Again & Again: We Find Ourselves Here

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

How did we get here? How do we arrive at this point year after year?

After the year we’ve had, we are thankful to come to this moment at all, overcoming insurrection, persevering in a worldwide pandemic (that is still ongoing), and surviving thus far all the risks and chances we face in life. As people so lucky, mightn’t we rather be celebrating? Rather than come to church when we know the grief we carry and the grief we enter into with the Passion, why would we submit ourselves to such torment and sadness?

We can’t even celebrate that there was a moment in time when the political authorities and the religious leaders agreed on something because the thing they agreed on was killing Jesus. If Jesus died, the rebellion would end with the people subdued. With Jesus dead, the priestly power prevails and the questioning of authority subsides. Everyone can resume cruise control, maintain the status quo, and stay in line . . . or this could happen to you.

We read through the drama and trauma of the Passion wondering, “Why can’t they see that Jesus is innocent?” We call for the release of Barabbas instead and shout with the crowd, “Crucify him!” while thinking that surely we would never be on that side of history. 

And yet. Here we are. Again and again we find ourselves here. If we have taken up the challenge to draw near to Jesus, even and especially through the suffering, to the cross, and to his last breath, we are more than a little uncomfortable.

The gift that is Easter awaits us, a safety net for the absence of Jesus that the disciples, friends, and his mother did not have. Can we stand beside and with them in their grief? Can we bear witness to the tragedy, like so many even this week who have to share testimony to watching a man be tortured and killed? Hopeless. Yelling into a void. Recording the moment that will be seared into their memories long after their phone becomes obsolete.

While the balance of what is good and evil teeters in the stillness of a moment, life for some carries on without noticing. Others watch the scales with bated breath or carry on bearing the burdens as they do, wondering, waiting, maybe even daring to hope.

Maybe we find ourselves at the cross more often than we realize, feeling an absence of God, of Truth, of Justice, of Goodness, in the world. Fear and grief and isolation and hatred can make it feel like it is finished, that there is nothing at all in the world to hope for. If Jesus had lived a long life and died naturally, we might have regarded him as a Saint or Prophet–the light and love he shared being contained to his lifetime. But he was killed. He couldn’t breathe. He breathed his last at the hand of his executioner, at the hand of violence, an extension of justice armed with fear and oppression ready to strike again to all who resisted.

As the sun eclipsed and the veil of the Temple ripped apart, God spoke when others couldn’t. Now can we see clearly? The Light of the world was extinguished by the cruelty of humanity that has the incredible gift of free will, even to self-destruct. But the presence of God will not be contained, not in one place, nor in one time.

But sit in the darkness. Don’t look away from shortcomings and failures, doubts and despair. Sit in the stillness and silence with all of who we are. What have we done? 

But don’t stop there. What, then, do we do next?

“He who has promised is faithful.” What all have we been promised? What all have we been commanded? Drowning in grief and sorrow, we can’t handle any tests or lists. Like the children we are, we need it spelled out simply, outstretched before us so it is as clear as possible. What is all this about? What is the purpose of everything? 


Good Friday is “good” because of Love, God’s love. We come to Good Friday year after year because we forget how to love, how to show love, how to be loved, and we lose our way. Maundy Thursday we’re reminded of the Eucharist and of the command to love one another. Good Friday we’re reminded of our failure to live in obedience to the command to love, and we’re invited to sit in the darkness because there, too, God’s Love prevails.

“Status Quo” | Hannah Garrity | paper lace | @sanctifiedart
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Peaceful Protest

Isaiah 50:4-9a | Psalm 31:9-16 | Philippians 2:5-11 | Mark 14:1-15:47

I wonder, because time has taught us / That it is not uncommon /
For a peaceful protest / To start or end / With an unjust death.

 ~ Rev. Sarah Are

We begin today’s worship recalling Jesus’s triumphant entry in Jerusalem–a “procession” we call it in our orderly, liturgical fashion. We immerse in the actions and the holy Word of the Passion, and by the time I stand before you, Jesus is dead. His mother is numb, along with others, and yet there are others who sigh in relief and satisfaction. It is done. The instigator, the threat, the leader is dead.

How about we not try to tidy up the scene or the situation? How about we put on our old clothes and muck boots and wade into the messiness of the foundations of our tradition, the history of who we are? Gird up your loins; summon your courage; take a friend’s hand; and let us be real with one another to experience a glimpse of the story of us.

My great-grandma Maggie, the one who would let us take all the bobby-pins out of her bun so we could comb her long gray hair, pinch the skin of her hand, and sway the loose flesh below her arm, would tell us stories while my brother and I stood close, connected to her body. In the safety of her presence, we would listen intently to this woman born before 1900.

Did the disciples, in the presence of Jesus, listen intently enough? Did they stay close enough to him? In all the acts that Jesus did, the healings he completed, did they not notice how they ran contrary to the injustices happening in the empire? Did they not realize that while Jesus enters Jerusalem on the donkey that the military regime was entering at another gate on the opposite side, complete with all the tools of war? Time and again he foretold of his suffering, death, and resurrection, but they didn’t want to hear it. He took with him Peter, James, and John in the garden, when he is “distressed and agitated,” and he asks them to stay with him. When he finds that they’ve fallen asleep (not only once but three times!), he’s disappointed and aggravated with them and the weakness of human flesh which he, too, has.

Jesus goes on to be betrayed by Judas, the priests and chief priests, the elders, scribes, and even Peter. As we cried out in the reading, the crowd, soldiers, and bystanders also forsook him. We betray him.

Leading up to the very hour he is crucified, what does everyone do? They fall away. They distance themselves from the point of the greatest suffering. I cannot even fathom the point of the embodiment of the suffering of the world. I wouldn’t want to be there, either.

But if you’ve ever been close to suffering or death, there’s an immense clarity there, a falling away of every pretense, a real-ness that’s undeniable. And in the recognition of the suffering, there can be a deep peace. That peace comes not from being alone: it comes from being recognized. It comes from being loved.

If we dare, we can recognize this whole Holy Week as the peaceful protest it is, of God loving us all, come what may. We’ve had millenia to practice experiencing God’s unconditional love, but maybe now is the time to see it for what it is. For a protest is “a statement or action expressing disapproval of or objection to something,” and Holy Week if anything, protests the oppression and injustice of the children of God because it runs counter to God’s love.

Three years ago was the March for Our Lives at the Square downtown and across the country. Students had organized these events to proclaim loudly that they’d had enough of the gun violence, of the tragic end to their classmates’ lives. They were outraged by the senseless violence, the unjust deaths met by ineffective thoughts and prayers. In the poem for this week’s meditation, Rev. Sarah Are writes, “…it is not uncommon/For a peaceful protest/To start or end/With an unjust death.” Nationwide, after so many unjust deaths from gun violence, the students led the peaceful protests to proclaim “ENOUGH!” and “NOT ONE MORE!” 

And yet, the unjust deaths continue. God’s children murdered.

George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbury, and so many others fuel the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests. Not all have been peaceful, so strong the outrage, so great the injustice. Last year was marked by protest after protest, and not just BLM but political protests, too. Injustice abounds, viewed from every angle–so much so that we seem to have lost our compass. We don’t know which gate we’re entering from–are we following “the one who comes in the name of the Lord” or the one who defies the primacy of God?

This past week, legislation landed on our governor’s desk, legislation intentionally directed to adversely affect our LBTQ+ community, especially our trans siblings. I signed some petitions, but not all. I didn’t call, and I didn’t show up at the Capitol for the peaceful protest that was held. Before the governor signed the last two bills into law, however, I did write an email to him, commending the great commandments to him–that we love God first and foremost and that we love our neighbors as ourselves. I also mentioned that we have the responsibility not to legislate hate in our state. Throughout the pandemic, Gov. Hutchinson has voiced that Arkansans will do the right thing to wear masks and take precautions; couldn’t he then count on Arkansans to use their good judgement when it comes to school and health policies? Couldn’t he listen to those who are directly affected and hear the fear and discrimination being projected onto them?

I expressed to the governor that one consolation I have is that Jesus is always where the marginalized are, where the oppressed congregate, and that I remain committed to loving our neighbors, especially those who are particularly vulnerable. 

I haven’t heard back. 

