Fanatacism & Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fulfilled and Yet to Be

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

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

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

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, 

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

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

to let the oppressed go free,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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God’s Hour, This One Life

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

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

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

All this is exactly what Jesus didn’t do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Whose We Are

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


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

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

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

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

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

But there’s even more to the story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Prepare the Way of Love

Baruch 5:1-9 | Philippians 1:3-11 | Luke 3:1-6 | Canticle 16

“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee (i.e. King of the Jews), and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas” when this was the time of all these people of power, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”

John, from the beautiful, verdant hill country, born to the faithful Zechariah and Elizabeth, left the comforts of his home to wander in the wilderness, where the word of God came to him. The wilderness, a scarce and desolate place, is also a place of safety and divine protection. However dark the wilderness, it’s not a place without the presence of God.

In fact, in the 4th century during the reign of Emperor Constantine, when the Christian church transitioned into the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, there were Christians who also fled to the wilderness to stay closer to God. These people became known as the desert fathers and mothers–the abbas and ammas–to whom people would seek for their wisdom, wisdom acquired from their time in prayer and solitude apart from the political/social scene. These people who fled intentionally decided not to practice their beliefs within a system that offered reward for their affiliation. Where there is favor, there’s tendency toward corruption. The folks who fled to the desert weren’t having any part of it.

I don’t think it’s a far stretch to see John the Baptist as someone who wouldn’t have any part of it, either, as we’ll be reminded next week. But he didn’t stay isolated.

John went all around the River Jordan in the midst of everyone he met along the way, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This wasn’t anything new. The Jewish people had a ritual cleansing signifying a return to God with expectation of forgiveness. His methodology might have been unconventional. I don’t think any of us would go up to a roadside preacher or someone wearing a sandwich board (let alone camel hair), telling us to get baptized in a muddy river. Even the synagogues then had their baths for the ritual cleansings.

But John is intent and hearkens to the Prophet Isaiah, as he conveys the traditional hopes for Israel’s restoration into a place of favor as God’s people. These are their hopes; this is what Baruch offers words of encouragement for; even Zechariah’s song places John in a position to proclaim the goodness to come. There is hope for God’s people.

Valleys shall be filled. Mountains made low. The crooked made straight, and the rough made smooth. And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

John believed it with all his heart and all his life, even if he couldn’t fully comprehend what it meant that such a promise is open to everyone, to all. Still, he lived it. I don’t see John asking a lot of questions at the border of the river. I don’t see him playing favorites with those in positions of power. He does what the word of God guided him to do, and when he comes face to face with Jesus, he continues to do what God tells him to do and baptizes Jesus, then fading into the background, even with his tragic death, knowing that as he decreases, Jesus will increase, even if he doesn’t know exactly how. It will be done. All this in the midst of the people.

We have a president and a governor. We have rule-makers for our regions, counties, cities, and towns. We have priests and pastors of all kinds, who similarly have their systems of governance. We rejoice that we have a system of governance in both our nation and our church that gives voice to many so that decisions aren’t made by a top few or even a top one. But there are powers at play that have fallen prey to corruption in the name of what is right or even Christian. Even as people flock into metropolises to plug into a system of bigger, better, more, there are people simultaneously saying no and moving off the grid or into communities that work together for a common good. It seems that it’s all or nothing.

Those of us who had the honor and privilege of listening to Bryan Stevenson last night at Crystal Bridges heard directly from one who has heard the word of God.

Disillusioned by law school, Stevenson told us he went into government policy. But there he said they were studying how to maximize benefits and cut costs, regardless of whose benefits and costs were affected. As someone who knew it was a privilege to be in college and knew the plight of those who lived in struggle, he returned to law school determined that he could make a difference, even if he didn’t know how. In his book Just Mercy, he details events of his work in the South that one could describe as wilderness experiences but also account for all the difference he has and continues to make.

His lifetime of experiences, starting with his mom and grandma and going on to today with all the people he encounters in his endeavors, teaches and affirms that while we could isolate ourselves or ignore the world around us as we pursue personal gain, that lifestyle won’t change the brokenness that is. And when he really hit the core of his own suffering and grief, typically when sitting in the midst of someone else’s suffering–like the pending death of an inmate whom he had tried to save–he realized that not only had that person’s life been broken, but he himself was a broken person, too. Not only that, but he worked within a broken system. But brokenness revealed makes way for mercy. What are we all called to do but to do justice (what he called the opposite of poverty), love mercy, and walk humbly? (Micah 6:8)

It sounds a lot like filling valleys of poverty, addiction, and despair and lowering mountains of pride, gluttony, and greed. It sounds like clearing a way through the twist and turns of bureaucratic, convoluted systems and calming storms of anger, fear, and distrust to get straight to the heart of matters and work efficiently. Rather than focus on what’s broken and what needs to be done, though, Stevenson provided four characteristics on how to meet the challenges we face when we are preparing the way for the kingdom:

> Get close to those who are marginalized,

> Change false narratives that are out there,

> Stay hopeful, and

> Do things that are uncomfortable and inconvenient.

