On the Edge of Knowing

 

Acts 7:55-60 | Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16 | 1 Peter 2:2-10 | John 14:1-14


That this Sunday is Mother’s Day here in the states and that we have chosen today to celebrate those graduating with their various accomplishments make me keenly aware both of my motherhood and of my firstborn graduating from high school. It probably doesn’t take much to imagine the vulnerability I feel in this place and time as a mother generally and as parent of a child who–at 18–is (we hope above all hopes!) prepared for the next stage of her adult life. This is a vulnerable place because it feels like being at the precipice of knowledge, on the edge of what is known and unknown, and like setting out on a journey with no idea what the traveling conditions or the final destination will be.

Marie Howe, former poet laureate of New York, said in an interview in 2013 that we often turn to metaphor when describing something that’s real because “to actually endure the thing itself, … hurts us for some reason.” We want to compare whatever “it” is to something else more readily known rather than take time to really see something as it is, endure it for all its worth until we realize that there is nothing more valuable or comparable than the thing itself. It’s easier to look away. She speaks with the authority of a writer/poet and professor who has her students start class by writing ten observations of the actual world. She said the students have such a hard time with this. If they can recall something–say toast, for example, they would rather say the toast is like sandpaper rather than describing it as dry, brown, and crumbly.

Howe theorizes our inability to make honest, aware observations comes from our constant distractions in the speed and chaos of life in the digital age. We spend more time gazing into the screen of our phones, computers, and televisions than into the eyes of one another. One could say we get accustomed to our hectic, over-filled, preoccupied lives, especially if we’re in the child-raising or career phase of life, and it easily just becomes the way it is, how life works. So even when we’re out of the “busy” phase, we perpetuate busy-ness in other stages of life. What we know is the perpetual busy-ness; we rely on our phones, calendars, and reminders. We get stuck in the roundabout of daily chaos. But if we keep doing the same thing, we’re relatively certain we’re going to get similar results. It’s called predictability, and most of us like the security of predictability. I’ll keep doing a good job, pay my bills on time, tuck the kids into bed with love, and wake to repeat the same things the next day. I know what to expect, and it gives me a sense of security. The same is true even if what I’m doing isn’t good by any standard. Perpetuating cycles of poverty, abuse, addiction, dysfunction–you name it–bring with it the same comfort of familiarity, even if it’s “the devil you know.” Our “roundabout” life doesn’t ever really take us anywhere, though . . . and certainly not to everlasting life.

After about four weeks of making concrete observations, Professor Howe says she has to put a cap on the amount of writing time the students have. She hears the scritch-scratching of their writing as they rush to get it all down, knowing their time is almost up. And when she changes the assignment, telling them to switch to using metaphors for their observations, they ask, “Why?

What brings about this switch? How do we move from not noticing our surroundings in all their value and sensuality to being at a place where we can’t imagine not noticing them and giving them full account?

Something happens to get us out of the roundabout: we can choose to set a different pace or to evaluate life more closely. We can retreat, quite literally backing away from the regular program. We can take the scenic route instead, maybe even bike or walk. One of my many fond Sewanee memories is riding my bike to school with the kids (even if Casey told me I looked like the Wicked Witch of the West in my black clothes and a basket on the back of my bike). Riding a bike lets us set the pace, especially if we’re with kids. We feel the wind in our face, note the smell of spring or rain. We notice even the slightest incline and rejoice in the euphoria of speeding downhill. We can also listen to and follow new directions, like when Professor Howe tells us to notice the smell of the air or the face of a stranger and then holds us accountable to recount the experience. We can pause or stop in illness or pain and listen anew to the demands of our body.