Several joined those gathered Friday evening, the beautiful night that it was, outside the Momentary for the #stopAsianhate vigil. We recited Langston Hughes together, we heard the names of those who died in Atlanta along with a glimpse of who they were, and we sang together–distanced, masked, and outdoors, of course. It was called a vigil, but it really was a peaceful protest. The vigil was an expression against hate crimes, particularly those focused toward the AAPI (Asian American/Pacific Islander) community. Even among the broken voices and tearful eyes, there was peace and affirmation, hope and community.

This Holy Week, we may think there’s no peace to be found, that the suffering and violence is too great, too much. We may feel like we can’t do much to stand against the powers that be, that our voice doesn’t matter, that we’re too weak, too insignificant, too tired. But I wonder whose expectations we’re focusing on, whose judgment we’re considering. Because God asks of us to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. We don’t have to save the world, we just have to love with every step.

And that’s why we need the muck boots, because it will take us into the mess. But there’s no reason why we can’t wear our best every day, no reason why we can’t be the donkey in the procession, going into the peaceful protest doing all that we were created to do, bearing the burden of our Savior, placing one foot in front of the other wherever we need to go, even and especially to the foot of the Cross.

There is such freedom there, my friends. The greatest protest we can participate in is the one that defies cultural expectation. WE are enough. WE are beloved children of God. We participate in the great peaceful protest by proclaiming the Good News with our whole being, by sharing in the mind of Christ, by emptying our being of our ego, by loving ourselves and others because our love of and from God is so great.

It’s not easy, but if we can stay close to Jesus especially this week, drawing nearer to him in our readings of the scriptures, we might experience this Holy Week differently than others. We can rely on one another to keep watch this week and work together to keep awake and proclaim the Good News to everyone we meet and participate in the ongoing peaceful protest of radical love that will lead us right into Easter hope and maybe even joy itself.

Through the Palms by Rev. Lauren Wright Pittman Inspired by John 12:1-19 | Hand-carved block printed with oil-based ink on paper | @sanctifiedart
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Again & Again: We are being Reformed

Jeremiah 31:31-34 | Psalm 119:9-16 | Hebrews 5:5-10 | John 12:20-33

In this week’s Lenten devotional from Sanctified Art, our theme is “Again & Again, We Are Reformed.” When I hear the word reformed, I tend to think of Reformed Judaism or the Protestant Reformation. So when I was reading and studying this week, the word transformation kept coming to mind and being used almost interchangeably with reformation. For both of these words, there is change. Transformation gets more air time, and this makes sense because it is the dramatic and thorough change in appearance or form–what we see or notice. When I was doing a search on these words, the usage of transform has increased exponentially since the 1950s:

Interestingly to me, reform has a different history of usage and has dropped out of favor, unlike its counterpart transform.

In the late 1990s, reform was at a peak, but then it went through a decline. I would pose the question: Does this reflect a truth about ourselves that we would rather not face? Because “to reform” means more than “to transform.” I might drastically change my appearance, and that would be a transformation you would all notice and comment upon, but I could fundamentally remain the same person. To be reformed, however, is to make changes to improve something. We don’t generally think of people as reformed but of systems, institutions, policies, government, and the like. During Lent, however, it is a good time to think about how again and again we are being reformed, how we are being improved by our dependence upon God, our relationship with God, and our life in faith. During Lent, at the end (we hope!) of a pandemic, it may also be a good time to think about how we as a church are being reformed.

It could very well be too soon. We are, after all, still in the midst of a pandemic. We wouldn’t be wearing masks together if things were the same as they had been before covid-time. It takes perspective, and usually hindsight, to look back and see all the ways we have been changed and hopefully for the better.

I watched a lecture by Dr. Rodger Nishioka, given at Montreat Conference Center in North Carolina at the end of 2013. He’s a tenured seminary professor and proud Presbyterian, speaking of his church with love and wit like we do of The Episcopal Church. He references Phyllis Tickle’s 2012 book The Great Emergence, where her thesis is that the Church has a rummage sale every 500 years. What do we do at a rummage sale? Get rid of our old stuff, extra baggage. Dr. Nishioka said it’s not like a church rummage sale, where we get together and swap our stuff! In her book and his lecture, you can hit the peaks of the 500 year-marks: 590, the fall of Rome; 1054, the Great Schism of East (Orthodox) and West (Roman Catholic); and 1517, the Protestant Reformation. That brings us to the 2000s, the 21st century. We’re in another “rummage sale period,” Dr. Nishioka and Phyllis Tickle propose.

And in these periods, people are prone to think that the Church is going to die, they wonder if it can survive.

From our perspective we can look back and see how the changes that happened in the past, the reformation that occurred, resulted in a Church that emerged, yes, different, but also stronger, more faithful. Interestingly, it’s not just Christianity that is looking at these patterns. Some folks within Judaism and Islam are also looking at their history and patterns. We share with our Abrahamic siblings the core belief that the Almighty is faithful, through trouble, trial, and tribulation. It’s our responsibility to determine how we are being faithful. We can begin by discerning how God is revealing God’s faithfulness.

Again, it’s easier to look farther into history with our historical lens and evaluate everything from a distance to see how the arc bends toward the benefit of the greater good. I say it’s easier because we already have everything sorted out for us. We have the books with headings and subheadings. We have summaries and statues and epithets pointing us toward who’s who.

In our media barrage of information these days, with 24/7 news headlines, we’re getting daily summaries of what is important, critical, life-threatening. We have “influencers” guiding us toward what will best help us transform our lives into what we think it should be, what everyone else thinks it should be so we can appear to have our stuff together. Five hundred years from now, what do you think the archivists will be preserving? What do you think the historians will be teaching? What do you think the theologians will be discussing?

Will they note the ways we held onto tradition, keeping the vestments and liturgy of our ancestors? Or will the threads that tie us to the past and our tradition be part of the fabric, maybe even the part that holds us together and keeps us strong like interfacing, while the ways we wrestle and challenge and emerge reformed reveal our true colors of the time, the shape we take as we move forward?

In the gospel lesson today, we are told some Greeks wanted to see Jesus. They went to Philip. Philip, I guess, leaves the Greeks and goes to Andrew, sharing with him that even these Gentiles wish to see Jesus. News is spreading! Jesus is here! Even the Greeks have heard about Jesus. And here is Jesus, in Jerusalem after a triumphal entry, of sorts. We’ll get more next week about Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem, beginning the week of his Passion. But today we get more expectation, anticipation, and hope. There’s so much going on in their lives, and Jesus is stirring the hearts of all who encounter him in person or in story.

About five hundred years before the fall of Rome, Jesus walked the earth. Goods and power were being monetized and valued over human life. Systems of oppression and domination secured those in power, those who had the power to make changes. Violence was a way of life. Some tables needed to be turned.

Two thousand years later, goods and power are being monetized and valued over human life. Systems of oppression and domination secure those in power, those who have the power to make changes. Violence is a way of life. Some tables need to be turned or at least set out for a great rummage sale so we can get rid of all that binds us.

And it scares us. We’ll make things change and look beautiful on the outside all day long, but reformation means that something we’re clutching for dear life–even if it’s the devil we know–we’ve got to let go. We have to pluck the seed and let it fall to the earth so that it can die, decay, and be born anew.

We haven’t done ourselves a service in trying to make everything beautiful all the time, romanticizing or whitewashing the past (in more ways than one). Life and death go hand in hand. Jesus in all his humanity and divinity knew this, and we, like the disciples and apostles, try to understand. Jesus wasn’t of this world in that his priorities were never aligned with the powers and systems of the world in which he walked. Jesus’s economy of grace defied the emperor’s coin. God’s love for the world–for the orphan, the widow, the stranger, the lost, the sinner–defied all oppression, seeking only liberation, not domination. The Love Jesus embodied, while capable of receiving the pain, torture, and violence of humanity, never inflicted harm on another. Maybe Jesus is talking about his own body when he talks about the grain of wheat, and maybe he’s also talking to us about all the potential we have to embody if we let go of that which we cling to so tightly but inhibits us from experiencing liberation, life, and love more fully.

As God inscribed on the hearts of our ancestors, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people,” (I’m sure it’s in English! LOL!), we have the opportunity to reveal to our future how we live into the reformed lives God makes possible through Christ for us. With the power of the Holy Spirit, think of all that has and is being done in this century. Think of marriage rights for our siblings. Think of how hard folks are advocating for BIPOC lives, immigrant lives, women’s rights, trans rights, human rights . . . how hard folks are working to dismantle White Supremacy. Think on how tightly others are clinging to that which perpetuates objectification, monetization, oppression, and violence. This week we give ear to our Asian American/Pacific Islander folks, after the terrorism in Atlanta. When good work is being done, adversaries in the powers and principalities will surface to cling tight and fast and keep us bound, keep us from everlasting life.

