Unconventional

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 | Psalm 125 | James 2:1-10, [11-13], 14-17 | Mark 7:24-37

As much as we know it to be true that we aren’t perfect, that we can’t do everything or know everything, there’s something in our society that has conditioned us to believe that we can be those things. Our working norm is that we just need x, y, z to get to that better, bigger, happier place.

Think about a baby shower. A whole list of items promises the parent(s)-to-be that everything will be bright, new, and perfect. Those of us who have been through the phase a time or two or four know that really there are just a few essentials you need. Everything else you need is intangible, but you won’t typically find those items on the registry: items like babysitting while you shower/nap, meals and snacks for the family, phone-a-friend permission at 3am when you’re pretty sure your baby is going to starve to death because you can’t tell if they’re nursing properly, a list of resources for a counselor, lactation consultant, mommy groups . . . you get the idea. In fact, if these are the kinds of things you brought to the Pinterest-perfect baby shower, you’d be getting all the strange looks because your gifts were unconventional at best.

Speaking of “unconventional,” the realtor and I were swapping homeopathic remedies the other day, and I told her of a time when we lived in Fayetteville and were having a pizza party, thanks to my husband’s wood-fired oven in the back yard. The rock patio in front of it wasn’t finished yet, so we had a lot of rocks sort of positioned and scattered around, and there were some places in the flagstone that were sheeting off, leaving some very sharp rocks exposed. Along with our hedgeapple tree in the back, the ground was a landmine of dangers for the barefoot kids inevitably running around, no matter how much we told them to wear their shoes.

My oldest refers to this time in our lives as our “hippy” phase. At best we were pretty granola, but I was surrounded by folks inclined to a more natural lifestyle, which suited me just fine. Of course one of my kids cut his foot on one of the rocks, across the bottom of his foot like a crescent. I fretted over whether to take him to the hospital, wondering if they’d really be able to do anything, worried we couldn’t afford the co-pay. One of the lovely, earthy ladies at the party assured me not to worry, that it didn’t look that bad. She asked if I had any onions and clay. (Fortunately my husband was too busy making pizza when this was all suggested!) But in my gut I trusted her, and after cleaning it as best we could, we used the onion skin and clay to make a pack over the wound, wrapping it with plastic wrap to hold it in place. I could check it in the morning.

When morning came, and I wondered if I had lost my mind, I checked the cut and decided we’d take him to the walk-in clinic. You can imagine the look on the doctor’s face when I told her what we’d done. After she wrote a prescription for an antibiotic, she looked at me incredulously. “If I give you this prescription, you will give it to him, right?” “Of course I will,” I told her; I meant it and followed through. And he’s still doing okay, as far as I can tell, and he says he remembers that night. Taking a little unconventional advice saved me a lot of worry and money (which would have been worth it had he been in danger). I still keep clay on hand for spider bites.

When we cross over from the conventional to unconventional, the whole environment feels precarious, doesn’t it? Do we risk ridicule? What will others think? Will it even work? Am we even right? There’s a lot of uncertainty in unconventionality, and above all things, we fear what we don’t know.

These examples, though, aren’t too far outside the realm of normal or acceptability. What we read about in the Gospel according to Mark takes us to a whole other level.

Not only is an unaccompanied woman approaching Jesus and the disciples at table, but she is a Gentile unaccompanied woman. The only thing I could think of similar in our time would be if I entered the men’s worship space of the Bentonville Islamic Center during their Friday prayers and went straight to the Imam to ask for help. “Unconventional” would be a mild word to describe such an action. I couldn’t imagine doing it unless it were a dire emergency, and for this mother, it is. There wasn’t an ER to which she could take her possessed child. In their time and place, the Jewish people, God’s chosen, are the “children,” and everyone else, the Gentiles, are the “dogs.” I don’t think I need to give examples of the racial slurs used today, for even by mentioning their existence, you already are thinking of them. Could you imagine our neighbor the Imam dismissing me in a time of crisis with demeaning words? Could you imagine if we were getting ready for worship when someone came up for help or assistance, and I cast them away, referring to them with a slur of our time while in the same breath referring to our blessedness?

Why is it okay for Jesus to do it? Is it okay?

We want to jump to the end result: the woman stood her ground, and her daughter is healed. Everything worked out okay.

But we can’t skip over the hard realities, and we know there are many ways we can view what is. There’s a reason why we have several news channels, why we even have four gospels. We all interpret our present moment through our particular lenses. Those lenses, in turn, affect how we judge other people’s actions and reactions.

A woman finds Jesus when he’s trying to go unnoticed. She begs for healing for her daughter, but Jesus points out that the children are fed first, that it’s not fair to throw their food to the dogs. But she points out that even the dogs eat the children’s crumbs, and Jesus says that her daughter is healed, cleansed of the demon that had possessed her. The woman returned home and found the demon gone from her child.

As unconventional and unacceptable as it was for the woman to approach Jesus, so, too, was his offering healing to the Gentile woman, someone from the outside. She was an “other” in every sense of the word, yet Jesus extended his healing grace to her and her daughter. When I read this, I acknowledge that Jesus is using unfavorable images and language, but I see him making a statement of their reality, calling out the dissension in the community. He’s calling it out, and even as she recognizes the duality, the conflict, the woman also recognizes her need and the presence of that which will nourish her and her family. It reminds me of the hemorrhaging woman who had nothing else to lose and just needed to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment. They have faith. They believe. They respond wholeheartedly and vulnerably in the presence of Christ, and they are healed.

Jesus had to state what was the contemporary norm, what was considered conventional and acceptable. To us it seems very un-Jesus-like because Jesus is all about standing up for the poor, the sick, and the needy. He is! Yet he was also in the midst of his faithful followers, who were probably shaking their head in agreement with him even as they looked upon the woman with disdain, if they regarded her at all.

But Jesus crosses over into the unconventional when he listens to the distressed woman, engages with her in conversation, and then heals her daughter as she requested. Because no matter what the social norms were or are, Jesus is about doing the will of God, and God is for everyone, even if our society can’t see that or live into it, evidenced in our ongoing disdain and massacre of one another.

Our gospel continues with what seems like another general healing story, a little more graphic than we’re used to, with Jesus plugging a man’s ears and spitting and touching tongues and all, but a healing to be celebrated for sure. Jesus heals the deaf and mute, giving them ears to hear and mouths to speak. He healed them with curious actions–one might say they’re unconventional–and a word unfamiliar to us: “Ephphatha” or “effata,” meaning “Be opened.”

Open ears and open mouths. Jesus is also known to open eyes, too. Those with eyes to see and ears to hear know something about the way of Jesus. Those with open mouths apparently couldn’t keep them closed as they zealously proclaimed the marvelous deeds of Jesus.

Is it another healing story? Yes. Is it more? I believe so.

Even today, we need to know–however we can–what is going on around us, and we need the courage to see it for what it is, even if we have to call it out. Abuse, harassment, fraud, racism, discrimination, bullying–we could be and probably are witness to any of these things on any given day. Unfortunately, it’s been the norm, the convention, not to ruffle any feathers, to pretend we didn’t notice, or to let it go. Whatever we see is the demon in the child, and we are the mother. Do we bind ourselves to conventionality, our societal norms and expectations, to keep things functioning however dysfunctionally so that everything looks okay on the surface? Or do we realize the crisis of the situation? That we’re only as healthy as our weakest member? Do we have the courage of a mother who is willing to go before God saying, “I’m not leaving until you grant me what I need to get through this.”

Giving unconventional baby shower gift certificates and using homeopathic poultices are baby steps compared to the steps Jesus asks us to take as Christians. May our ears be open to hear the direction God calls us toward, our courage be strengthened to stand strong in the face of the adversary, and our love of God be reflected in our true love of neighbor and ourselves. I look forward to the day when such radical love is the norm.

 

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What We Believe & Why We Do What We Do

Song of Solomon 2:8-13 | Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10 | James 1:17-27 | Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

There’s such familiarity in today’s readings that I feel they must be written on our hearts. These words of love, joy, and unity; words of encouragement and instruction; and words of Truth. These are words we live by–what we believe and what we do.

If you look on The Episcopal Church of the United States’ web page, you’ll find this under the “What We Believe” page:

“As Episcopalians we believe in a loving, liberating, and life-giving God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As constituent members of the Anglican Communion in the United States, we are descendants of and partners with the Church of England and the Scottish Episcopal Church, and are part of the third largest group of Christians in the world.

“We believe in following the teachings of Jesus Christ, whose life, death, and resurrection saved the world.