But what if I get a roadblock in my little roundabout life that I don’t choose or see coming, like a pink slip, a collect call from jail, or a diagnosis from the doctor? The flow stops abruptly. The unexpected has suddenly arrived, and my discomfort is off the charts. Rather than doing something destructive, at the end of the stressful day, I might think, “It’s been a while since I’ve prayed before going to sleep. Compline’s usually comforting (and predictable), so…I’ll give it a go.” When I get to page 129 in our Book of Common Prayer, I read the words of Psalm 31, the same words we said today, and I pray for our Lord to “be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe.” In this time of uncertainty, the prayers for God to see me through this night illuminate the unknown not only of the night to come but of my uncertain future and my eventual death. I realize that in the rush of my daily round, prayers have fallen to the wayside, church is just another thing to do, and only if it’s a good day do I have some sense that God is in the midst of it all. But how striking are the words “Into your hands I commend my spirit” when I stand at the edge of life as I know it and the unknown of life to come, whether it’s tomorrow or the hereafter.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says in John 14, which also happens to be one of the gospel readings often used in our burial rite. How meaningful to read this before our death. Jesus assures us that we are provided for, that he is the way, the truth, and the life, that through him, we know God the Father and everlasting life. In these simple words, there’s such peace and clarity. Jesus is the way, the path we follow. Jesus is the truth, everlasting and certain. Jesus is the life, vibrant and radiant. When I’m standing on the edge and feeling the world as I know it falling apart, Jesus reminds me that he has prepared a way and even has a place for me, for everyone. I honestly don’t imagine heaven as a bunch of houses, but I know that wherever Jesus is, there I will be also. When I question the validity of Jesus’ truth, he reminds me that my doubts are within the bounds of normal but are not necessary. Thank God for clueless apostles! Not only Thomas but Philip also needed a bit more proof for the outlandish claims Jesus made, and Jesus understood, knowing our hearts as he does. Jesus didn’t need signs or miracles to prove his divinity; those works were provided for you and me. And, when I fear change or death itself, Jesus reminds me of the triumph of life, the light overcoming the darkness, even if we have to go through the darkness first.

So often what is unknown is portrayed as darkness–shadowy, cloudy, or obscured. Jesus, let alone God, seem so far away. And yet, so often we say one’s future looks bright. We don’t know anything more, but looking into the faces of our graduates, it seems so easy to see the light and be sure of the presence of Christ with them, to see the Holy Spirit at work through their gifts and talents. Looking forward with faith brings a bit of light, which fuels our hope, making it even brighter. Add to that the joy of love, and we look into the face of uncertainty with a spirit of adventure. This is how we break open our hearts to love with all that we have. This is how we Christians walk the way of Christ, the way of love, to see our neighbors not as a statistic but as people doing their best with what they have. This is how we continue to learn and grow emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually, even though that knowledge will inevitably open us to more pain, responsibility, and greater awareness of the unknown.

It’s what we do know of goodness and love that bolsters our faith and strengthens our belief, even when it’s hard and hurts our hearts. When we’ve stopped to notice the smell of a newly bathed infant; when we’ve lost ourselves in uncontrollable laughter; when we’ve opened our arms as wide as we can to give and receive a hug from a beloved; when we’ve clenched our throats against a sob as we smiled and assured a love it was okay to go . . . at these times and so many more, we have, indeed, tasted that the Lord is good. And we know that the only way we have the strength to endure anything at all is because of God’s mercy and grace. With that blessed assurance, found mostly in those moments when time stands still as we stand on the edge, we love fiercely, lean into the unknown, and step toward eternal life through Christ.

 

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Beyond the Shadow of Doubt

Acts 2:14a, 22-32 | Psalm 16 | 1 Peter 1:3-9 | John 20:19-31


Oh, the Easter joy!

We proclaim our resurrected “Alleluias!” as we continue in the glorious season of Easter. There’s not enough to be said of the exuberance of Easter morning joy, the euphoria that comes with the masses celebrating our Risen Lord: our newest frocks, the fragrance of the lilies, and music of the angels. We get caught up in the moment, carried away into the sentiment of the masses, but the mass sentiment that sends us into praise also carried us into cries of “Crucify him!” not long ago. All the more reason for our renewed praise to resound to the heavens, for God’s will surpasses our will, God’s triumph overcomes our transgressions, and God’s love knows no limits . . . even for the masses and especially for the individual.