If we can let go of all the barriers that we have built around our hearts, we might actually discover who it is God has created us to be. If we can share our experiences of grace, healing, restoration, and reformation without shame or manipulation, maybe we can help others to see how God is already at work in their lives. If we can look in our circles around us and see where God is calling us here in our communities to make a difference, maybe we will not succumb to temptations of grandeur or comparison. If we continue to encourage one another to discern and put into use our gifts and lean into the wonder, awe, and mystery of God, maybe we can let go of pretense and unrealistic expectations and be together mutually empowered and authentically present.

Our world is changing so fast that we may not need 500 years between cycles going forward. Who knows?! But right now, we can accept responsibility and hold ourselves accountable for being people of God. We can reach out to one another and to others, sharing a loaf of homemade bread and sharing how we are fed by the Bread of Life. This is the Church we are called to be, the people of God we are called to be, and we don’t need future historians to tell us that. It’s already written on our hearts. 

Written on our Hearts by Lauren Wright Pittman, inspired by Jeremiah 31:31-34. @sanctifiedart | #Lent2021

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Again & Again: We are called to Listen

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

In the OnBeing podcast, Krista Tippett opens her interview asking the interviewee about the spiritual and religious background of their childhood. It takes the interview to a deeper, more meaningful place right away. Each time I hear her ask the question, I wonder what I would say. My background was Baptist, as most of y’all know, and a practicing Baptist at that, thanks to my grandmothers who took my brother and me to church when we’d stay the weekend with them. At home, when we were ready to go and didn’t duck below the windows so the driver wouldn’t see us, we’d take the church bus to Sunday School and service. As soon as I turned 16 and was able to drive myself, gifted as I’d been with my mom’s old car, I chose to attend church nearly every Sunday. And Sunday night. And Wednesday night sometimes, too. There was a pull to be in church, even though I couldn’t name it. I was listening for something I couldn’t quite hear but felt closer to when I was there.

In college, I thought I was just filling a graduation requirement by taking an Intro to Buddhism class. When I heard the word compassion, though, my ears perked up, and a light went on, illuminating Jesus in technicolor for me because that’s what Jesus is all about: compassion.

But the compassionate Jesus isn’t the everybody’s-boyfriend-Jesus. Compassionate Jesus knows our suffering and holds our hand to his chest until we realize that we have the strength, the courage to go on. Whatever sorrow or longing, regret or tragedy, Compassionate Jesus knows it, too. Whether our hands are held to our heart or lifted in prayer, maybe we’ll be in the presence of Christ and experience the triumph of Resurrection. We know the story: Jesus overcomes death and the grave. Easter is coming and has already come. We just kind of forget in the midst of our suffering and have to be reminded. When we do remember, we’re strengthened and ready to get up again and keep going.

We might find ourselves in that place, though, where we’re like the disciples. We think we have something figured out. We have a good thing going. Yet as we listen, we hear the words of Jesus telling us that things are going to change. Things are going to get bad and will get worse before they get better.

My son Avery has a difficult time keeping his room clean. (He’s 17 after all!) After some dire consequences were offered to him, he decided to make an effort. As he was showing me his progress, he said what any of us who have cleaned out a closet, fridge, or junk drawer know: “It gets worse before it gets better.” I told him I knew that and encouraged him to keep going.

But when Peter heard Jesus foretell his suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection, does he look with understanding upon the Messiah? Does he say, “Right on, Jesus. Keep going!” Not at all. We don’t have exactly what Peter says, but he “rebukes” Jesus, likely reminding him that this messaging isn’t consistent with the healing and good news they they’ve been proclaiming. The foreshadowing or teaching wasn’t going to be good for their recruitment.

Jesus rebukes right back in the oft-quoted line: “Get behind me, Satan!” Not exactly how we imagine Compassionate Jesus speaking to us, but if we are listening well, we hear the truth of this line: “you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” The disciples are probably enjoying this new adventure, traveling around, sharing the good news with others, being with Jesus when he heals and performs miracles that affirm God is at work, that liberation is at hand. Jesus is powerful; he’s the Messiah they’ve been looking for. As Jesus tells more of the story, enters the next level of his teaching, Peter speaks for all when he says that this can’t be. We don’t want things to change like that. Let’s just keep doing what we’re doing now. That’s a very human response, isn’t it?

Lessons and truths aren’t always hard to hear. Statistics about poverty, mortality rates, and violence we hear all day long. Drive it a little closer to home, however, and we get a little restless. How and when do the hungry get fed? What considerations do we make when choosing school, zip code, or subdivision/neighborhood to live in? Did we really listen to our cousin/classmate/friend as they question if they’ve been sexually assaulted, or do we blow it off and change the subject because if there is truth in what they say, the next steps are difficult. How we see the world and how the world sees us might change. My life is going to be impacted.

Are we listening to what Compassionate Jesus says to us? Compassionate Jesus can show tough love, too, saying, “You don’t want to to do the hard thing, face the hard truths, or realize your complicity? Get behind me, Satan!” Compassionate Jesus isn’t here to make our lives easy or comfortable. He’s here for divine things. Want to follow Jesus toward God’s glory? We’re told to take up our cross whenever and wherever we find it. Likely it will resonate with us because old scars will tingle, itch, or burn. Maybe we were a child who went hungry outside of school, so we fill the pantry when we can, help fill snack packs at the Samaritan Center, or make meals for others when they’re alone. Maybe we become active in PTO, the POA, or city council to make sure voices of our neighbors who are silenced or ignored get magnified. We do this not by talking about it but by seeking the people themselves, listening intently, learning ravenously, and sharing unpopular opinions–aka “hard truths”–that give us no personal advantage. Maybe we go with someone to a hearing, the unemployment office, or the clinic because they need the presence of someone whom they trust to embody Christ in that moment, to be the Compassionate Jesus they’ve heard about but haven’t experienced, longed for but never encountered.

Growing up Baptist, believing in Jesus, liking church, loving gospel music, there was a time when I would rather not admit any of those things. There are times even now when I know life could be easier if I didn’t follow this calling. (Many priests I’ve spoken with have a daydream of being a barista or a baker!) One day at the hospital during my Clinical Pastoral Education (chaplaincy training), a nurse paged me, the chaplain on duty. A woman in one of the critical care units needed a visit. As I made my way across the hospital, I wondered what she needed, what we would talk and pray about, but when I got there, the nurse told me that the woman didn’t, couldn’t speak. Maybe she saw my wide eyes and noticed my hesitation. She smiled and nodded at me to “go on.” I smiled, took the woman’s outstretched hand, and watched her eyes intently as I introduced myself. She could hear me just fine. I asked simple yes/no questions so she could respond with a nod or a turn of the head, gently. She was a woman of faith, all the more evident in that she began saying things, mouthing the words that she trusted I would and turned out that I could understand. “I know,” she’d mouth when I said God was with her. She raised her hands as she told me she prayed “all the time.” (When we’re not wearing masks, we read lips more often than we realize!) Her family was important. Somehow we got to a point where I learned she loved music from church, and as I sang “Amazing Grace”–a universal language of its own–she sang along, too. A peaceful smile was on her lips and in her eyes as we exchanged goodbyes, and I promised to check in the next day.

My cross that day was my love of Jesus, my love of music that speaks to my heart, mind, and soul. At that moment the cross wasn’t a burden but a gift. We were in the presence of Christ, she and I, and I still draw strength from that experience. It wasn’t about my success or glory. It was about being present, sharing a mutual love, and being vulnerable enough to empathize with another’s pain. It’s also about going through the hard times, the bad times, and not losing hope that Jesus promised. When we follow Jesus, our cross will present itself to us again and again. It may not be the same one, but it’s always the same invitation: are you willing to take up the cross and follow Jesus? If so, our world–your world–will never be the same.

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Following One with Authority

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

Can you imagine being James or John, Peter or Andrew? Jesus calls them out in Galilee and tells them to follow him, that he would make them fish for people (Mk. 1:16-20). Their call was part of our gospel lesson last week. The newly devoted disciples follow Jesus, and before long, they’re in the synagogue in Capernaum where Jesus is teaching, as one with authority.