“We have a legacy of inclusion, aspiring to tell and exemplify God’s love for every human being; women and men serve as bishops, priests, and deacons in our church. Laypeople and clergy cooperate as leaders at all levels of our church. Leadership is a gift from God, and can be expressed by all people in our church, regardless of sexual identity or orientation.

“We believe that God loves you – no exceptions.”

(We’ve also copied it onto our web page since it’s pretty concise. Our web page, by the way, is getting a makeover, so check it out and offer us your feedback!)

We are a church grounded in the love of God, and Jesus Christ has shown us the way. There might be images and connotations in Song of Solomon that make us blush, but if we get past our own immaturity and contemplate a yearning and love of God fulfilled and in perfect unity, we get closer to the sentiment the wise words intend. Jesus has this love for the world, for the Church, for us.

We know we’re not perfect, that we are going to fall and let our own desires and the world come between us and God, but Jesus Christ is there for us, showing us the way, and making way for us to return to unity with God. Don’t you know that the writer of the book of James, had his own struggles to deal with? If he didn’t, his words to the people he’s preaching to wouldn’t ring true. (If you came to the video lectures in Christian education, you know that it’s unlikely that one of the apostles James, wrote the book, but what is written contains Truth, regardless of who wrote it.)

We focus a lot on authenticity, right? We shun hypocrisy, what is fake and insincere. Most of us can probably spot it a mile away, smell it like the stinky mushrooms that are invading my flower bed at home. James is being real. He’s saying, “If this is what you believe, then what do you do?” (He can also be read as a what-you-should-be-doing list, but that’s for another time.) The book of James is big on doing, not just believing and talking, and we’re given a quick test for religion that is pure and undefiled: does it “care for orphans and widows in their distress” and “keep (people) unstained by the world”?

I don’t think I’ve met her yet, but someone asked us through our Facebook messenger page,

“What is your church doing in the community to follow the ways of Jesus in supporting the widow, orphan, immigrant, single mother, impoverished, the LGBTQ community, etc?”

Maybe I should have sat and contemplated our ministry roster (that will be updated for our Ministry Fair on the 16th!), but what I did was reply as quickly as I could, as if I were being confronted by “James” himself:

“Thanks so much for reaching out with such poignant questions! Indeed we hope that we are following the Way of Jesus in many ways that directly reach out in love to the very people you name. For widows, there are several in our congregation, and they find community in their midst. Maybe someday we can have a more formal support for them. Outside the church itself, many widows, orphans, strangers, and immigrants are participants in the food pantry at Christ the King (the church we formerly shared space with). They also have a Feast of Grace once a month that is open to all. We’ve also joined up with the HomeTowne Suites feeding ministry that assists all kinds of folks who happen to find the motel their home. We also have our Spanish-speaking congregation, and we don’t ask about immigration status, though we are supportive of efforts to support anyone who needs assistance/support. Padre Guillermo often participates and offers prayers at events for the Hispanic community. I’m working on my Spanish skills! We were the only church from Bentonville that marched in the Pride parade in Fayetteville this June. We are open and affirming of or LGBTQ+ community, and The Episcopal Church offers marriage for LGBTQ+ partnerships.

“This seems really condensed but hopefully gives you a glance at our work made possible by our faith community nourished by Jesus Christ, our worship together to offer praise to God, and the power of the Holy Spirit.”

This was just a list off the top of my head in response to her questions, and this is just a portion of what we do here at All Saints’ because we believe in a triune God and the teachings and salvation of Jesus Christ.

So why do we do what we do? Why is it important that we do what we do authentically? . . . Because if we do good because of true belief and faith in our hearts, what we do won’t stink.

God knows I’m being lazy with those mushrooms by my front door. I get one whiff of them these days, and I grab the hoe (that I just leave by the porch since it must be stinky mushroom season), break them down, and cover them over with the mulch. I’m probably just encouraging their growth right there, saving the flies that spread their spores the trip. But y’all, these mushroom stink, smell like death or rotten meat. They’re gross. You’d have to be crazy to eat them, and I’m pretty sure your hands would stink for days if you touched them. But God has said it doesn’t really matter if what we touch is clean or not. Whatever we bring into our grasp, whatever we put in our bodies is just going to go to the sewer anyway (or perish in its materialism, yes?).

It’s what’s in our hearts that matters. It’s all that God wants. It’s what Jesus Christ already knows.

It’s easier to just make things look pretty on the outside, to cover up the stench with mulch or Glade or Febreeze or the most beautiful church ever, but to be pure and undefiled . . . that’s going to come from our hearts . . . that’s going to get at the source.

We do all that we do because we believe in a Way of Love, and it’s not always easy. It’s going to mean that we have to hold ourselves accountable and worship with people who might have a different opinion than we have, but what holds us together is greater than our worldly discrepancies, if what holds us together is the Love of God.

God also knows that we like things a certain way in The Episcopal Church. But I’m pretty sure we’re not asked anywhere in the scripture which vestments we wear, how centered the altar is, what kind of windows we have, or what kind of coffee we serve. What we are asked is: if we examine the works that we do, what does that say of our faith? What do we believe, and what does that say of our heart? What do we trust to be true in our heart of hearts? God knows, but if we hold up a mirror to ourselves, do we see clearly? Are we willing to be honest about who we are in all our beauty and imperfections? I believe we are. That’s why we confess. That’s why we reconcile ourselves to God through Christ: so we can receive the Body of Christ and go back out into the world in peace, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit to do good work in the name of a true religion that actually practices love. If that kind of thing isn’t for you, then this isn’t the church for you. If that kind of stirs your heart or gives you goosebumps or makes you smile, then stick around. Because we are a church that believes in Jesus Christ, and we can love one another so much because with all our hearts, souls, and mind, we love God. We love what God can do through us and with us. I love what God does with me, when I am weak and when I’m strong . . . but especially when I’m weak. More than true religion, I know true love. God loves me with that love, and I know without a doubt that God loves you with that true love, too.

 

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Power & Transformation

1 Kings 8:1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43 | Psalm 84 | Ephesians 6:10-20 | John 6:56-69

We arrive at the height of King Solomon’s reign today, as we hear how he offers his prayer of dedication for the Temple he was destined to build. We skip over the chapters that offer exquisite detail (in archaic architectural terms) the dimensions of the temple and other things that he has built, but this . . . this is the dwelling place for God–even if it can’t fully contain God–this is going to be the place that all the faithful will come to experience the presence of God. I mentioned last week that this is why anybody goes to temple or to church: to encounter God. The ark is there, containing nothing but the two stone tablets that Moses had put in it at Horeb (1 Kings 8:9). Even as Solomon offers blessing over all the assembly of Israel, it is God who has made covenant with Solomon and all the people: so long as they are obedient and keep God’s statutes and commandments and worship no other God but God Almighty, all shall be well. Keep in mind that we are getting sight of King Solomon at his height. His prayers of dedication don’t just include petitions for the foreigners; he prays that God will hear the prayers of all the people who come to the Temple–heed their prayers and grant forgiveness. Hear the foreigners and any who would convert, but also those who sin against a neighbor, those who anger God and get defeated in battle, those begging for the heavens to open up and rain upon the Promised Land; hear them when there’s plague or famine and when they go to battle against their enemy and if they get captured. This Temple is a place for the presence of God not for God but for the people.

Psalm 84 gives us a sense of the joyful expectation they have in approaching the Temple. The pilgrims approaching the presence of God are happy and joyful. They may not know exactly what they will experience in the presence of the Almighty, but they are glad in heart to have this opportunity after have been distanced for so long. They’ve gotten what they’ve been promised, and all seems pretty good.

It’s pretty good if you’re doing everything right. For me, it all seems very transactional. If we’re good, we’re in; if we’re not, we’re out. How many times of being shut out or kept out before we’re done? You don’t want me in? Fine. I’m out.

I wonder how many people were out before Jesus entered the scene to offer the bread of life.

Jesus has an affinity for those pushed to the outside, to the margins. To the marginalized and to those in power, he invited them to eat his flesh and drink his blood to abide in him and in God the Father. It’s an equal opportunity offer.

Is this teaching difficult? The disciples are complaining. The people in power don’t get it. Jesus knows the hearts of everyone. He’s moved from a transactional mode of just filling the bellies of those who are hungry–as he did with the 5,000–to speaking of the spiritual and eternal life. The flesh, though he’s fed it, is useless.