If the Easter joy hasn’t caught up to you yet or if you’re spiritually fatigued or maybe even heartbroken, you might sympathize with Thomas today. Grief strikes us all differently, and I can imagine Thomas as one not so quick to rebound. We have the luxury of hindsight that gives us assurance of what’s to come. No matter how sincerely we move through Lent and Holy Week and enter into darkness of life without Jesus, we know Easter’s coming; so we never really lose sight of the Light that is Christ. And don’t get me wrong, I’m infinitely grateful for this eternal hope. But our kinship with Thomas is this: he attends to his very real and present grief, and he’s openly honest about doubting even the good news proclaimed by his friends.

In case you’re lost in thought about your own heartache or grief, let me draw you in as we move into deeper understanding of our dear apostle Thomas. Moving deeper into understanding requires equally deep listening. You’ve probably heard me mention holy listening before–something familiar to you if you’re involved in contemplative practices or if you are familiar with the work of Parker Palmer. In Parker Palmer’s Circles of Trust, the circles or groups use a “third thing” to get us outside ourselves, untangled from our monkey minds of busy thoughts and self-centeredness, and get us closer to God. Poetry is most often used as the third thing, for good poetry has a way of pointing toward greater truths, which is the case in Denise Levertov’s poem “Saint Thomas Didymus.” She writes from the viewpoint of Thomas, taking us in and through his web of grief.

Before I share the poem, however, it’s important to know that when we use a poem or other reading or art or music as a gateway to deeper understanding, we set our intention on being present and still as we can be. We heighten our awareness like a hunter, seekers that we are, as we listen for what pricks not only our ears but our hearts. What makes us tense or relaxed? Where do we sense a surge of energy or feel our flesh tingle with goosebumps? Trusting that we are in a safe and holy place and time, we open our whole selves to prayer, opening heart, mind, and soul to hear, ponder, wonder, and maybe even understand what God might reveal to us.

Now with presence and prayerful attention–maybe even closing your eyes, we turn to Levertov’s portrayal of Thomas, who begins with a flashback to a time earlier in Jesus’ ministry when a father with a son possessed comes seeking healing (Mark 23-25). She writes:

In the hot street at noon I saw him

a small man

gray but vivid, standing forth

beyond the crowd’s buzzing

holding in desperate grip his shaking

teethgnashing son,

 

and thought him my brother.

 

I heard him cry out, weeping and speak

those words,

Lord, I believe, help thou

   mine unbelief,

 

and knew him

my twin:

a man whose entire being

had knotted itself

into the one tightdrawn question,

Why,

why has this child lost his childhood in suffering,

why is this child who will soon be a man

tormented, torn, twisted?

Why is he cruelly punished

who has done nothing except be born?

The twin of my birth

was not so close

as that man I heard

say what my heart

sighed with each beat, my breath silently

   cried in and out,

in and out.

 

After the healing,

he, with his wondering,

newly peaceful boy, receded;

no one

dwells on the gratitude, the astonished joy,

    the swift

acceptance and forgetting.

I did not follow

to see their changed lives.

What I retained

was the flash of kinship.

Despite

all that I witnessed,

      his question remained

my question, throbbed like a stealthy cancer,

known

only to doctor and patient. To others

   I seemed well enough.

 

So it was

that after Golgotha

my spirit in secret

lurched in the same convulsed writhings

that tore that child

before he was healed.

And after the empty tomb

when they told me that He lived, had spoken to Magdalen,

told me

that though He had passed through the door like a ghost

He had breathed on them

the breath of a living man —

      even then

when hope tried with a flutter of wings

to lift me —

still, alone with myself,

        my heavy cry was the same: Lord,

I believe,

help thou mine unbelief.

 

I needed

blood to tell me the truth,

the touch

of blood. Even

my sight of the dark crust of it

round the nailholes

didn’t thrust its meaning all the way through

to that manifold knot in me

that willed to possess all knowledge,

refusing to loosen

unless that insistence won

the battle I fought with life

 

But when my hand

   led by His hand’s firm clasp

entered the unhealed wound,

my fingers encountering

rib-bone and pulsing heat,

what I felt was not

scalding pain, shame for my

obstinate need,

but light, light streaming

into me, over me, filling the room

as I had lived till then

in a cold cave, and now

coming forth for the first time,

the knot that bound me unravelling,

I witnessed

      all things quicken to color, to form,

my question

     not answered but given

its part

in a vast unfolding design lit

by a risen sun.*

Such is Thomas’s transformation, as imagined by Levertov, the unfolding of belief that leads to Thomas’s declaration of “My Lord and my God!”