Have you ever been in an experience like that before? Where you get on board with someone hook, line, and sinker? And then you find yourself in their company with others, watching from a different perspective how the one you’ve devoted yourself to is being judged, wondering how you yourself might be judged, too. Ever been in that kind of situation? Maybe you have a friend who is a seller of a particular product. It’s so good, and you’re all in. And then you find yourself in a situation with others, where now the one you’ve committed to is sharing their wares. Do you still have confidence in them, in the product? Of course you do! . . . if what you’ve experienced has been affirming. You have every reason to be proud of your relationship, of the product. Likely, you’ll share your positive experience with others in the crowd and support your friend. 

If this example makes you feel uncomfortable, however, then likely you’ve had a negative experience, have felt like you’ve been suckered into some scheme and are none the richer for it. We know for a fact that there are Christians who have felt like they’ve been duped by the church because of negative experiences with those who have professed to teach with authority, in the name of Jesus, who have proclaimed salvation and unconditional love yet left folks high and dry when times got tough. Know anyone who’s been through that?

But Jesus isn’t into schemes, suckering people into blindly following his charisma and making large donations to fill the coffers. No, Jesus asks more because he knows there’s more to gain.

When Jesus tells his disciples to follow him, he invites their whole being. The disciples left their job, their families, their comfort to embark on the adventure of following one who in a glance seemed to know them completely. It’s soul-piercing to meet the gaze of one with whom we are willing to be known. And notice that Jesus doesn’t promise them a magic cure for anything. If they’d heard him before he called them, they heard his call to repentance, his proclamation that the kingdom of God has come near, the invitation to believe the good news. (That’s part of last week’s message, but I repeat it again because it is so important.) At the first meeting, he tells them that he will make them fish for people. And maybe that’s all they needed–something new and different, intriguing even. God knows when we’ve had it with the ordinary and mundane, we get a little haphazard in discerning what to do next (I believe impulse shopping would be a good example, right? Or shopping when we’re hungry, even if we don’t know what we’re hungry for?).

So the new disciples have followed Jesus to the synagogue in Capernaum, still in the northern area of the Sea of Galilee, and he’s teaching, “as one having authority, not as the scribes” (Mk 1:22). Jesus isn’t a snake oil salesman. He’s the real deal. If the disciples can pull their eyes away from Jesus during his teaching to take a glance at their fellow audience members, they’d recognize the impact that Jesus is making. They can see it on the people’s faces, too, what theirs must look like when they’re talking with Jesus. What is more, they would have increased confidence in the one whom they’ve chosen to follow. Their experiences have been validated. It’s not to say that the scribes are snake oil salesmen, but what “authority” do they lack?

One might say that the scribes do not have the authority of authenticity of relationship with God. They seem to lack meaningful experience with the Almighty.

If I am talking to someone about the benefits of Medicaid, food stamps, or WIC when they are in hard times, how much more meaningful to them do you think it is that they know I have experience with those things, too? I know the relief of having childbirth expenses covered, the benefit of being able to purchase food when the budget is impossible, of being able to buy essentials for our young family, especially formula for a child. It is difficult to have authority if we have no experience with whatever it is about which we speak, teach, or proclaim.

Likewise, commending you to a life rooted in prayer would be foolish if I did not seek to do the same, if I did not practice drawing near to the presence of God, even–and especially–when it means wrestling through the difficult times. It doesn’t mean that God can’t speak to you despite my inadequacies: thankfully the power of God and insistence on Spirit is great. But how much more meaningful is it if we can be dedicated to our relationship with God together, in community, in common effort as we are in common prayer? How richer is our journey when we practice the ways of love together, with common purpose (being to have a deeper relationship with Christ)? Talk to me long enough, and we’ll get to specific moments when the presence of God has overwhelmed me. I can’t make you experience God, but I can share my own moments of fear and trembling or overwhelming peace.

Maybe the scribes had forgotten their meaningful experiences, had lost their way getting bogged down in rules and regulations, in administrative tasks and societal expectations. God knows the world can lead us astray, even if our work is in the church. But Jesus brings the Word to life. Jesus is a breath of fresh air to teaching that had become stagnant.

Not only is Jesus teaching with authority, but a man with an unclean spirit comes to Jesus. Apparently Jesus’ Word has spread even in the moment, reaching the ears of those who weren’t welcome. Our imaginations can go wild with this, can’t they? We might envision demon possession worthy of Hollywood, or, given the lack of scientific-based  medical knowledge of the first century, we might envision someone with a mental illness. It is helpful to honor what is written for us– “a man with an unclean spirit” cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God” (Mk 1:23-24). One who is unclean shouldn’t have been in the synagogue. Everyone else is probably keeping their distance from the outcast. But the unclean spirit speaks to Jesus, knowing where he comes from and of whom he is. Jesus tells it to be silent and tells it to come out of the poor man. The unclean spirit obeys. Jesus has passed a true test. He’s utterly amazed the crowd. His disciples are probably nudging their neighbors with a “See, I told ya.”

The healing becomes a testimony to the power of Jesus, and his fame spreads. But is fame what Jesus seeks? Jesus had told the unclean spirit to be silent. Why? Perhaps precisely because of what we’re told: his fame spreads. That’s a good thing, isn’t it? Because then more people know and experience Jesus. But do they have understanding? Do they know what it means that Jesus is the Holy One of God? Jesus hasn’t been crucified yet, hasn’t risen from the dead. We just thought it was a test with the unclean spirit. Wait until Jesus himself is filled with all pain and suffering, when he gives his whole self for the will and glory of God. We read these texts with the whole scope of Jesus as Christ, too. But that revelation has not yet come for those who were meeting Jesus for the first time. But from the first, powers beyond our understanding and comprehension knew the Holy One of God, and they obeyed this one who taught with authority, with determination of purpose, with intent to reveal God’s will.

Anyone in a position of authority, with responsibility of power, is accountable not only to the ones who look to them but also to the one whom they follow. Our reading from Deuteronomy speaks to the responsibility of prophets and also of the accountability of others whether they heed the prophet or not. The letter to the Corinthians speaks to the importance of knowledge of the importance of our actions, especially for those who have a weaker understanding. Both affirm the primacy of the one true God.

For all of us, we, too, are accountable to one another and to God. As Christians, we’re still among the majority in the US (though just shy of 15% of the 70.6% of Christians as part of the Mainline Protestant tradition). When others are in our company, do they know we are Christian? Do they know we follow the Holy One of God? Almost 71% of this country is Christian, but children are hungry, people are sick, people are killed. 

There’s a bill before our state legislature known as a “Stand Your Ground” law. There are those who would rather shoot first before they tried to avoid conflict. To be clear: I’m not arguing against the right to bear arms. I’m all for responsible gun ownership and safety, and I say that as someone who has been beside more than one body that has died by gunshot. I am arguing with what we as a people say is acceptable, especially people who profess faith in God. I am calling out the presence of an unclean spirit among us. Last night’s evening prayer reading from Mark, found later in Chapter 7, verses 21-22, gives us a litany of evils–among them is murder, theft, and pride. I’m no exorcist, and I know I can’t cast out evil on my own. But authority has been given me to share the Word of God, to teach and preach that others might know God through Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, and with this authority–however little it might be viewed in the eyes of our materialistic and capitalistic society–comes great responsibility because I fully believe I am accountable to God and to those who trust me.

Tomorrow I’ll be on a call with others speaking against the Stand Your Ground law. I’ll be on social media and talking among groups about our Community Debt Relief Campaign in the coming weeks and months. I’m in our Zoom meetings sharing in study and fellowship and on Facebook live sharing the Daily Office. But it’s not about me or what I do. I’m with you. I see the faces of you and others who are also amazed at the power of people who hope and strive to love radically like Jesus. And to you who might be questioning if this is the real deal, I invite you to walk with us as we seek to follow Christ, the Holy One of God, the true one with authority.

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Fulfilled & Unfinished

Jonah 3:1-5, 10 | Psalm 62:6-14 | 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 | Mark 1:14-20

“Now after John was arrested . . .” So begins our gospel lesson today, with a nod to the turbulence in the air, and so begins Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, “proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” The Gospel according to Mark isn’t one for elaboration or pleasantries. Let’s get down to business. (Even Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is conveyed in two verses!) Simon and Andrew are called out and immediately follow. Jesus goes apace farther and immediate calls James and John, sons of Zebedee. Leaving their father in the boat, they follow Jesus.

Do you sense the immediacy of the moment? Is there an urgency?