Does he offend? Of course he does! He’s downplaying the salvation of the ancient Hebrews who were delivered in the desert by the manna from heaven. They were saved, but Jesus just emphasizes the fact that they died–in their flesh. As if being condescending about the exodus weren’t enough, Jesus is pretty offensive in his cannibalistic language (and imagery). Nobody really wants to engage in this.

Want to walk away? Yes. Jesus doesn’t associate with the best people. His concepts are radical and off the wall, if not downright offensive. To follow him is going to draw mostly likely negative attention, and any credibility, honor, or dignity we’ve accumulated in our lives is probably going to be thrown out the window. Any hope or vision of power or grandeur is gone. Nothing about what Jesus says promises the easy life, leisure or comfort. No, it’s easier to stay in our comfort zone than follow Jesus.

But after encountering Jesus Christ, if it’s something that we’ve experienced, most of us can’t deny the experience . . . or the transformation.

Jerry Blassingame was one of the speakers of the “After the Arrest Summit” on Saturday at the NWA Community College. The summit was all about different people and organizations “embracing individuals during incarceration and upon release”; it was all about reentry. Jerry didn’t have an easy life, and when he ended up in prison, he found himself hating life, hating Jesus, and just mad at the world. His sister, a recovering heroin addict, told him that if he ever needed to talk to give her a call. One day he called her. He says she had found Jesus in her life, and she was trying to get him to find Jesus, too. He didn’t want anything to do with it. But soon thereafter, he had someone come by asking if there was anyone who wanted to talk to a minister or if anyone wanted to do a Bible study. Whatever the situation was, there ended up being a minister in his same cell or pod for 10 days (because the minister had been in contempt of court while advocating for someone). In those 10 days, he engaged in Scripture and prayed with this minister. When the minister left, he continued to get up at 6:00 in the morning to study the Bible and to journal, visioning what it was that the Holy Spirit was giving him to do. He said that the whole idea for the program that he now runs was envisioned in the three and a half years of his incarceration. When he got out, he put his entrepreneurial skills to work. He said he was business savvy. Someone brought him $10 worth of dope, he split it to make $20 and kept dividing and multiplying it. At one point, he had people dropping $10k on his table as his cut of sales without him ever having to do anything. He sold dope for 10 years, and as a friend at my table said, he had to be good and smart to do it for 10 years and still be alive. All he said was, people coming out of prison have skills, too. We just have to tap into their savvy to unlock their power.

So what do we do with an encounter with God? After having experienced Christ? Do we hide it under a bushel? Do we let all the ways we’ve gone wrong in our life let us diminish the abilities we have to do good? After our mountain top experience, we might find that the long haul is hard and uncomfortable, and maybe we would rather walk away. But, we’ve tasted and seen that God is good. We’ve experienced the presence of Christ and the peace that washes over us when we’re on our knees in doubt and despair. Or maybe we’ve encountered God even in the midst of a horrific death or maybe in the most holy of deaths. In moments of grace and generosity and hospitality, maybe we’ve witnessed a love that knows no bounds, and we can’t explain how or why, but we know that the presence of God, the love of Christ, is all entwined in that very moment.

Having experienced those moments, we’re like Peter. Jesus might ask us if we’d like to walk away, but we’re like: “Where would we go? To whom would we turn?”

The power of Spirit compels us to hold our ground, to do the unimaginable thing — whatever it is. Right now it looks like maybe we’ve reached a tipping point in the  community ethic because right now more than every, we are working together as one Body to benefit the common good. The “After the Arrest Summit” was a collaborative effort of many organizations, people, and organizations, and the faith traditions of the people–though Christian–spanned the spectrum. Coming up on Sept. 6th, HARK is holding an all-faiths summit to spread information on how we can all work together to benefit our neighbors. I was talking to the warden from Fayetteville, and she said this was the first event in Arkansas that we’ve held but that now was the time. I wondered with her if maybe we’ve just reached a tipping point. When 11,000 people are being released from jail or prison in Arkansas each year, we have a critical mass at play. When 53% of those end up being incarcerated again, I’d say we have a failing system that needs to change. Something’s not working.

Some might say that the evil powers that be are winning, that the forces of good can’t keep up. I disagree. We’re still standing, those of us who put on the armor of God and do our best to do the good work, to stand for our neighbors and to give glory to God. We might not be glamorous, but we’re not dead yet . . . nor will we ever be so long as we keep coming back to Christ, like Jerry feeding on the Word every morning or every day. All the time we remember that whatever we face is not our battle alone.

We don’t rely on the wisdom of Solomon or any one person to see us through this life and into eternity. We seek out the peace and love that passes all understanding in the presence of God. We take it in in the only way we know how: through the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation. We tap into the power given to us through the water of our baptism to claim the power the Holy Spirit has given us. We don’t realize how strong we are, how powerful we are, until we rise to the challenges before us and pray that God lead us through. There’s no place we’ll go that God hasn’t already seen a way through. And if, like Peter, we’ve come to believe and know that Jesus Christ is the Holy One of God, then who else would we rather follow to lead us along our way? No matter how little we feel we understand, how offended we get with our fragile egos, how much we want to call it quits, we know the power of a life transformed by the presence of Christ. With that, where else would we go but toward the light and love of Christ.

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Being Filled

1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14 | Psalm 111 | Ephesians 5:15-20 | John 6:51-58

One of my favorite stories that I remember reading about Zen Buddhism is the story of the student who finally gets the chance to go to the master teacher so he can “get” it. Whatever books he’s read or classes he’s taken or meditations he’s done, this is his chance to learn from the Master. So the teacher invites the student serve the tea, and he’ll tell him when to stop. As the student pours the tea, he slows as he nears the top of the cup, but he keeps pouring as he is an obedient student. As the tea overflows the cup and spills onto the table and floor, he can’t take it anymore. “Teacher, the cup overflows; it’s making a mess.” (I’m completely paraphrasing this story!) The teacher looks intently at the student. “How can you learn anything when your mind is so full? There is no room for anything else.” I imagine the teacher pouring the tea onto the floor, placing the empty cup on the table and saying something like: “Now, we begin.” This empty cup is like the “beginner’s mind” that you might have heard of before. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind is the title of Shunryu Suzuki’s book of collected talks (because Zen Buddhists don’t give sermons or homilies; they give dharma talks or just talks; this one is particularly about Buddhist practice). The beginner’s mind, like the empty cup, is ready to be filled.

I thought of this story in the midst of our “Bread of Life” section of the lectionary because it seems like Jesus is absolutely trying to fill us with the Good News that he is the Bread of Life. Each week, as we read a different section of the gospel, we’ve poured out our cup to be ready for a new lesson, but we’ve kept a little from the previous week, a rich flavorful bit.

But we don’t really have a beginner’s mind, even if we have forgotten all we heard last week. Like the Jews last week who thought they knew where and who Jesus was from and even the Jews this week who think they know what it means to eat flesh and drink blood, we, too, know a lot–or at least think we know a lot–about religion, life, and everything else. Our cups, our minds, are pretty full. Or, our minds can be full of figurative scar tissue or barricades, so damaged are they from bad theology or abuse. We could have been taught that we’re too far gone for redemption, not good enough, and/or that God’s love is conditional. The Bible, the “Word of God” could have been used to alienate or abuse us and others we care about. Even if we had room in our mind or our teacup, we wouldn’t want anything from the religion department to come anywhere close.

We might not have tea ceremonies in The Episcopal Church, but our worship follows the same structure–the same liturgy–week after week to provide stability, security, and predictability (at least in form) for us to settle in our place and let God abide in our midst. In A Hidden Wholeness, former educator and writer, a Quaker named Parker Palmer, writes about the soul of a person being like a wild animal in the woods. I picture a fox. For us to be able to get a glimpse of this animal, we have to be really still and patient, unobtrusive and gentle even in our presence. Even if we think we have them tamed in our certainty and knowledge or have them caged away in fear that they might be endangered, this soul still yearns to encounter God. In fact, studies have shown that while most people these days don’t identify as religious, they still have a sense of awe, experiences that kindle wonder, and a recent study shows that it’s not fancy coffee, shiny lights, or the perfect music program that bring people to church.

People come to church to encounter the presence of God.

I hope this is true or has been true for you here at our church.

Because an encounter with the presence of God strengthens faith and belief or maybe gives it to us for the first time. Venturing out in vulnerability, whether we’re a wild fox or proud student, we risk encountering the presence of Christ: maybe it’s with outstretched hands to receive the Body and Blood and not fully understanding how this feeds us but knowing that it does. Jesus asks us only to believe to be able to be fed by him. He fed the 5,000 physically. When I was dropping my son off for school the other day, I lamented that he hadn’t had breakfast. “It’s alright, mom,” he said. “We have Eucharist at 10:00, anyway. Isn’t that supposed to fill me up?” He’s a smart alec, but at least I get the idea that he’s paying attention to what’s said in church!