How beautiful it must have been for the other apostles to witness Thomas’s declaration. We have no sign that they had outcast Thomas for his unbelief: if anything, they may have held him nearer in his tender grief, which is what we do for those we love. Thomas was among the apostles that night the week after Easter morning. Thomas was in that closed room. Surrounded by others he felt alone in his doubt. As God would have it, we see Thomas there, and we witness the outreaching, the outpouring of Christ’s love for him. Christ overcame death and the grave for all, and all means all, no limits or restrictions.

Here today, whether we are strong in our faith and belief or weak with pain and doubt, as we come with praise and thanksgiving for our Risen Lord, may we feel the light streaming in, allow it to swim all around us, and usher it into the world with peace and great joy. For the Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

 

*“Saint Thomas Didymus,” Denise Levertov, The Stream and the Sapphire: Selected Poems on Religious Themes, New York: New Directions Books, 1997, pp. 80-84.

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The Only Way is Through

Isaiah 50:4-9a | Psalm 31:9-16 | Philippians 2:5-11 | Matthew 26:14-27:66

If only the passion narrative were a “choose-your-own-adventure” story where we could make the decisions of the many characters and craft a story that wasn’t so heart-wrenching and tragic. If only our faith let us show up for Christmas and Easter to celebrate the glorious news of Jesus Christ’s birth and resurrection. If only all the stories throughout the Bible revealed the joy and faith and hope and love so we could truly celebrate being Christians and share that happiness with others. If only we weren’t so quick to run away or avoid the pain and suffering of reality.

May your hearing of the the Gospel reading today set the tone for and enrich your experience of Holy Week. It’s important that we tell the story year after year. Like our Jewish ancestors who insisted on the telling of the Passover and the observance of holy days that united them as a people delivered, a people favored by God, we, too, must tell our story and observe our holy days: our identities depend upon it. There’s insistence for all peoples and tribes to tell our stories so our children and our children’s children know and never forget who we are and where we’ve come from; it makes us stronger, these common bonds. Sharing our stories within our families and outside our comfort zones has a way of keeping our connection with reality and our dependency upon the grace of God in check.

Consider this:

Sitting with a convict who has admitted to heinous crimes, I can give testimony to the power of God to forgive him, offer redemption and wholeness, if he prays to God with repentance because I, too, have sinned (even if it’s nowhere near his crimes). He sees me as a prosperous woman in society. I must be living life right, so he wants to do what I’m doing. He wants God’s favor to be with him, too, because up to this point in his life, he can’t remember a time that didn’t reek of the stench of smoke and mildew, sweat and blood, and other things he’s trying to be polite and not mention. This makes me feel like I’ve done right, that I’ve shown him the right way. He’s going to be a better person because I’m a better person. I’m going to make him more like me.

But what about this alternative:

Sitting with the same convict, I can listen . . . not just to his crimes but to all the burdens he’s been carrying for some time: where the smoke and mildew came from, whose sweat and blood. Listen without judgment as he recounts the stories of his youth, revealing the dysfunction of his family and his parents’ so-called friends and how he thought he found a sense of belonging with his friends in school, but it turned out to be a re-creation of another mess tied up in drugs and crime. His truth-telling unfolds like a never-ending stream, and I watch as he won’t let the tears fall from his eyes until he sees my tears fall unbidden.

He looks down and away as the truth and tears stream together. All I can tell him is that the only one who knows the depths of his pain and suffering is Jesus. I won’t dismiss his doubts; rather, I share stories of those who have also questioned, “Why me?” I remind him that it’s okay to be wary of those who profess righteousness because even those who praised Jesus as he entered Jerusalem stood aside or joined the masses to have him crucified. Who’s to say we would have done differently?