God has all the time, infinity beyond our comprehension, but our time on earth is limited. Don’t you know that Jesus knew this? That after wandering in the wilderness forty days, he emerged to walk among the peoples with clarity of purpose, unity of vision, not with the powers and principalities of the day but with God. He has work to do, and he needs others to share in this spreading of the Good News, that the kingdom of God is here. Folks need to repent and believe in this.

But times are hard. Working conditions aren’t so great. Meager earnings are taxed for the benefit of some. Armed forces increase suspicion. High priests care more about perception and position than well-being and compassion of and for all. The future, if one dares to cast an eye too far forward, doesn’t promise relief or change or give much cause for hope. Resignation, complacency, apathy, and isolation bring comfort, as we learn more quickly than we realize how to survive in darkness and despair, where at least we don’t suffer grief, pain, and loss of hope for brighter days, the warmth of joy, the nearness of the kin-dom of heaven. Ah! Now we have a name for what we seek, what we didn’t know we were missing. Jesus proclaims it at the beginning of his ministry and immediately begins to share it with others–simply in his presence and then by action. The kin-dom of heaven is near. “Follow me,” Jesus says.

Such an in-breaking we experienced this past week. Her life thus far prepared Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman to take the podium at the Inauguration Ceremony and proclaim words we Americans needed to hear. She took more than two verses to describe the wilderness we have been navigating not just these last four years but since this country began, the grief and hurt and weariness that has accumulated from the many times we failed to live into what we envision: a democracy where the united states share unity of purpose to provide liberty and justice for all.

Having experienced something of the divisions between denominations, let alone the sordid history of violence between faith traditions, our founding fathers of this country wrote into our constitution a separation of Church and State so that the liberty and justice for all might be realized. Unfortunately, a blindness to their current position in a society that condoned and enforced slavery, genocide, and gender inequality equally blinded them to the full meaning of “for all.” “All” to them–consciously or unconsciously–meant free, affluent, white men, and this foundation of white male privilege, even white supremacy, undergirds all that we are as a country, as Americans, a defect from our birth. To ignore this fact is a conscious choice to maintain blindness, to stay in the boat rather than follow the invitation to repentance (reparation and reconciliation?), to be “brave enough” to move toward a better version of ourselves, toward the light beyond what seemed before a “never-ending shade.”

That next step of moving toward liberty and justice for all, of moving more fully into the democracy we envision where the people–all people–count wholly, is that “terrifying hour” Gorman spoke of. Terrifying because we don’t know what it means to us in the status quo. What will we lose? What will we sacrifice? Will we leave our father in the boat, surrounded by others afraid to lose even the little they have in the moment? But what might we gain? Dare we believe the good news being proclaimed? That there is hope for a true democracy? That a Beloved Community is possible? That the kin-dom of heaven has come near?

Jesus said the time was fulfilled, and he proceed to work, to proclaim the Good News. And he called us to repent, echoing the words of the one who had been arrested, the one who had been a voice in the wilderness, the one whom we know will be beheaded because his truth-telling doesn’t please everyone, and people tend to be self-serving. Self-interested as we are, a call to repentance isn’t what we want to do because repentance demands we look at where we are in the moment, fully, without blinders to the unpleasant. Actually, repentance turns our gaze on the especially horrific truths. Like a father telling his son to “Look at me” when we are facing our wrong-doing, the call of repentance is to focus one’s gaze squarely on the sin. Where have we failed God? Where have we failed our neighbor? Lady Liberty, shed your light, for we Americans have much to repent. 

But we confess every day or at least every Sunday, we might say. Yes, my brothers and sisters. We do. I thank God for that. We hear the proclamation of the Good News, that Christ our Savior has forged the way for our union with God, and we breathe the air of one forgiven, redeemed, and sustained. How good it is. And how easy it is to abide is such blessedness.

Jesus proclaimed the good news and called folks to repent and believe in the good news.

What does it mean to believe in the good news? 

For the Corinthians to whom Paul wrote, it meant that they had all that they needed: they had professed Christ as Savior and confessed their sins. They were ready for the second coming of Christ, and they could turn their gaze from this worldly, fleshly mess of a life to focus on the glory to come. All is right with them, so stay the course until kingdom come–all shall be well. Paul was also writing this part of the letter to the Corinthians to try to save them from the stress of married life, not wanting to increase their anxiety so they could focus more on the Lord. 

Blessed Paul would have been in good company with our American forefathers, with all his good intentions. Truly, his admonitions for husbands and wives to love one another are foundational in our marital vows for mutual respect and joy, but other words, even penned pseudonymously, have led to much harm and distress for married and unmarried alike. Paul’s maintaining the societal status quo, especially regarding slavery, failed to convey the fullness of the kin-dom of heaven that the Glory of God promises and fueled the practice to the detriment of God’s children. Perhaps even for Paul it was hard to imagine “for all.” His world, too, was Jew or Gentile, master or servant, even if he believed there was neither Jew nor Greek, master nor slave, male nor female, the practices continued.

Likewise for us.

We believe equal education is right for all, but we want the best for our kids, so we make sure we live in the right neighborhood. I know. I’ve done it, consciously and subconsciously. We are all God’s children we believe, even as we’ve watched the disparity and poverty grow, incarceration rates skyrocket, affordable housing dwindle, debt soar, addiction kill, hatred fester, and hope fade.

But we’re saved. We confess over and over again. And we’ll stay in the boat, thank you. Jesus, you go do your thing. Everyone will come to the light . . . eventually.

How’d that go for Jonah?

Yes, Jonah was long before Jesus, but he, too, was called by God. He was given a task, one he tried to avoid, but after washing back up to shore, surviving the belly of a beast, he decided to do what he’d been told. His repentance maybe wasn’t as voluntary, but he believed. He believed in God. He told the people of Nineveh that the town would be overthrown, and he knew God would do it. It had happened before. To his surprise, however, the people believed him. They repented and fasted and put sackcloth on themselves and their livestock–they went above and beyond, even ridiculously so. And God changed God’s mind. The people were saved, and we know from the story that Jonah gets mad, temper-tantrum throwing mad.

The people had heeded his prophecy. Isn’t that a good thing? For the people who believed in a merciful God, yes. For Jonah who knew a mighty God, one prone to wrath and vengeance, not so much. Why hadn’t his people been spared? Why was he made to look a fool?

When we believe in the kin-dom of heaven, it’s important to remember who is the head of that kin-dom, who sits in the throne of Glory everlasting, whose will it is we seek to serve in unity. It’s not our will, but Thine be done, yes? When we acknowledge our sins and turn our lives to live in accord with God’s, we surrender our independence to a dependence upon a will for the Greatest Good, one we cannot fully comprehend, one that would allow us to choose to deny this Good in favor of evil because it means we have free will to choose to believe the good news, to follow the kin-dom of heaven, to choose Love with fullness of being.

For the people of Nineveh, the stakes were high, and they had mere days to correct the error of their ways. For Jesus, according to Mark, there was no time to waste. What about for us, for US? Now that we have a new administration, are things truly different? Can we sit back now in our homes and wait and watch for all to be well?

Does the lion lay with the lamb? Are the orphan, the widow, and the stranger provided for? Has sorrow ceased and joy prevailed? Time may have been fulfilled in the moment of God dwelling on Earth, but our work is unfinished. If we believe that the kin-dom of God has come near, then we need to act like it, repent of the many ways it is not in action, and believe that we have a part in realizing the Good News for others–not for our own glory or comfort but for God’s will to be done. There’s much unfinished work yet to do for all who follow Jesus.

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Call My Name

1 Samuel 3:1-10(11-20) | Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17 | 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 | John 1:43-51

Childhood, like life itself, is both particular and universal. With our life circumstances and experiences, we are unique individuals, but as human creatures in this world, we have inescapable commonalities written into our DNA and present in the forces of nature. While we may study our common characteristics in textbooks or watch about them in documentaries, the particulars of our lives are shared through story.

As a child, once I learned to read, my imagination was set free. Whether it was Bible stories or Richard Scarry, Nancy Drew or Little Women, I let myself immerse in the story as it was written, drawn to those who could bring a scene to life, pull me into the drama, and tune out the real world around me. There was a beginning and an end to the books that almost always ended with the character finding their way to joy, if not a “happily ever after.” That joy was a sense of fulfillment, of mission accomplished. Most of the stories I’ve read–and continue to read–are about triumph over obstacles, solving a mystery, some kind of goal achieved, no matter how trivial it might seem. At least one character in the story is going to come to a new awareness that makes them somehow different than they were at the beginning, and in the stories I’m drawn to, fiction and non-fiction alike, the transformation is going to be for the better, preferably not only for themselves but for everyone around them, too.