What’s important for us today is to know that through our belief in Jesus Christ, we are fed eternally, in a way that’s not to be replicated or substituted by anything. Like a mother’s milk for her baby, Christ nourishes our spirit with exactly what we need, individually, and strengthens us for whatever might threaten our wellbeing. Whatever we try to substitute for to fill our hunger for the spiritual food, we’ll soon realize we’re a bottomless pit, never satiated or satisfied. For Christians, Jesus truly is the Bread of Life–that which fills us and draws us nearer to the presence of God if we dare to believe such Good News.

Being nurtured and nourished in our belief, could we respond like Solomon if God appeared to us in a dream and asked us what we wanted God to give us? Solomon apparently gave God a good answer when he asked for a wise and discerning mind because God also goes ahead and gives him the health and riches that most everyone else would have wished for. But in the reading, we’re given insight into Solomon’s thought process. Before Solomon responds to God, he thinks about where he comes from: from King David, the mostly faithful, righteous, and upright servant of the LORD. Solomon has huge shoes to fill in following David. Solomon also ponders the reality of the situation, what is at the moment: God is, as ever, faithful in the covenant established with David and the chosen people. Then Solomon realizes who he is: a humble servant chosen for a daunting task, leading the multitudes of God’s chosen people. Does he really have the qualifications for this? What does he need for this impossible mission? An understanding and discerning mind. God agrees.

At the clergy wellness program Padre and I attended this week, one of the leaders was a Native American woman from Arizona. As she shared her stories, I imagined her going through a similar thought process as Solomon if God appeared to her. She’s actually a canon in her diocese for Native peoples. I believe she said there are 12 tribes represented in her diocese. She knows where she comes from. Arizona is her home; she belongs to one of the tribes; and she knows that her people and others like her have been severely under-represented in our religious tradition (as well as others). She told me that she is one of two such canons in the country since budget cuts have taken their toll, but she knows that the Native people need advocates, that awareness of their ways needs to spread before it is lost, and that there is much work of reconciliation yet to be done. She describes who she is with openness; she wears multiple hats, and even with all her work, she takes care of her 86-year-old mother whom she lives with. If God showed up to her in a dream and asked her what she asked of God, I’m sure there are many things that she could ask for, but it would not be a stretch to imagine her responding with a request for a wise and discerning mind, so that she could accomplish the mountain of responsibilities she carries.

What would we ask for if God appeared to us in a dream? If God asked what All Saints’ wanted from God? (If God appears to you and asks, please let me share a list!) Of course we know the correct answer: an understanding and discerning mind. But we can go through Solomon’s thought process to get there. Where do we come from? A twinkle in the Bishop’s eye? The effort of the community 11 years ago to pull All Saints’ together here in Bentonville? Even more than that, we come from the diocese, from the national church, from the Anglican Communion, from a rich tradition that bears all the hallmarks of triumphs and struggles of living faithfully in relationship with God. What is now? There are a plethora of opportunities and potentialities before us in regard to our ministries, our worship space, and our involvement in the community. Who are we? We are an open, welcoming community, willing to engage in difficult questions and to be good neighbors, loving as Jesus taught us to love. What do we ask for going forward as we strive to be the Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement in Bentonville? Even before we need millions of dollars, we need wisdom that comes from an understanding and discerning mind.

Even though God said there was no king before and no king after that had the wisdom of Solomon, we can be thankful that we’re given this clue for how to make wise decisions. Within the process, there’s a good dose of humility and honesty, which we all have the potential to embody. Whether we encounter God in a dream, in church, or in a teachable moment, I hope we all have that beginner’s mind that’s ready to be filled with the fullness of God, in all its glory and mystery.

 

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Little Big Instructions

2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33 | Psalm 130 | Ephesians 4:25-5:2 | John 6:35, 41-51

Maybe because it’s back to school time, but I get a feeling from the letter to the Ephesians that this is an “All-I-really-need-to-know-I-learned-in-kindergarten” kind of lesson. There are, of course, posters of the kindergarten lessons that Robert Fulghum found particularly book-worthy, and you can look those up later, but we could also make a poster from Ephesians, I believe. We could call it a “How to Get Along” poster, and on it we’d put:

Speak the truth.

 

We’re in this together–all of us.

 

It’s okay to be angry–just don’t sin.

 

Keep your anger in the light.

 

Be so filled with good that there’s no room for evil.

 

Work honestly.

 

Share.

 

Build one another up.

 

Speak grace.

 

Be kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving.

Live in love.

Or maybe we’d call the poster “How to Live in Love.” Either way, these are as good for us as they were for the church in Ephesus.

We can see how this list pinpoints how David went awry, followed by his sons. For all that they did wrong themselves, even with forgiveness at play after the fact, there were dreadful consequences. We don’t read the in-between to get the backstory for Absalom’s death, and it’s certainly not kindergarten-appropriate. Suffice it to say that if you read Second Samuel between last week’s (Ch. 11) and this week’s readings (Ch. 18), including all the verses skipped in our lectionary, you’d read a sampling of the stories which often turn people away from the Bible. It’s like learning about those from whom you are descended but whom no one really likes to talk about–the parts of the family tree that are left to get overgrown and hopefully overshadowed by the healthier branches.

Basically, Absalom rose up to rebel against his father, even after he had been brought back into his father’s good favor, and we know from today’s reading it ended badly for Absalom. Ironically, it was Joab who facilitated the reconciliation between Absalom and David, and then it was Joab who dealt the first of many death blows Absalom received. Our history, even that of our religious family, is harsh and violent, full of hubris.

Most of us know this and realize this. It’s knowing our past, our history, and what we are capable of that prevents us from making the same mistakes, right? Until we truly learn from our mistakes, though, we get to repeat the reel. Until we truly know and understand, we’re likely to slip into familiar ruts and get stuck or commit grievous mistakes that wreak havoc in our relationships.

We may think we know, but really we haven’t a clue.

The self-confident knowing of those who heard Jesus claiming to be the bread of life did not serve them well. These people are described as Jews who knew Joseph and Mary, so they think they also know who Jesus is. These are most likely faithful Jews, like Mary and Joseph. They’ve seen each other at synagogue, said prayers with them, attended festivals, but now Jesus is off the rails, claiming a different father, hearkening to the Almighty. Jesus even claims–in his flesh–to be greater than the manna that rained from heaven to save their ancestors through the Exodus.

How dare he.

Jesus challenges what they believe at the very foundation, with something as simple as bread. The Almighty One had saved the Hebrews through the desert with a bread from heaven, and true enough they all died. Jesus is now saying that he is the Bread of Life, “the living bread that came down from heaven” so that “whoever eats of (him) will live forever.”

From where they’re standing, from all they understand and think they know, Jesus isn’t making any kind of sense–no more than telling a preschooler to share with everyone the brand new box of markers that their mama bought especially for them. Sometimes we can’t reasonably explain what is, whether it’s because we can’t comprehend given our personal limitations or whether it’s because we can’t fully comprehend the Mystery that’s at play.

Jesus is following all the guidelines for getting along with others; he’s already in the midst of the relationships. It’s on the side of others that things get tricky. The Jews to whom Jesus is speaking think they know who Jesus is. They also understand their lives centered in their Jewish faith, steeped in the stories of their people, their ancestors. When Jesus steps up to say again, “I am the bread of life,” they don’t understand his truthful speech; it doesn’t resonate with them but rather challenges them. Rather than seek to build one another up, the rest of the gospel according to John reveals how they seek to destroy this one who challenges what they have understood all their lives.

In our tradition, we trust that all unfolded as Scripture intended, and even the crucifixion of Jesus gave way to a life triumphant. “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh,” Jesus says. The Word of God made incarnate was not so much taken as offered in an act of divine, ultimate, self-sacrificial love, and each time we come to the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Great Thanksgiving, our Holy Eucharist, we partake again in the Presence of the one who gives us life, not only in body but also in Spirit. There’s nothing we can do to earn the grace and mercy already given to us, but if we believe, then the life lived in God through Christ is ours to be had.