I hardly know what I’m saying because a force greater than myself is flowing through me to him. I trust it to be Spirit, and I feel it to be Love. It must be what living with the mind of Christ is like. I feel small and insignificant but feel like I will never let go of the faith that holds me in the embrace of the Almighty and makes me strong. It’s not my strength that broke the floodgates of the wounded man before me. Only Jesus Christ, who persistently did what no one should have been able to do, what no one was supposed to do . . . Only Jesus Christ who faced, mostly in opposition, all manner of authority and power and still rode into town on a donkey without any sort of defense–not even fear . . . Only Jesus Christ who let us choose what would be done, knowing it meant showing us the way of suffering and death . . . Only Jesus Christ who “holds all things together” (Col 1:17) releases us into the freedom of true Love.

We deceive ourselves if we skip the arduous journey to the cross this week. Yes, we know the full arc of the story, but if we take some time to sit with the stations of the cross or just pray with this reading from Matthew, what do we find ourselves resisting? What do we want to skip over? What do we think we already know enough about? What are we already “right” about?

Jesus, who enters our world through a willing, unmarried young woman, who shows our world that things aren’t always what they seem, brings the divine into our world right smack dab into the mess of things as they are and shows us all how to go through it. We’ll die, yet we’ll live. This is the way of the cross. This is our story. This is who we are as a Christian people.

In Matthew, we are told that Judas realized too late how pointless his betrayal was, how greatly he had been used to no good end. Whatever he thought he was getting out of the deal, it had been an illusion. Things weren’t as they seemed, and he had so completely lost hope, he rejected life altogether. If only Judas had seen. If only Judas had been there. If only Judas had persevered through the despair, he, too, would have tasted and seen the glory of the Resurrection, the power of redemption, and hope everlasting while still in the flesh.

We can’t let ourselves be fooled by illusion, by quick fixes or cheap promises that guarantee us a bypass over the pain and suffering of life. We can’t succumb to normalcy of oppression and domination. We can’t let ourselves forget our story, that it’s our job, our responsibility, to live our lives in the way of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit — because Jesus showed us that we can, with God’s help.

It’s going to mean reading even more of the Bible to tune our ears to hear God’s guidance and remember God’s power, mostly through the stories of those who walked the way before us. We have to talk to strangers, listen intently to our neighbors near and far, and get outside our comfort zones. Most importantly, living in the way of Christ means loving without judgment, loving and living without fear because we know who truly holds the power of Life.

As we walk through this week, we will open our hearts and minds to remember. We’ll taste hope. We’ll be afraid. We’ll worry. We’ll face death. And we’ll sleep, knowing the Son will rise to greet us Easter morning. But we’ve got to go through hell first.

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Life-changing Water

 

Exodus 17:1-7 | Psalm 95 | Romans 5:1-11 | John 4:5-42

We know this Jesus showing up at the well, exhausted and parched, completely willing to take a shortcut. This human Jesus has dusty feet, sand and sweat in his eyes, hair, and beard, and the weight of the world heavy on his heart. It had to be a relief for the disciples to offer to run into town to find some food. “No, you go ahead. I’ll just wait here for you.” Haven’t we all said that, hoping for a bit of rest?

The woman at the well- acrylic, mix media- David Bondt, 2016

We know this woman at the well. She’s outcast but proud. Eloquent and intelligent. She knows her place in the margins of society and has crafted her armor well to handle the torment . . . the persistent sexism, discrimination, and oppression.

And we know the expected social script. Then as now, the script would have them ignore one another, pass each other by without interaction or engagement and look the other way. Jesus would rest. She would get her water–transactions complete without complication.

But Jesus has a way of complicating things.

He’s always writing a new script. Before we even know why, Jesus knows that this woman’s heart has been broken and a fortress built around it to protect her vulnerability. Before we even know that there’s a harvest ripe and ready, Jesus knows that this woman has the potential to sound the call that now is the time for the world to be turned upside down, for the world as we know it to give way, for all we’ve ever hoped for to be manifest. He knows the potential in each of us, and the necessity for each and every one of us to experience His transformational love so that we, too, can turn the world upside down.