I know it dates myself a bit–too old for some, too young for others–but with cable t.v. and VCR’s, the stories I enjoyed weren’t only in my mind; I could watch them unfold on the screen in my home in movies. I cannot tell you how many times I watched The Neverending Story or even now how often my husband and I make reference to the “big, good, strong hands” of the Rock Biter. This movie, of course, combined things I loved: reading a big book on a stormy day, suspense, and a fantasy world. I realize now that it also spoke to me on subconscious levels, portraying a grief-stricken child who sought escape but who also possessed the power to make a difference. (After reading an online article, there are so many other aspects of the plot worthy of exploration!) 

Bastian, the child in The Neverending Story, saves the fantasy world of Fantasia and even himself by being just the human child giving a new name to the dying empress. The name he gives the child empress is the name of his mother who had died, giving prominence and acknowledgement to his own grief but also breathing new life into a name he loved so deeply. The journey from when Bastian first snatched and hid away with the magical book to when he’s flying around on the luck dragon himself to get even with the bullies who plagued him is full of moments of facing the reality of what is, even if it meant looking at what is true through a fantasy lens.

If that makes sense to you, then you understand how it is that we read our Holy Scripture. Even if everything is not completely literal, then even in the figurative sense, there is Truth to be learned, even Truth to be applied to our lives centuries, even millennia later.

While some have the luxury of time to immerse themselves in the full scope of the stories of the Bible, most get a little snippet on Sunday mornings. Some, and hopefully most of you, get a little every day, enough to chew on and engage with daily, to keep you fed yet still hungry for more. It takes time and practice, but we do get to a place where we can come to the stories and experience them deeply.

Remembering what it’s like to be a child, hungry to read more, to explore more, I come to the story in Samuel and experience it. I picture Samuel as an apprentice, relegated to stay in place and do what is told by an aging superior. Samuel is young and alive, his eyesight as keen as his hearing. One night he hears his name called out, “Samuel! Samuel!” and with obedience he responds, “Here I am!” not once but three times.

The fourth time, however, was different. The elderly Eli, to whom the Word and the LORD had already been revealed, perceived that it was the LORD calling to Samuel. The elder now hopes that all the instruction has not been in vain, that the child is ready for the encounter, that he will be deemed worthy. Like any parent or teacher, we hope that the younger will reflect well on the elder. Eli’s sleep was probably restless the rest of the night, racing through all the possibilities, but our focus remains on Samuel who receives the Word of God. It is not good news. The burden of what God has spoken weighs heavily on Samuel through the night.

At morning’s light, Samuel rises to open the doors of the house of the LORD, as he had many times before. Only now he has the weight of the Word in his heart and mind. Not wanting to tell Eli, afraid to share the vision with Eli, Samuel undoubtedly cast his gaze elsewhere, focused on everything away from Eli. But Eli summons him, tenderly, “my son.” “Here I am,” Samuel replies, and at Eli’s bidding, he does the hard thing of telling him everything, of hiding nothing. What a relief to unburden, to share with his elder, but now the story continues. We know that the life of a prophet is not one to be envied.

If we focus solely on Samuel, however, we miss an important aspect of the story. While Samuel’s story shows us his becoming a prophet, even at such a young age, we also have a glimpse into Eli’s story. The back-story is that Eli’s sons have blasphemed God, and Eli did nothing about it, allowing it to persist. Eli was elderly, his eyes growing dim, but there was widespread lack of vision, the word of the Lord rare. Acknowledging the significance of the moment, perceiving that the Lord was breaking into the world, Eli demonstrates great faith in stepping back, letting Samuel step forward. Eli demonstrates great faith in hearing the truth, encouraging Samuel to share what has been spoken to him in full detail. Eli demonstrates great faith in allowing God’s will, acknowledging the presence of God, trusting God to “do what seems good,” even though he knows that it means punishment for his house forever.

We know that it’s not an easy thing to face the truth, that we’re not always ready to see it. Bastian in The Neverending Story didn’t see himself as a hero for a long while. Samuel needed the instruction from his teacher to guide him. Eli, the adult in our stories, shows his humility in accepting the consequences of his actions–or inactions.

As a country, the United States is relatively young. In many ways we are a child, too, filled with hope and imagination but already struck by grief and trauma from our birth. Some of us bear the marks of the collective trauma having Indigenous or African foremothers and fathers. Some of us bear the marks of our individual trauma, having lived through any manner of abuse, loss, addiction, (insert your trauma here). Any one moment of our lives where we choose to keep going when the light seems to fade, when visions are few and God seems far away, our story reveals how we persist in finding joy, find some way closer to fulfilling what it is we seek.

At some point, with all that has been said and done, we accept where we are and what is to come with faith that God will accomplish that which seems to be good. Such acceptance and allowance comes with maturity of Spirit. Let us not forget that we are always children of God. Remembering that we are children of God, we are part of God’s story. We, like Samuel, are called by name, called to reveal something of God in the world, something True. Maybe it’s joyful and beautiful like a song. Maybe it’s terrible and sad, like the fall of a household. Whether it’s lovely or awful, however, depends on how you see it.  If we can’t stand rap, Hamilton might grate on our nerves.  If we’re a white supremacist, the demise of the Proud Boys is awful. We all have our preferences, just as we all have our prejudices. But with whom does ultimate judgement lie? And how do we make sure that our story leads us along the narrative arc aligned with goodness?

“Lord, you have searched me out and known me…” the psalmist writes. Jesus saw Nathanael under the fig tree before his friend called out to him. Something of our lives, of our stories is known, maybe even before we realize it ourselves. When we are called, it is up to us to step forward and do what we’re given to do–whether that’s to speak the truth, to call for civil rights, to step into a new administration, to keep light shining when we’re in a dark place, or to do whatever it is that God sees fit for us to do to keep the presence of God alive. We keep that presence alive in our faith, hope, and love–the greatest of these being love.

If you wonder where your story has taken you or where it might be taking you, look for the times in your life where you realized something new. Pay particular attention to those times when what you learned empowered you to live more fully, liberated you from a limiting worldview, and opened your whole self to love more generously. Chances are that these were not easy moments in your life but a time when tremendous healing, grace, and mercy were present. Look around those moments in your life-story and see who might have been the Jesus in that moment inviting you to “come and see” or asking you to “follow me” toward a fullness of life made possible by God alone. Those particular moments are part of your story but enrich the lives of us all, for the better.

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Who is our King?

Jeremiah 31:7-14 | Psalm 84 | Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a | Matthew 2:1-12

What do you think of when you think of a king? Powerful man? Bejewelled crown? Royal robes? Huge castle and estate? Or maybe the Burger King, comic yet iconic, fictional but sharing in many of the images we typically think of when picturing a king.

I invite you for the next few minutes to ponder with me the question, “Where is the king?” And not just the question but also the implications around it: Who is king? How do we find him? What do we bring to him? What does it mean to us going forward?

The magi at the time of King Herod arrived asked: “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” They knew who the new king was–by prophecy and expectation. They were finding him by following the star–and thought the royal palace would be the logical place. (There they found a different king, maybe one of a mold that they and we might expect.) They brought precious gifts–of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And once they had found the Christ Child, they went home by a different road, becoming aware of the clash of kingdoms. Herod had been frightened at word of the new king being born, and those who challenged Herod’s authority were often sent to the grave. We’re left wondering what the magi did once they returned home empty-handed, but we imagine that their hearts and hope filled.

Reflecting on the magi’s experience, we can see that not all questions were answered in ways either they or we expect, which is often the case when we have ideas but not 100% clarity. There’s always more to consider, isn’t there? Usually something that surprises us or isn’t expected? Oftentimes what we have in mind doesn’t match with the reality we see before us.

So how do we respond to the questions? 

Who is our king? Christ is king, we might quickly reply. Is that where our loyalty lies? With Christ as king, is that how we navigate our lives? We hope. We try. Pursuing the other questions help us explore what that loyalty looks like.

