking for the presence of God, oddly enough, because that’s where we come from. We’re all looking for our way home.

We’re looking to be restored to wholeness, to be transfigured into the likeness of Christ. We’re craving to be the image of God we were created to be. All those who followed Jesus in his day thought he was the Messiah who would deliver them from oppression by the powers that be. But Jesus, the Light of the world, the Light unto all nations, came to show us our way back to God, to show us where we come from, and to show us our way home. Today more than ever, we need to draw real close to Jesus and stay a while in His presence to see what he has to show us.

 

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What Time Is It?

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

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

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

So what time is it, exactly?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Annotated Confession, November 2016

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

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

Most merciful God,

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

we confess that we have sinned against you

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

in thought, word, and deed,

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

by what we have done,

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

and by what we have left undone.

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

We have not loved you with our whole heart;

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

we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.

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

We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.

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

For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,

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

have mercy on us and forgive us,

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

that we may delight in your will,

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

and walk in your ways,

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

to the glory of your Name.

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

Amen.

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

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

Love trumps hate.

 

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

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On Conversion and Climbing Trees

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

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

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

But I was wrong about something.

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

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

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

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

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

Early church father Cyril of Alexandria said,

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

How right he was.

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

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

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

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

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From Our Deepest Hurt to Our Greatest Love

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our faith saves us. Our faith makes us whole.

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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Holy Discomfort

 

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

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

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

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

But Jesus isn’t done.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

* Quotes from the lectures are derived from my lecture notes

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

 

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Shrewd Stewards

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus doesn’t deny the good move.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus keeps teaching us how to use them well.

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Content Machine?

“Become a content machine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Content, indeed.

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Crisis and Good News

 

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

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

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

So, where are we?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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