In his commentary on The Gospel of John, William Barclay says,

“There are two revelations in Christianity: the revelation of God and the revelation of ourselves. We never really see ourselves until we see ourselves in the presence of Christ; and then we are appalled at the sight.”

Maybe this is one reason we get this reading of the woman at the well in the midst of Lent. How long can we carry on with our defenses up? It’s not that hard to do if we play along with society’s script, maintaining propriety and expectations. The majority of our society isn’t observing a holy Lent. The majority isn’t turning away from self-sufficiency, giving intentional thought toward dependency upon God. But we’ve already taken that precarious step out of the rut. When we got our crosses on Ash Wednesday, we reoriented ourselves, opening our awareness to seek with our heart, mind, and soul where God is in our lives. It’s a heart- and gut-wrenching revelation when we see that God isn’t manifest fully in our lives because of who we are. We are “appalled” because the truth is that we inhibit God from being revealed by the choices we make, but it’s our next step after our self-revelation that makes all the difference.

Our woman at the well carries herself in the heat of day to draw water. She responds to Jesus when he speaks to her; she even banters with him, gets a little sarcastic. As soon as Jesus indicates he knows the pain beneath her facade, the exchange becomes serious. Whereas the woman acted as if she had nothing more to lose, Jesus seemingly peels back her armor and holds a mirror to show her the wounds left by five husbands. Maybe they had died; maybe they had beaten her; maybe they had used her and left her. Maybe the man she was with now was nothing more to her than shelter and protection. His eyes see her as the wounded woman she is, as only the two of them fully know. By seeing her as a wounded child of God, Jesus reminds her of her humanity, her value and worth, the shreds of which she had to box up and stow away because to hold it close to the surface served as a reminder of her constant pain and put on display her vulnerability, her need for care and love and healing. Under that blazing noonday sun and in the clear gaze of Jesus, the woman discovers herself as God sees her. She stays with Jesus long enough to let her heart and mind open to the Truth before her, the Truth that is as available as the water from the well but even more abundant, more pure, and available to all–no well or bucket required for the living water Christ offers.

Barclay also says that “Christianity begins with a sense of sin. It begins with the sudden realization that life as we are living it will not do. We awake to ourselves and we awake to our need of God.”

Our sense of sin, however we express it, is us living our lives turned away from God, in a sense, leaving a stone covering the well of living water. The longer we leave it covered, the longer it accumulates layers of debris and excuses and rationalizations. The longer we let ourselves go without tasting the fresh, living water, the more we normalize our thirst and allow ourselves to be falsely satisfied with stagnant substitutes. The longer we go without sharing the truths behind our hurts and fears, the longer we isolate ourselves from everyone else lest they, too, inflict more wounds. In our pain and fear, we pile more dirt over the mound that we’re fairly certain is a deep dark hole we should be afraid of . . . because we’ve forgotten what living water is, what life it gives, and from whence it comes. We must remember the importance of sharing our stories so we don’t forget what is True.

Our greatest revelation and discovery is that

Jesus is who He is for us all.

It is Jesus’ immeasurably powerful love that strips away the layers of guilt and shame until He sees the naked truth of the sinners we have been because we projected our selfish judgment onto God. We feel awful for what we’ve done, and rather than turn with penitent hearts to God, we run away, ashamed and afraid. Who but Jesus can seen us in our brokenness and say, “I know. Come to me. See for yourself that you are forgiven.” It’s that transformative experience of grace, of mercy, of forgiveness, of unconditional love that blasts away a lifetime of wrongdoing so that the living water can spring forth and rejuvenate our parched souls.

Jesus had to go through Samaria, and he sat by the well because he was tired. And everything he did was according to God’s will. Touching one life at a time was the way in which to reach thousands. Only when we’ve experienced God’s grace can we bear witness to God’s power. We don’t evangelize by shoving our experience of Christ’s salvation into another person’s heart or by pounding Bible verses into another person’s head. We reveal to them our personal transformation. The Samaritan woman who had gone out of her way not to encroach upon others in the town now goes running into their midst, proclaiming to all to “come and see!” the one who knew her heart, the one who very well could be the Messiah. What a vivid image of evangelism.