Such a blessed life doesn’t mean that we’ll always live life in love. From the early decades following the resurrection, the apostles and Paul and those documenting events reveal how the faithful strive to navigate church politics and difficult relationships. Surely they fall back on the Ten Commandments and societal laws upholding the common good, and they outline these ethical codes to help guide the morale of the whole. Their intent is to keep the Body, with all its members, in unity and accord. Remember the call given to all and the plea to maintain the unity of the Spirit through the bonds of peace, as we heard last week in Ephesians (4:3). Consequences of not living into the life of love resemble the sorrow and heartbreak we hear from King David in Ps. 51 and today’s Ps. 130. But no matter how desperate we become or how horrible we’ve been, our belief holds us within God’s embrace, God’s presence. In our desperation, we, too, can wait for the LORD, “more than watchmenfor the morning.”

Click on the image for the artist Melanie Pyke’s explanation for her take on Ps. 130.

What might that look like? What do we wait for “more than watchmen for the morning”? What do we yearn for so much that we’d stay awake through the deepest darkness and wait in anticipation for the slightest ray of light? When it comes to our relationships with one another, as we start school and enter the midterm elections, what does it feel like or look like to let our soul wait for the LORD first, before we interject all we think we know into our relationships?

If we wait for the LORD first, before we make any sort of declaration or assumption, we more humbly take our next step. Maybe that’s closer to the person near to us, or maybe it’s taking a few more steps around the person who doesn’t want to engage in a loving relationship right now. God’s time so often isn’t set to the agenda we have or want. But God’s time is filled with grace and patience as we struggle to remember what it is that our teachers taught us in kindergarten and what it is that God’s already written on our hearts for how to live life fully, nourished by Jesus Christ.

 

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Calling All Christians

2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a | Psalm 51:1-13 | Ephesians 4:1-16 | John 6:24-35

One of my downtime go-to’s, like many people’s, is to watch a show on Netflix. If I could, I’m sure I’d be one of those folks who binge-watches an entire season or four in a day, but my life doesn’t really allow for that. So I enjoy watching a show now and then, and I really like it when I get to share that time with my family (which is usually when I watch something). Recently, a new season of “Anne with an E” came out, and I’m delighted to watch this show with my daughter. Not only do I feel like it’s created beautifully, but it takes my love for Anne of Green Gables from when I was a child and gives me a medium to share it with at least one of my children. In this new series, they’ve taken lots of creative license to flesh out the characters and further develop the side stories that I don’t recall in the books (most likely because they’re not there). One of those stories is about Gilbert Blythe, with whom Anne has a love-hate relationship in their adolescence. The series portrays him attending a birth in a foreign land where the ship he’s working on is at port. There’s something in his presence of mind, skill, and success in that moment that plants a seed for what’s to come, that being his interest in medicine and his eventual profession as a doctor. One might say that he has a “calling” to be a doctor, just as I have a calling to be a priest, Krista a musician, others teachers, nurses, attorneys, care-providers, parents, analysts, managers, and on and on. We all have a vocational calling, whether we are able find it and live into it or not. We have gifts, talents, and skills particular to us to help fill a need in our world.

But have you ever thought about your spiritual calling, “the calling to which you have been called,” as the letter to the Ephesians says? Each of us has been called to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” and to participate and grow in the Body of Christ in love. Fortunately, this calling aligns with our mission: “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”

Chances are, we don’t sit around the dinner table and check in with each other about how we’re doing with this calling, with our mission, but that’s why we come to church–to get a Word from God and be fed by Jesus. Because we know that things are out of kilter in our world, in our lives, and as we strive to live a life centered and grounded in Christ, we know we need not only God’s continual mercy but also the help, protection, and goodness that comes from being a part of something much bigger than ourselves.

While I hope it’s not the case for any of us here, we know that there are people for whom the story of David resonates. David, as called as anyone, if not more so because he was chosen by God to be king, is a leader of nations, is beautiful, mighty, and powerful: so powerful was he that he not only had what he needed, but he took what he wanted. He did not ask God’s consent in taking Bathsheba; we don’t have account that he even asked Bathsheba’s consent. David certainly didn’t ask God about taking Uriah’s life, either. David, called and anointed to be king over Israel, in our reading today gets called out by the prophet Nathan. Perhaps it was only through a parable that David could so quickly judge, so blinded and ensnared had he become to his own wrongdoing. But when the wrong of another was understood, then Nathan held up the truth of the matter like a mirror, saying in all boldness and righteousness: “You are the man!” David admits to Nathan: “I have sinned against the LORD.”

It’s easy for us to see how David had disrupted the unity among God’s people, going against the calling of our lives lived in God. What’s done is done, but we hear in Psalm 51 the repentance, David’s turning toward God in prayer. It’s easy to imagine the voice of a king, so proud and powerful, actually taking on the posture of body and spirit with humility and gentleness. When any of us lose our way, that’s what repentance and reconciliation offer us, the means through which to acknowledge the error of our ways and the path toward a life lived worthy of our calling as children of God.

Many of us get on unstable ground when we start thinking of our worthiness of God’s grace and mercy. I attribute this largely to the fact that many of us were taught that God’s grace and mercy are conditional; only if we do or don’t do certain things are we assured to receive God’s blessing.

Fortunately, God is greater than our fragile egos and misshapen theology.

Even though Jesus seems to be getting a little irritated with the masses, his compassion never wavers. They came to Jesus in their illness, discontent, dis-ease, and/or curiosity. They were fed, and Jesus calls them out for coming back to him for more food to fill their bellies. (Maybe they’re even more like sheep than he originally thought!) But these are children of God, too, who are called to be fed and nourished by Jesus Christ. These are people for whom Jesus came to show the Way of Love; they are people called to live in unity, giving glory to God. The thing is that the people don’t know their power. They probably don’t know their worthiness, either. In a culture where only the high priests approach the altar, where sacrifices were required for atonement, where there were probably more limitations as to what one could do rather than possibilities, it’s understandable that they wouldn’t see their potential, their calling to be a vital part of the spiritual presence on earth.

I wonder how many people feel that way today. Or, if people do open up with humility and gentleness, patience and love, I wonder how many are overwhelmed and turn away from the suffering and turn toward the imaginary stories on t.v. from the comfort of our homes.

No matter what we’ve done or what we don’t know, we all now know that we are called–from our baptism–to lead a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called. We are born of the image of God to maintain the unity of Spirit in peace and to build up the Body of Christ–the Church–in love. It’s so simple that it’s hard because we might find ourselves like Paul, a prisoner in the Lord, bound in willing servitude to glorify God, freely giving our lives over to God’s will.

There’s not one right way to do this.

At the vestry retreat we had last weekend, I asked our Vestry if they had ever done a spiritual gifts inventory. They all just kind of looked at me, and our Senior Warden kindly reminded me that their vocational world isn’t necessarily like mine, where my vocational and spiritual callings are intertwined. I also asked if the Vestry had thought about their leadership strengths and weaknesses in relation to their service in the church. Most hadn’t, even though many have been using their strengths already. The first step, though, was creating an awareness of gifts and strengths that are readily available, if not already in practice. Next steps include identifying where, when, and how those gifts might be shared or required.

In all this talk of “calling,” we’re likely to miss the crucial component of listening. David’s pride could have prevented him from hearing and truly understanding Nathan’s parable. Jesus’s call to the people that he is “the bread of life,” that all who come to him will never be hungry and all who believe in him will never be thirsty, could have–and may have–turned away those who only had ears to hear promises of fast food and quick fixes.

So as you’ve listened this day and been made aware of your spiritual calling to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace and to build up the Body of Christ in love, what do you hear the Holy Spirit stirring within you? What gifts do you know that you have? Are you curious to know more? (Because we’ll do a similar spiritual gifts inventory in Christian Education within the next year.) Do you need the exercise of repentance and reconciliation to get back on track, or do you just need to engage in the knowledge that your life–each of our lives–have value and purpose in building up the Body of Christ?

God knows I don’t have all the answers for myself or for each of you, but God knows that I am a willing participant and patient shepherd, fed and nourished like you by Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God.

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Extraordinary Glory & Grace

2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a  | Psalm 51:1-13 | Ephesians 4:1-16 | John 6:24-35

Reading to our children when they were younger reminded my husband and me about our favorite stories when we were early readers. Some of my favorites included a Disney story about Goofy breaking a curse, the Amelia Bedilia stories, and one of my favorite picture books Strega Nona by Tomie DePaola. “Strega Nona” means “grandma witch,” and in the story she’s the person everyone in the Italian village goes to see when they need healing or a cure, even the priests and nuns. In this fantasy story, she uses potions and spells to work her magic. She takes on an apprentice of sorts who ends up mis-using a spell he heard her say. He wanted to be praised like Strega Nona, but he missed a key ingredient.* Fortunately, Strega Nona arrives home just in time to save the day.