How do we find our king? The three from afar followed a star, using their knowledge of astrology to find their way. If we lived in a monarchy, we’d have our governance to point toward the king. But Jesus wasn’t and isn’t the king of a particular place and time. What we know about his kingdom, we read in Holy Scripture. His references and parables of the kingdom of heaven reveal a way of living, being, and navigating life and relationships in communion with God and one another. Perhaps finding the king of this way of living and being requires our attention to an inner wisdom and practices that will cultivate such wisdom and guidance. The more we practice this Way of Love, the more we realize we encounter Christ not in manufactured moments but in mindful moments when we bring the fullness of our presence into relational encounters. That leads us to the next question, because once we’ve found our king:

What do we bring to him? To one fully human and fully divine, we bring nothing less than ourselves. In our Collect for the Day, we prayed, “Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity.” Our bringing awareness of God in every moment and bringing all of ourselves to God is all we can do. We try to attach tangible value to our reverence to God through our tithes and good works, but God’s economy is love, grace, and mercy–all immeasurable. God doesn’t need anything of us but wants us, desires us to be in relationship. People being who we are, we desire something more like ourselves to identify with, to offer praise and loyalty toward. Typically we want figures to look up to, to cheer for, to revere, even to worship, and we like them to look like us. In the Incarnation, God says, “See me.” Seeing Jesus Christ, maybe we can more clearly see ourselves. Then, we know what we are to bring forth into the world, what gifts we have to share, how best to radiate the light and love of Christ the King.

What does it mean to us going forward?

The wise folks who paid homage to the infant Jesus went home by a different road, knowing the danger they would face if they encountered Herod again. Not only did they know where the new king was, but they also knew how vulnerable he was as an infant of poor parents. All the material rappings of riches and royalty didn’t belong to this king, nor would they ever. The perception of what it meant to be king was being rewritten, tables turned, lives transformed. The magi were taking a different road home physically to protect themselves and hopefully the infant king and perhaps spiritually, too, reevaluating what it is they value and perceive in this life. We know that once the shepherds saw the Christ Child, they went and proclaimed to others what they had seen. They, too, had followed guidance (though theirs was angelic) to find the babe in a manger. They had brought only themselves and had returned to their flock, but they had seen the baby Jesus, the one born who prompted the angels to sing glory to God and pronounce peace and goodwill on earth.

So we might ask it again in a different way: What have our encounters with Christ changed for us? It’s all a comparative exercise, rather objective when we look at other people’s experiences. As Christians, though, we’re in the business of restoration of life, liberty, and love. We’re in the work of discipleship, of sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ and the presence of the Kin-dom of Heaven here and now. When did we last taste and see and know that God is good? When did we last find ourselves on our knees in mercy or in prayer, seeking forgiveness, giving thanks, begging for guidance? Maybe it was peace or assurance that we felt in the core of our being but knew that it wasn’t by our own strength that it was possible, feeling more like a peace that passes all understanding.

Here at All Saints’ we are finding our way toward the kin-dom, practicing how we offer ourselves to the glory of God, how we share the Good News of Christ in his life, death, and resurrection. We are learning and growing as a faithful community, one rooted in Jesus and growing toward fullness in the Holy Trinity. We are nourished by prayer and praise and fellowship in any way we can when these days so much is different. And the fruits of all our labors bear semblance to fruits of the Spirit (which, in case we want a reminder or to keep a checklist for 2021, they are: charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, forbearance, gentleness, faith, modesty, self-control, and chastity). It takes all of us to build up this community, sharing all of who we are for the glory of God.

Perhaps that’s one of the most notable aspects of Christ the King: he’s not in it for himself. Quite unlike Herod, Jesus has no pretense of securing power in the “traditional” sense. And while we have numerous stories of people who encounter God, even through Jesus himself, being told, “Do not be afraid,” we never see Jesus frightened. Pained, sorrowed, suffering, yes, but not afraid. His kingdom is secured, made only richer by those with eyes to see and ears to hear, by those who seek to follow, who believe.

So we, as a community of believers and those seeking, are finding our way toward the kin-dom of heaven by following the Light of Christ that we recognize in others and ourselves and by practicing the Way of Love and bringing our whole selves to the altar and to one another for God’s glory. And each time we find ourselves in the presence of Christ, if we are paying attention, we can run out and share that goodness with someone else, encouraging them to join us in this holy work. At the very least, we can marvel at the experience and try something loving and life-giving rather than keep wandering in darkness. For we have seen a great light, and things don’t have to stay the same.

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The Work of Christmas

Isaiah 61:10-62:3 | Psalm 147 | Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7 | John 1:1-18

The First Sunday after Christmas doesn’t always fall so close to Christmas Day. Here we are on the Third Day of Christmas, and if your house is anything like mine, there are still a couple of recipes left to make, some cards to send, some movies to watch. It’s hard to maintain the Christmas excitement because it’s been widely manufactured into one day’s experience, to be consumed and done with in 24 hours or less.

Mary and Joseph know what most new parents experience: the birth of Jesus was just the beginning. When I was a doula and childbirth instructor, I would caution the mamas that three days after birth was a day to watch out for because hormones shift. Maybe the milk has come in, maybe not. Maybe the baby is sleeping too much or too little. Maybe we have good support, maybe not. There are many variables at play, but one thing is certain, it’s still a liminal time. The birthing experience itself throws things out of whack, so consuming is the labor of birth. Time is irrelevant. And now this healing of a mother’s body and the caring of the fragile, completely dependent new life is equally consuming work. It’s not only time for healing and nourishing, but it is also, we hope, time for bonding, nurturing, resting (as much as possible), and being fully in the moment. All of this doesn’t happen on its own; we have to make a conscious effort. Being a parent is a lot of work, and those early days are just the beginning.

Our gospel lesson today speaks of another beginning, of Word becoming flesh and living among us. That Word is life itself, light–the kind that enlightens everyone and isn’t overcome by darkness, and glory full of grace and truth. But this Word is not known to everyone. Those who do recognize, know, and believe, are filled with faith, and their lives are transformed.

How are lives transformed? Well, at our baptism, we are given the name Christian. As Paul says to the Galatians, we are adopted as children of God. As God’s children, recipients of the Holy Spirit, we have tremendous power to extend our personal transformation beyond ourselves. We may not all have a conversion story as dramatic as Paul’s. We may not have experienced a life-threatening illness or crippling addiction to overcome but by the grace of God and support of many. We do have–what everyone has–is choice. We all live in a time when the choices we make are intended to serve ourselves better if not best. When we choose to live a life to offer glory to God, to share the light of Christ with others, to participate in the life-giving, liberating, loving will of God, we make a personal shift to consider ourselves one among many among the children of God. Our hearts are broken open to bleed for the world, not in an act of dying but in an act of surrender to something greater than ourselves. We might be afraid to name the “greater thing” as God, and I would challenge you to consider where that fear comes from. Does naming something that exceeds our comprehension take away our sense of control? Is that what we fear? Lack of control? Because that’s valid. Being out of control is scary. Not being able to contain a deadly virus is terrifying. Not being able to heal the sick is heart-wrenching. Watching events unfold for self-serving reasons while billions suffer is sickening in and of itself. The actions of others is out of our control. But what is in our control? Our own choices. Our own actions. How we understand ourselves and how we relate to others . . . and how we relate to that which is greater than. How we relate to God.

As Christians, we name God. We try to understand God through Jesus. We believe that Jesus is the greatest gift. God’s giving of God’s self through Jesus, as through a son–the only way we could try to comprehend how God loves us. Through Jesus comes our salvation, redemption, and adoption. We have to choose whether to recognize that for ourselves, to allow ourselves to be transformed, to let go of our ego enough to let God’s grace and truth shine through our lives. When we do this, our lives are changed.

Being transformed by God’s grace, we, too, can share in God’s work. God’s work–the work that began in the beginning of Creation and which continues to this day and forever more. Here at All Saints’, we are keen to hear the gospel call to care for others, to lift up the lowly, and we act on it, sharing whenever and however we can. The words of Thomas R. Steagald in his commentary on our reading from Galatians gave me pause: “Social renderings of the gospel are incomplete unless founded on or accompanied by personal transformation.” Do we hear the call to care for our neighbors as something we do because it is the code of Christians, a law to follow, or do we share love of neighbors out of the experience of being loved by God? Does it matter, so long as we are acting compassionately? Probably not to the recipient. But in my experience, it matters to me, and it affects my relationship with God. The authenticity of work done in and out of love for God enriches the lives of all.

Just like being a parent requires time and attention, being a Christian isn’t a passive identity. Others may know we are Christians by our love, but that love takes work and requires all of ourselves. We know this because the story of Jesus’ life and death is not compartmentalized: it’s all about living in accord with God’s will–loving God with all heart, mind, soul, and strength and loving neighbors as ourselves. The gift that we’re given each Christmas we celebrate is as joyful and triumphant as it is heartbreaking and demanding. And if we are to receive the gift of Christ, we, too, are wrapped into the work of God to share that light with the world. 