How are we like the woman at the well? Where were we when Jesus broke down our defenses, and we realized that we couldn’t do this thing called life on our own any more? Maybe it was a definitive moment in our life, and like a born-again Christian in prison, we can testify to giving everything to God in complete surrender. But maybe our life fully lived in Christ is a slowly dawning revelation. Maybe our life of faith has given way more and more to the realization of the grandeur of God in all of Creation, and each day takes us deeper into our existing relationships, where it’s more about God’s will than our will.

Because it is more about God’s will than our will.

As Christians, we sign up to proclaim the transformative love of Christ for all the world. We sign up to stay woke, and when we fall asleep or fall into ignorance or complacency, we get back up again however many times it takes. It’s uncomfortable when our world gets turned upside down, when revelations give us new or renewed responsibilities, and when we are to be the Body of Christ in the world. It’s okay to be uncomfortable or tired. Sit. Have a rest. Drink up that living water, and then go tell the story about how it changed your life.

 

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(Almost a Sermon)

 

(This is the sermon written for today. The sermon preached had a lot more LOVE in it, thanks to the Holy Spirit and a wonderful Saturday.)

Exodus 24:12-18 | Psalm 99 | 2 Peter 1:16-21 | Matthew 17:1-9


As guilty as I am of it, I’m still amazed of how often these days more and more people are busy looking at their phones instead of at each other or looking through their phones to take pictures to capture the moment so it can be shared broadly through the social media venues. Again, I’m guilty, too, because I benefit by seeing the experiences of others, seeing what brings you joy, knowing when you are hurting (if you post it), and generally having a sense of what is going on. Unless we bump into each other at the grocery store or call each other on the phone (yes, phones are still good for phone calls), online is the way many people connect these days.

If he’d had a phone, don’t you know that Peter already had photos taken, had tagged Jesus, James, and John and had marked the location complete with new hashtags for Moses, Elijah, and the three new booths he was going to set up when he was saying, “Jesus, this is going to be so good!”

Only, it wasn’t.

Really, how many times are you able to capture a picture of the amazing sunrise or sunset, one that gets all the shades of purple, blue, pink, and orange spread all across the horizon? How many full moons and moonlit landscapes have you photographed and felt that the lunar beauty was adequately portrayed?

Peter thought he caught was what going on and was ready to mark the place and spread the news, but it wasn’t time. He didn’t have it right just yet, but what didn’t he have? What about Jesus being transfigured into full glory before them isn’t enough to verify his status as Son of God?

Because God already spoke from above when Jesus was baptized. Peter already said Jesus is the Messiah, and Jesus shushed him then, too. Jesus has been performing works giving witness to his authority and to the glory of God. Surely this mountaintop transfiguration is just the thing to bring around all those on the fence about believing. Now we’ve even got Moses and Elijah for certain on our team. We’re ready to hit “send” on this press release now.

But in this account of the transfiguration according to Matthew, the apostles heard the voice from the cloud, repeating the baptismal approval and adding what I’m sure had to be a booming “listen to him!”, and they hit the ground. Well, it says, “they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear,” but if you’re covered in a cloud and hearing the voice of God, you’re most likely going to hit the ground because your time has come. The apostles were afraid.

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus doesn’t know what to say to their fear. In Luke, they all keep silent. Here, in Matthew, Jesus comes to them, touches them, and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.”

The apostles look around and see that the moment of transfiguration has passed, along with Moses and Elijah. It’s only Jesus with them now. As they make the trek down the mountain, Jesus orders them not to tell about what they’ve seen until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead–basically until what he’s already told them will happen has actually happened. He’s going to be captured, and he’s going to die and rise again.

Why wait? Jesus continues to perform miracles. Crowds still seek him out. He’s working as one with authority. Why wait? Because there’s more. Epiphany is a season of light, focusing on Jesus’s ministry in the world, how God manifests Light in our world through the Incarnation, but that’s not all of Jesus’ story. The Light of Christ gets overshadowed not by the cloud of God but by our brokenness, not just the nonbelievers and traitors of Jesus’ day, but by our brokenness, too. Jesus’s story continues to be our story because the gospels don’t end with the transfiguration or even the crucifixion.