My husband’s favorite story is naturally much more realistic. You’ve probably heard the folktale “Stone Soup.” Three weary travelers come to a town, and the villagers predict that they’re going to be hungry and beg for food: so they hide. But these travelers are clever, and they make a big show of preparing their special soup, for which they proclaim there will be enough for everyone. Someone brings out a big pot and firewood. They boil water and—very dramatically—drop in the three special stones.

At each taste, the soup is delicious but could do with just a little more of something–from salt and pepper, to carrots, to potatoes, fish, and barley. Each time it’s another villager who is willing to come out of hiding to contribute to this obviously mouth-watering soup. By the time the last ingredients have been added, of course there’s more than enough for everyone. The whole village has contributed to the concoction, and the strangers share the feast with everyone before the night is done.

Whether we read the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 as a fantastic miracleor as a miracle that everyone shared what they had to make for an abundant feast for all, there’s no doubt that the gift revealed something about the grace and glory of God. And it gets us right in our gut.

We all need food. If we’re too hungry, we can’t focus. We need to be fed not only spiritually but physically. Last week, Jesus taught many things to the multitudes, and this week we revisit the scene and know that he also fed the people—in body and spirit.

But he doesn’t do it alone, even though he could. Like the clever travelers with their stone soup, Jesus knows what he will do from the beginning, but he includes his disciples in the wondering. “Where are we going to get food?” What is the cost calculation? How can we make do with what we have? Ah, look what that child has. The gift of God’s grace is so often in the unexpected, among the least of these. We get to think outside the box. Like our lesson last week, we really sometimes just need to step back and let God work in our midst, let God’s will be revealed. It is God’s will that there be enough for everyone, which there is, but everyone has to participate and cooperate for there to be enough to go around, yes?

Thank God for all the food banks, pantries, kitchens, trucks, and volunteers that work to feed the masses today, especially considering that about 19% of people are food insecure in Northwest Arkansas. One in four children are hungry or food insecure right here in our communities. One.in.four.

It was a boy that the apostle Andrew spotted who had loaves and fishes. Jesus looked to the child with the five barley loaves and two fish. Jesus took the loaves and gave thanks for them and distributed them. He did the same with the fish. He gave thanks, and he gave them to all who were seated. This pattern is familiar to us, this giving thanks, which the Greeks call eucharistia, and from which we derive our word “Eucharist,” our Great Thanksgiving.

What if that boy was one of our four children who is hungry? What if that boy had been gifted those treasures when he was hungry? What if that boy had hidden like the villagers at the beginning of the stone soup story?

Fortunately for all, the boy gave his gifts to Jesus, who then took the food and multiplied it for the masses. While it’s not the same, I get a similar feeling of such a miracle when I attend the Feast of Grace at Christ the King on the fourth Wednesday (like this last week when our loaves and fishes looked like hot dogs and buns), and I know it will feel that way when we go to HomeTowne Suites this Tuesday. We give thanks to God for the gifts that have been given and shared, and we feed those who are hungry, all to the glory of God. There’s enough.

Danger lurks wherever we hoard our gifts or dare to claim the glory for ourselves. If we hide our treasures, we hurt our neighbor who suffers in hunger. If we seek glory or manipulate circumstances for our benefit, we not only hurt others but also ourselves (such was the case for the young apprentice in Strega Nona, and it’s definitely the case with David and Uriah). When Jesus realized the people were going to force him into the role they wanted, expected, or even hoped for, he withdrew. He left to the mountain. The people wanted a worldly deliverer to save them from Rome; they wanted a messiah. But the people did not yet understand God’s glory and grace revealed to them, even if they had just experienced, very tangibly, a taste of it for themselves.

In case we, too, miss the revelation of God in the feeding of the 5,000, we get another sign of the presence of God when Jesus walks on water. Is the miracle solely that he walks on water, about four miles worth? The disciples in the boat are afraid as the storm rages around them. Jesus pronounces: “It is I; do not be afraid,” recalling to mind the words of God to Moses: “I am.” Jesus declares His presence, and immediately they arrive at their destination, safely. Again, the grace and glory of God has been revealed on God’s terms and in a very tangible way. These are signs of God in the midst of the people. These are signs that Jesus is God incarnate, Word made flesh. This is Jesus living into his mission: to make God known.

These next few weeks in our lectionary, the Gospel lessons will focus on Jesus being the Bread of life. We’ll see how many ways we depend upon Jesus Christ as our source of life. But this week, we get to delight in the memorable stories of Jesus doing amazing things with grace and in glory for no other reason than for revealing God to the people who are seeking something. The beauty of these stories is that they still happen today, when we gather around a table, when we feast together, giving thanks to God. Certainly we, too, are carried through the storms in our life in ways that in hindsight we have no idea how we made it through but for the grace of God revealed to us in the kindness and help of others and strength and perseverance we didn’t know we were capable of; God is, and God is with us.

It may be easier to believe that Jesus performed miracles at a particular place and time and that they just can’t happen today; the miracles are just really great stories for us to remember Jesus in his glory. But I think that mindset severs us from divine imagination and limits our hope and possibilities. Let us not forget Paul’s prayer to the Ephesians, a prayer equally suited for us:

“I pray that . . . Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.  . . . I pray that you may . . . know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God,” for truly it is God’s “work within us (that) is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.”

Amen.

 

*The missing ingredient from Strega Nona is the three kisses the grandma blows over her clay pot to end her work.

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Holy Rest

2 Samuel 7:1-14a | Psalm 89:20-37 | Ephesians 2:11-22 | Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Last week, I spoke about The Way of Love practices that Presiding Bishop Michael Curry shared at General Convention. Christians use these practices to live a Jesus-centered life, and I realized as I reflected upon them, most of them are already built into my life, as I hope they are in yours. It’s up to us to determine how well we tend to the practices and how deliberate we are about keeping God first in our priorities. As one of the preachers said at convention, we know what we need to do to be closer to Jesus, to be healthy and whole . . . we just so often don’t do it.

The disciples gathered around Jesus, however, are excited to tell him all that they’ve done because they’re living into the holy Way of Jesus. Just a bit earlier in the Gospel according to Mark, Jesus sent the disciples out two-by-two to exorcise demons, to anoint and heal the sick in mind, body, and spirit. They worked hard in the name of Jesus, and while they’re probably not perfect, they are excited for the work they’ve done well. Now as they gather with their beloved teacher and Lord, Jesus tells them it’s time to rest.

“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while,” Jesus says (Mk 6:31).

So, with the invitation to rest coming directly from Jesus, I expect the disciples to cross the sea or the bay and set up camp, sharing stories from their work and settling into a peaceful and quiet rest for the night.

But is that what happens? Of course not. The good news of the work that the disciples and Jesus have been doing has already spread. People have noticed; they’ve been paying attention. Everyone now, it would seem, has heard about Jesus and the disciples, and apparently everyone needs something made right or whole again. The multitudes not only follow Jesus and the disciples, but they arrive in advance, too. They’re waiting for them before they get to the previously-deserted place, anticipating watching someone be healed if not being healed themselves.

Even though he’s already declared that it’s time for the disciples to rest, Jesus doesn’t send the crowd away. Jesus knows the multitudes wait for him, and when he sees them, he has “compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mk 6:34). Then, Jesus teaches them, this crowd of seekers.

I have sympathy for the weary disciples because I know the looks on my children’s faces when we are somewhere and someone stops me to talk or I have another event to attend before we can go home. They reach a point when they just cannot go any further, and their patience is all used up. In the part of the gospel we don’t read this week, the disciples actually decide at one point that it’s time for the crowd to leave so the disciples can eat and rest. I imagine it’s probably Peter because he has a way of saying or doing what we’re likely to do ourselves, for better or for worse. We get more of this next week–what Jesus does in the meantime among the crowd–but this week, our emphasis is on Jesus having compassion for the crowds. We read that he not only teaches the crowd on this side who need a shepherd to lead them, but he also returns to the marketplace on the other side to continue to heal those who even touch the hem of his garment.

Does this mean that when it’s time to rest, if we truly want to be like Jesus, we have to keep going and run ourselves into the ground?

Absolutely not. Not at all.

Jesus has told the disciples it’s time to rest. Jesus didn’t say he was quitting any time soon.

Even after a long day . . . after many days of healing, Jesus continues to show compassion on those who need him. The people were like shepherd without a sheep, like children without a mother, like plants without water. The crowds needed Jesus more than they knew. However earnest the disciples were, they were tired, and like us, they probably thought they should help. But for all of us, we have to rest. For all of us, we follow the rhythm of nature, resting at night, and maybe even becoming dormant for a while, while the greater energy of God breathes through all of Creation.