All that we can or might do in our own work pales in comparison to what God has done, is doing, and has yet to do. Our Psalm today counts the ways God reveals God’s majesty, and these are beautiful images of provision and protection, intimacy and blessing, in heaven and on earth. A God who does all this isn’t impressed by human extravagance but is pleased by reverence, by those who heed the statutes given. Those who know humility in the encounter with God are the ones who will bring the transformational change into the world, who will share the goodwill and peace that Jesus Christ embodied.

While these liminal days between Christmas and New Year’s offer many folks time off from work, time to rest and stay home, my son reminded me that I have one of the jobs that doesn’t take time off for Christmas. That’s true, but it’s true of all of us who believe that we never take time off from being Christian. It’s who we are, when we’re working, resting, and playing, 365, 24/7. 

And in case we lose sight of what our work is, Howard Thurmas summed it up well:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.

from The Mood of Christmas and Other Celebrations

That music in the heart is the sweet harmony of finding where our lives meet God’s will, when we accomplish any aspect of this holy work. Now is as good a time as ever to make a plan for what we’ll do next. I know Padre and I are taking time this next week to plan for the year to come and maybe take an extra nap or two. May we all find a few moments to allow room for the Holy Word into our lives, to let God guide us for once, to offer thanks for all that is given to us, and to accept responsibility for what is given to us to do. We have holy work to do, and we have everything we need to do it, if we so choose.

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In a Moment of Crisis

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16 | Canticle 15 | Romans 16:25-27 | Luke 1:26-38

When deadlines approach, when curtain calls are about to be made, when due dates approach, we know it’s a now-or-never moment and pray that all we’ve prepared for is enough to make it through to the other side–that our bosses will be satisfied, that the crowd cheers, that the mother and babe are safe. The stress we feel in our bodies in these moments tell us what we know: we’re in a moment of crisis. Some way or another, we’re fighting for our survival, which may or may not truly be life threatening

This past week the “Living Well Through Advent 2020” reflection for Friday was titled “When Hope is Hard.” Robbin Brent articulates what we all know: we’re in crisis mode. The magnitude of all these crises can leave us all overwhelmed and devoid of hope. Brent shares that “the Chinese characters that form the word ‘crisis’ mean both danger and opportunity.” Since I’ve become quite familiar with Google Translate in my efforts to communicate in Spanish, I checked the translation and found that that might not necessarily be the case. The characters translate, if Google is correct, to “in danger” and “machine.”

Crisis: 危 = in danger, 机 = machine // Opportunity: 机 = machine 会 = meeting

Trying to figure out where “opportunity” comes into play, I found that the characters that make up “opportunity” are those for “machine” and “meeting.” 

This whole play on words invites us to think about what we are manifesting, what we are dealing with. Are we in crisis, where danger is being created, or are we in a moment of opportunity, where we are creating something together?

Our lesson from Samuel gives us a glimpse into a moment when crisis is at bay. David’s enemies aren’t a worry, and his house is secure. Like most of us, when things are settled, we look with new eyes upon our surroundings, and David realized that his home was better than the one they had protecting the Holy of Holies. The LORD deserves better! King David’s prophet Nathan agrees, and I’m sure they were already visualizing the grandeur to come of the LORD’s house. However, the voice of the LORD interrupts, tapping his servant Nathan to share God’s will, to remind of God’s plans, and they do not include focusing on a physical structure. God’s will does include obedience of his faithful who will be in and of themselves the bearer of God’s will. Nathan and David are truly in a moment of opportunity, having been met with the clarity of God’s intention for God’s people.

The circumstances are completely different for Mary. For Mary, the crisis–the danger machine–is being put into motion. Take someone who is marginalized (a young female in a patriarchal society) and now impregnate her by someone not her betrothed. She has no livelihood, no home of her own, and no social standing. It would be hard to find hope in this situation. 

And yet, there is opportunity in this moment. Gabriel brings his announcement as a messenger of God and proclaims Mary’s favor. Does Mary perceive the danger building, the crisis at this time of her life? How could she not? If we were witnesses to this moment, would we not be shouting, “Run away, Mary! Save yourself!” As a people accustomed to looking out for our own well-being, we probably would. We’d also be looking for a weapon to get rid of the home invader Gabriel.

But who has God’s favor? Those who keep the covenant. The faithful. The obedient to the will of God.

The disclaimer here is that obedience to God’s will is life-giving, loving, and liberating. We aren’t told anything of Mary’s faith except her reply to be the mother of God: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your Word.” I appreciate the commentary that speaks to Mary not being violated by the Holy Spirit, being forced into obedience or submission, nor viewing the invitation as optional. Being the Mother of God is who she was created to be. It is her vocation, her calling, her identity. The opportunity for Mary here is meeting with God and becoming fully who she is, along with bringing into this world who God is, whether she can comprehend that or not.

Mary’s faith is her hope. Surely she knew that she had no idea how this would play out. Surely she knew the risks. Surely there were moments where her heart raced, anxiety increased, and tears fell. But we have her song, her proclamation of praise and her sharing of God’s will that is good news for all who have the heart to know what she knows, being in harmony with the Divine, her womb the mansion for the Christ Child.

We’ve been praying in song these weeks of Advent, “O come, o come, Emmanuel.” We’re inviting for the God with us to come now. We’re asking for God to be revealed in our lives. If you’ve been praying with intention, with sincerity, maybe your heart is starting to race. Maybe you’ve had tingling of intuition or nagging thoughts or a sense of restlessness, all good indications that you need to pay attention to what is being asked of you. We discern our thoughts carefully when they are persistent and seem to make no sense. Discernment is for all of us seeking to live into who God is calling us to be, for all of us looking for our vocation, what it is God has created us to do.

Maybe what we discern will be revealed to be our own agenda, like David. Thankfully, working in and with community, often what is a personal agenda and what is God’s will can be revealed. We all need our Nathan’s to help us along the way. Maybe what we discern will be life-changing, demanding nothing less than our whole being as we share with the world the presence of Christ.

Maybe we can do one small thing to keep crisis at bay and create opportunity instead. Working with others for the glory of God, we can keep hope alive. That’s one of the reasons I share my pledge with All Saints’. The work we do here is important to me, not only for my employment but especially for sharing the unconditional love of God for everyone. 

This past summer, my friend The Rev. Cameron Nations was interviewed for what they were doing at the parish he served then, St. Luke’s in the Birmingham, AL, area. I thought it was great, too, as they were forgiving medical debt across central Alabama, just over $8 million. Good for them. This fall in one of the Facebook groups I follow, folks were asked what they would do with $10,000 in cash. A recurring response included paying off medical debt. These are people in Northwest Arkansas, people who would put money toward paying off medical debt so they could get a better car, pay for school, or buy a house. This kept nagging at me until I reached out to Cameron to ask what they did in Alabama. He told me it was easy, would totally work in Arkansas, and sent me a link to I searched the website and quickly found that Arkansas is one of the hotspots for medical debt in the country, not surprising given our rates of poverty (17.2%, seventh highest in the nation). Why has this not been done, I thought? Surely someone has already done this. Surely someone else will do it, right? These are the thoughts going through the minds of people watching someone choke at a restaurant. Surely someone else will step up and do the heimlich, won’t they? In the meantime, people choke to death. In the meantime, people are at risk of eviction, calling us for utility assistance, visiting food pantries because they can’t afford food, toilet paper, or coats.

I exchanged a few emails and have been saying quite a few prayers. We now have a statewide campaign launched to eliminate the $24 million in medical debt that Arkansans carry. This isn’t all of it, to be sure. Those whose debt could be eliminated are those who are two times below the poverty level (for a family of four that’s an income less than $52,400/year). The program is also for those who have debts greater than their assets and whose debts are greater than 5% of their annual income. There is no discrimination based on residency (I asked specifically thinking of our undocumented neighbors).

We know, especially during the pandemic, that our healthcare situation is in crisis. Maybe this is one way we can provide opportunity. Medical centers get at least a portion of what they are trying to collect, boosting their revenue. People at the margins get a piece of good news in the mail rather than a collection notice.

God is with us, and we are a people of hope, even and especially when it is hard. Our practices of walking the Way of Love have prepared us for this moment so that we, too, can bear the Light of Christ to the World.

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