Jesus’s story is our story because he goes through suffering and death yet rises again. His friends betray him, but he comes back to them, allowing them to profess their love and ascertain their faith. Jesus’s story is our story because he sent those first apostles out to make more disciples, and people’s lives have been touched by God throughout our history, giving testimony to the many ways we suffer, fail, and rise again. Jesus’s story is our story because He continues to be revealed to us, showing up as “a lamp shining in a dark place.”

And I don’t like it, but sometimes we have to wait. We have to wait on God’s time. We have to wait while we discern the next best move, and by “best move” I mean move in accord with God’s will, not mine, and most of the time that’s hard to understand or to have a concept of a bigger picture. Sometimes we wait because we’re afraid, and our first response is not one of compassion or respect, let alone love. The voice from the cloud told the apostles to listen to Jesus. Jesus tells them to “Get up and … not be afraid.”

In an interview, civil rights activist and Congressman John Lewis, reflected on his childhood and young adult life. Listening to him talk, it’s hard to believe that his man was at the front of the march on Bloody Sunday in March of 1965. This man who admitted that he probably cried too much and lamented that we don’t tell one another “I love you” enough, led a nonviolent protest straight into the mouth of hell, where it seemed if one wave of violence didn’t kill them, another one waited at the other side of the bridge.

He didn’t wake up one day and decide to protest. He grew up wanting to be a preacher. He grew up asking questions. He grew up with an unshakeable faith and  persistent love. He believed that things could be better, that we could be better people.

He and the many others who joined Dr. King studied nonviolence. They studied Gandhi’s nonviolent efforts and read Thoreau’s civil disobedience. They dramatized situations, taking turns assaulting each other with horrible insults, learning how to fall and protect the head, practicing maintaining eye contact so that they could show that their spirit was not broken. But they would not retaliate with violence. They would resist the urge to strike back and lash out, knowing that something bigger than themselves was at stake. They studied and practiced nonviolence until they were ready to go out and do when discussion, when civil discourse failed. Being ready meant that they were also willing to face death for what they believed.

And he thought he was going to die that Bloody Sunday of March 7th, 1965. More than worrying about his death, he feared for those who were behind him in the march. But he didn’t die. He lived. He lived to see the day when he could meet the children of the man who beat him and meet the police department that had carried out orders to stop them, all of whom were now seeking forgiveness, seeking reconciliation, seeking freedom from a past that haunted them. Lewis met them in peace, with love. As Christians, we know that the story doesn’t end when one good thing happens, when something bad happens, or when we get scared. In fact, we know the story hasn’t ended yet because we’re still waiting for the Son of Man to come again in full glory.

In the meantime, we’ve got work to do. We’ve got to train on God’s Word. We’ve got to study and practice being in relationship with one another in true love and reconciliation. Sometimes we’ve got to wait because we don’t understand fully, and we may not be ready to give up our egos or even our lives for a greater Good. If we keep seeking God’s will and keep looking for God to show up in our lives, chances are we’ll recognize the glimpses of God’s glory when we see it. Our hearts, minds, and lives are the only thing created to capture and reflect God’s glory, so it’s okay to put down the electronics and turn to one another in love. It may just be that God’s waiting for us.

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We Have All We Need

 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

What are we doing for ourselves and others?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where do we go from here?

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

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

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

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

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

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“What Are You Looking For?”

 

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

 

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

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

“Where do you come from?”

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

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

+++

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

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

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

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

“What are you looking for?”

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

“Come and see.”

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

What about others looking to us?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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What Time Is It?

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

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

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

So what time is it, exactly?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On Conversion and Climbing Trees

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

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

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

But I was wrong about something.

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

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

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

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

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

Early church father Cyril of Alexandria said,

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

How right he was.

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

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

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

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

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From Our Deepest Hurt to Our Greatest Love

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our faith saves us. Our faith makes us whole.

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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