There’s no way the disciples themselves could have taught and healed the crowds on their own, and truthfully, Jesus only sent them out to do the work they were able to do. Sometimes we get ahead of ourselves or think too highly of ourselves and think we know what God needs us to do. David’s desire to build a temple for God in our reading from Second Samuel illustrates that point. David, however joyful and grateful he was for God, thought he knew what needed to be done for God. Even Nathan the prophet thought it sounded like a good idea . . . until Nathan listened to the Word of God and received wisdom to the contrary. It wasn’t God’s will that David would build the temple but that it would be his son. We show our faithfulness in many ways, and humility is one of them. Stepping out of the spotlight is often a good idea, as we know that the glory of all our successes and accomplishments are hopefully to the glory of God.

So it is when we rest and step back and let God do God’s work as God wills it, not necessarily how we expect it to be or even how we want it to be.

As we participate in the Baptized for Life program, we begin with a survey that asks each of us where we are in relation to our spiritual life: how spiritually mature we feel, how well we think All Saints’/Todos los Santos meets our needs, how encouraged we are to live as faithful Christians, as disciples. I’m sure if I asked each of you what you envision for the future of All Saints’/Todos los Santos, there would be recurring themes and similarities, but ultimately you would have a particular vision of what worship looked like or sounded like, what programs we offered, and what our church building might be like.

Our individual particularities add spice to our congregation and community, and I believe they also give opportunity for the Holy Spirit to show up in creativity and imagination. We need this kind of energy and possibility. But it is in the collective similarities that strengthen the bond of what holds us together. At the heart of our recurring themes for our experiences of All Saints’/Todos los Santos, I hope it is the love of God that energizes us. I hope that it is the desire for a life restored in Jesus Christ that motivates us to live The Way of Love, knowing that exactly how we do that individually is going to vary greatly. I hope it is a deep trust and faith in the wisdom of the Holy Spirit that truly unites us as the Body of Christ and keeps shaping and forming us as we grow into the children of God we are meant to be. These currents flow through us and through our congregation at all times. The presence of God is ever-present, and when we add our own spice to events–to feast days and celebrations and special occasions–God’s presence is all the more glorified.

In April, when it was Earth Day, my son and I went out to the land to get some of the plants there to plant by the office door at First Christian Church. We planted some twenty plants in the area where the mulch is outside our office, and within just a few days, the leaves withered and died, leaving nothing but the mulch behind. This can happen when we transplant plants; they don’t always make it. Since then, I bought a couple of lilac twigs to see if they’ll grow (one seems to be surviving), and geraniums from the Pentecost service are now in pots by the door, giving some welcome greenery.

On this past Thursday morning, as I approached the office, I noticed strange shoots coming up out of the mulch. Surely they’re not mushrooms, I thought, as they’re too tall. As I got closer, I was certain they’re some sort of plant, growing from where my son and I had put bulbs into the ground, the greenery having long since passed. I moved one of the containers because there were shoots trying to grow underneath it. I have no idea what the plant or flower is. (Maybe by Sunday they’ll open so I can tell!) But what I can tell is that while what I could see had died and fallen away, there was still something at work beneath the soil. To me, this is very much the workof the Creator. Even in seasons of dormancy, something is at work. Even when we think our church isn’t growing, something is stirring in our midst, preparing us for what is to come in our journey. Even when we think that our taking a vacation is wasting precious time when we could be working or doing something, we are given time to sit back and rest and witness what Christ might be teaching those around us. When we rest, we are given the opportunity to be restored in our energy, our enthusiasm, and our dedication to do God’s will and to let God’s will be done.

 

In the Gospel according to Matthew, we hear the familiar refrain: “Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” It doesn’t say that God will rest, just that we are given rest. This rest is a gift. This rest is a necessity. This rest is part of our Way of Love, and this rest also makes way for a whole, restored life in Christ.

Parishioners tell me they’re called “surpise lilies.” What a lovely surprise, indeed.

 

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God’s Dream: The Way of Love

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 | Psalm 24 | Ephesians 1:3-14 | Mark 6:14-29

Wow. Coming back to you from General Convention and revisiting the beheading of John the Baptist doesn’t quite match up with the Good News I experience. I’ve spent the nearly past two weeks being surrounded by Episcopalians from all over the world, worshipping with hundreds and, at times, thousands of others. We had a revival, folks! We sang and clapped and nearly danced at our seats not just in English. We sang in Spanish and offered prayer responses guided by our chaplain who was raised in South Africa. It was a joyous, mountaintop experience, though there were times we could tell we had a mountain to climb as we pulled ourselves through long legislative sessions and voting processes guided by parliamentary procedure. It was joyful, and I felt the presence of God in our midst in our prayers, laughter, and our being mindfully present to each other.

So I understand the story of David rejoicing in the street as he and others carried the ark of God. For them, this ark contained the actual presence of God, which makes it all the more significant for who carried it and where it was located. It was a big deal, and in their music and dancing, I feel a kinship for the rejoicing taking place.

But there’s something else in that story, too. There’s one who looks on with “disdain in her heart.” Michal, daughter of Saul, is not happy. Maybe she’s bitter that it’s not her father carrying the ark and being celebrated in the streets. The darkness of her disdain contrasts sharply to the joy surrounding the ark of God.

I sense an echo of a similar disdain in Herodias, wife of Herod, former wife of Philip his brother. John the Baptist didn’t approve of their relationship, and while Herod didn’t necessarily appreciate John the Baptist’s judgment, he somewhat protected him . . . in prison. He protected him until in an evening of joyful merry-making, he promised the dancer anything she asked for. Dutiful daughter she was, she consulted her mother who seized the opportunity to quench her disdain and kill John the Baptist. As if he had been double-dog-dared in front of all his friends, Herod granted the request of his oath rather than protect the one he knew to be holy and righteous (something he repeats with Jesus).

So where’s the Good News in this?

I commend the Epistle this week for giving us a reminder of God’s blessing to us: grace and salvation through Jesus Christ. God wants for us to live into our grace and salvation, to live into the holy and blessed ones we are created to be. This state of being is already available to us, but we tend to get so inwardly-focused that we forget that we have a life centered in Christ.

That’s easy to say, but why, then, do we get bogged down with enmity, spite, and disdain, if not outright hatred? One might say we lose our way.

You’ve probably heard Presiding Bishop Michael Curry mention the Jesus Movement, how it leads us to becoming Beloved Community, which is, after all, God’s dream for us. A movement truly involves moving, changing, maybe even transforming. Lucky for us, at this General Convention, he gave us a resource for living into a Jesus-Centered Life, and he and his evangelism team simply call it “The Way of Love.” It’s appropriate, I think, that for us to live into God’s dream asks of us to walk the Way of Love. Truly, this is the Way that Jesus showed his disciples from Day 1.

We received these handouts at worship the first night, I think it was (I’ve been to a lot of services lately!). I have a few more and can order more if you don’t get one or if you’d like to have more to share with others. These little things outline the practices for Jesus-centered living. There’s no fancy acronym: just The Way of Love.

  1. Turn – PB Curry knew it wouldn’t take if we started with “Repent,” but that’s what it means. We realize we’re losing our way, and we want to turn toward Jesus in our lives so we can live into our blessed grace and salvation. So we TURN: pause, listen, and choose to follow Jesus. I think of a tune from a Richard Scarry video my kids used to watch when they were little: “Stop, look, and listen.” When we come to an intersection, crosswalk, or crossroads, we have to stop and listen, and we make a conscious decision about where we’re headed.
  2. Learn – We’re not walking blindly. We have guidance, and we get it from reflecting on Scripture each day. If we want to live like Jesus, we have to know what that looks like, sounds like, tastes like, and maybe even smells like. What did Jesus do in his life and say in his teachings that offer us instruction?
  3. Pray – We not only ask God for help and give thanks, but we listen. We set apart time each day to dwell with God, to abide in God’s presence. We might not yet be able to pray without ceasing, but we practice prayer every day.
  4. Worship – You all know the importance of gathering weekly in community to thank, praise, and dwell with God. We come to the altar for solace and strength, courage and renewal. We offer our prayers together and experience very tangibly that we are not alone. We receive the Real Presence of Christ. I tell people all the time when they are looking for a church to “go where you feel the presence of God.” (I certainly hope you all will be back next week!)
  5. Bless – Sure, it’s the priests and bishops in the church who bless in the name of the Trinity, but we all bless one another when we share our faith and when we unselfishly give and serve as so many of you do. When we experience the joy of being in the presence of God, we almost can’t help ourselves but share that with others. On the first day of walking in downtown Austin, we were approached by a homeless man (one of many there). My companion, maybe more experience at navigating larger cities, managed to walk on, but I made eye contact at the same time he was asking for money. He had joy in his bright, light blue eyes as he said, “Hey, you see me,” and gave me a fist-bump. He proceeded to walk with us to our destination and then go on his way, but I learned a bit about Ricky as we walked, though I realize it may or may not be true (especially the part about Stevie Nicks). I hope my seeing him with light and love of Christ was more of a blessing to him than the money I gave.
  6. Go – Throughout the gospels, especially after the Resurrection, the disciples are told to GO! Several of the sermons admonished us to GO! Go outside the church and do the work of the Lord. Because we have to move; we can’t stay comfortable, even if it’s within the confines of our church. In our going, we are told to “cross boundaries, to listen deeply, and to live like Jesus.” We don’t have to go far, but it is worthwhile to go where we don’t feel comfortable. Maybe that’s volunteering at the animal shelter or food pantry, where you experience sadness or smells that you’d rather avoid. Maybe it means going to the Salvadoran restaurant that you don’t go to because they speak mostly Spanish, and you’d be the minority. Jesus was always going to the other side, talking and eating with people he wasn’t supposed to. How often do we do the same?
  7. Rest – Finally, we also have to rest, to “receive the gift of God’s grace, peace, and restoration.” Jesus would go apart from the crowd. To do good work, we have to be well-rested, restored, and whole–mind, body, and soul. It also acknowledges that God is the one who’s doing the deep work; we’re not in control. We can leave for a while, and good work continues. (There’s nothing wrong with a good, long nap when it’s needed, either. I took one Saturday afternoon when I realized how much softer my bed is than the one I’ve slept on for almost two weeks!)

These practices outline The Way of Love for us, and they’re circular, not linear. They invite us to assess where we are and begin again when we feel ourselves losing our way, maybe even experiencing a hardening heart. They’re grounded in Holy Scripture and the life of Christ, but most importantly, they’re rooted in God’s blessing, God’s dream for us. God’s dream for us is ours to be had when we walk in the Way of Love, the Way of Christ, and that’s Good News for us all.

(Be sure to click on The Way of Love link for online resources and a message from the Presiding Bishop!)

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Encounters

2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27 | Psalm 130 | 2 Corinthians 8:7-15 | Mark 5:21-43

The scene from this week’s gospel reading lingers in my mind and replays as if there’s still more I have to learn, more to do.

It might have something to do with the fact that I just visited the site where this likely took place. Magdala, near the modern day Migdal, is on the coast of the Sea of Galilee. Currently they’re building a guest house (hotel), have built a beautiful church, and are excavating a first-century synagogue and marketplace. The sun burns hot and bright. From the pathways, one can tell that if there were many people, it would indeed be crowded and smell of warm bodies, fish, dirt, and hot stone.

When Jesus arrives back on this side of the sea, Jairus seeks him quickly, desperate for Jesus to heal his 12-year-old daughter. We know he’s desperate because this is a leader of the synagogue, an important and powerful man (with a name), and what he’s doing is unorthodox (in more ways than one). Jairus tells Jesus what needs to be done, and without a word, Jesus follows him.

On their way, among the great crowd, another person seeks a miracle. While the crowd walks along en masse, we get the background of an unnamed woman. She’s been bleeding for 12 years. Maybe for the first few weeks, months, she thought it would pass, but as the months became years, she spent everything she had to find a cure. No physician had been able to help her, but she had heard about Jesus. Even though she was closed off from society in her constant state of uncleanness, word had reached her about this man who healed many; maybe he could heal her, too.

To seek Jesus would be a great risk for this woman. For 12 years, she stayed out of crowded situations, lest she contaminate someone with her impurity. Surely everyone knows about her, her family. It would be a shame upon her family to be seen or called out, recognized by someone–anyone. But what did she have to lose? She was cut off already from whatever life she had before. She had no money. Her condition was worsening. She wasn’t afraid to die; death was already a certainty.

“If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well,” she thinks in her familiar voice, with an unfamiliar hope.

She approaches Jesus from behind in the crowd and touches his cloak. One simple, light touch.

Immediately her hemorrhage stopped, and she felt in her body that she was healed, something she hadn’t felt for 12 long years.

In that same instant, Jesus, too, knew power had gone out from him, and he stopped. I like to imagine him closing his eyes and with a faint yet knowing smile that passes quickly, pausing before he turns to seek the one who touched his clothes.

The one he calls out is afraid. Jesus was on his way to heal the daughter of a powerful man. She is a nobody, an unclean woman who has not only contaminated everyone she’s touched in this shoulder-to-shoulder crowd but has also brought shame to Jesus and her family by touching a man whom she has no right to touch. She knows her humility and shows it to all by falling down before him. She unburdens her heart and woes to him and everyone listening. Maybe they’ll understand, maybe they won’t. Maybe they’ll be merciful, but it doesn’t change the fact that she knows she’s been healed. But she couldn’t just take it from him without him knowing how desperate she was.

“Daughter,” Jesus says, claiming her as family, “your faith has made you well. Go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

She has no need of shame, and she has not taken anything that hasn’t been given to her.

While we may want to marvel in this moment of grace and mercy, we’re reminded that Jairus’ daughter is also waiting for a miracle, yet we hear that she’s already died.

“Do not fear, only believe,” Jesus says even in the face of mortality.

Perhaps the crowd didn’t believe Jesus could help the little girl because she was already dead. Perhaps the crowd didn’t believe the hemorrhaging woman was healed because they couldn’t see it. They needed to see a healing for themselves, and it was all the more significant because this was the daughter of a prominent family, with so many people at hand (whom Jesus sent outside).

Yet Jesus tells them not to spread news of these miracles. The significance of these events isn’t to spread Jesus’ fame any more than it is to add to the drama of the narrative itself, though they do both. As we encounter the good news of these stories, we find that rich or poor, young or old, alone or accompanied, Jesus is who he is for all: God incarnate to save the world.

Today, does that mean that if we pray hard enough, we’ll be healed and cured or brought back to life? Not necessarily, and not as we understand it. It was important for the people of the time of Jesus to see him for who he was. For us, we realize who he is for us as the Risen Lord, one who brings health and life to all in spirit, which in turn affects our mind and body.

As many have been and are preparing for General Convention (#GC79), one of the questions I saw recently said:

“What do you seek?”

In light of the gospel today, I wonder if we only seek Jesus when we are desperate? As beautiful as it is, it can also be devastating if we don’t get the results we want or expect. Pulling from the Presiding Bishop’s theme of love, life, and liberation, we want these things for ourselves especially when we don’t have them.

But what if we seek first the kingdom of God? And its righteousness? (See Hymn 711.) What if even when things are good for us, we seek God’s will to be done in our thoughts, words, and deeds? What if we seek an encounter with Jesus? Even more, what if we seek to be that holy temple that others might encounter Jesus, the presence of God, through us?

The most beautiful thing I saw at Magdala was the mural behind the altar in the Encounter Chapel at Duc in Altum (which means “launch into the deep”).  Painted by Daniel Cariola, the mural captures that moment when the woman touches the hem of his garment (pulling more from the Matthew and Luke accounts). There’s a point of light there that illuminates what we know couldn’t be seen by the eyes alone, but it is so luminous in that chapel, amidst the feet and hand that are larger than life. As we gazed upon this mural, our feet rested upon floor that we’re told was from the first century, stones from pathways that would have been there at the time of Jesus, the disciples, Jairus, and this woman. In her outstretched hand, there’s such hope amidst her desperation. Jesus’ feet are set in a forward direction. Others are all around. It is a crowded scene.

But there’s this point of light.

When have I reached out to Jesus and been healed?

When have others reached out to me in their search for the presence of God?

That point of light, to me, is what we all seek, but we have to be clear about what and why we seek it. If we’re just looking for a thrill in the moment, personal glory, or a fulfillment of a personal agenda, we must tread carefully. This is especially important at General Convention, when what we decide affects the polity and liturgy of our church. Whose will is being done? Whose kingdom is being magnified?

There’s nothing more noble than seeking an encounter with the Light and Love of Christ, because in that moment, we get a glimpse, a taste, of the kingdom of heaven. Whether we’re the hand or the feet in that moment, we pray that God’s will be done and to God be the glory. This work never ends.

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