Oh, Bryan John-the-Baptist Stevenson, you’re gonna get a lot of people beheaded. But for this man who still feels the hugs of his grandmother, speaks truth to those who face death, and won’t back down from his charge from a civil rights veteran to keep beating the drum of justice, he knows what it means to be in proximity to those who are pushed down and beaten back. He hears the stories we tell that some people are worth fighting for or defending while some people–some of our neighbors–are disposable. He has sat in the shadow of the valley of death and wanted to give up, but he learned that we can either be hopeful or be part of the problem. So he does what he’s gotta do. He’s found his vocation, his purpose in life. He’s living out the prophecy.

And I sat in that crowded room of people, and I slouched back in my chair, angry. Angry because I was sad, and I realize it’s a selfish sadness because I’m sure many of these people are doing good and great things in their own time, but I can’t see it and don’t know about it. Maybe someone else was sitting across the room thinking the same thing about me. But for this sold out lecture, I don’t know who is also beating that drum for justice with hope, guiding us toward a future where our neighbors don’t have to worry about being wrongfully imprisoned, profiled, discriminated against for housing or work, fed a story that convinces them that they are the ones who need to apologize and be grateful for the so-called worthless life they have.

Advent is about preparing the way for the Lord to break into our lives. Not just our own blessed life but the lives of all. How willing are we to go into the midst of the oppressed, to speak up when false narratives are told about us or even of strangers, to keep faith and hope alive in the darkness, and to do that which is uncomfortable and inconvenient?

From prison Paul wrote to the Philippians who had disagreement among themselves and doubts and struggles. Paul reminded them of his joy for all of them. When he thought of them all, of sharing in God’s grace with all of them, he was even more inspired to pray for them all. All of them, he keeps repeating. His prayer: “that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that come through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” For Paul, faith in Jesus Christ was more important than following the letter of the law. Determining “what is best,” I found, actually translates better as determining “things that matter.”

Paul’s prayer for his companions in faith is that they love one another and have wisdom to discern what matters most. Without love we are but a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal, right? (That’s what he told the Corinthians.) John’s love for God opened him to hear the word of God in the wilderness that called him back into the midst of the people to kindle in them hope in their forgiveness. Bryan Stevenson, fueled for love of justice and mercy, works in the trenches of law and everywhere that takes him to confront the narratives that we’ve misshapen to the detriment and brokenness of one another.

We’re called to wake up. We’re called to heed the voice and voices of those crying out in the wilderness. The Word of God is coming to us all. May we be grounded in Love for God and one another so that we don’t miss what matters most.

 

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Thoughts for the Journey – Advent 1

Jeremiah 33:14-16 | Psalm 25:1-9 | 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 | Luke 21:25-36

Contrary to what my children may think, being Episcopalian at this time of year is not solely about waiting until the last minute to put up Christmas decorations or shaming others who put up decor right after Thanksgiving (if they even wait that long!). As with any culture, there are likely to be particular practices that are different from the norm, and since they’re different they stand out, setting us apart. But all of what we do means something and speaks to who we are and what we believe. We light the candles on the Advent wreath one week at a time, watching the light grow until finally we get to light the Christ candle at Christmas, our anticipation fulfilled. In a society that can get anything right now, intentionally waiting says something. Sitting in the darkness means something. Making the intentional journey through Advent shapes us and forms us year after year.

People of faith commonly refer to our lives as journeys, and we’re no different. Like I said, we “journey” through Advent and also through Lent. We have the Season after Pentecost, which as a “season” implies growth. We have a church calendar that cycles round and round through the years and phases of the moon. We are constantly moving, traveling on a path, walking in the Way. It’s no wonder we can feel exhausted if we keep plowing forward at breakneck speed.

We need time to slow down. We need the darkness reminding us to rest. We need a mother heavy with child to remind us we can’t get anywhere too fast and might need help along the way . . . and patience as we trust in God’s timing, not our own.

Our readings for this first Sunday of Advent spoke to me about this nature of our journey.

In the lesson from Jeremiah, one is foretold who “shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” God’s promise will be fulfilled when there is a way of justice and righteousness. In the Psalm, we recite with the psalmist that we lift up our souls, putting our trust in God, as we try to live faithfully as believers. We trust God to teach us God’s paths, to lead us along God’s path of love and faithfulness. And in the letter to the Thessalonians, there’s a prayer that “our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to” one another. The prayer continues, that the Lord might “make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” As we journey along, there’s genuine compassion for our brothers and sisters along the way but not just family but also neighbors and strangers.

And where are we going with all this journeying?

The Thessalonians heard that we’re anticipating the coming of Jesus with all the saints. We hear today in our gospel reading that redemption is drawing near, that the time is coming when we will have the opportunity “to stand before the Son of Man.”

And how do we know if the time is ripe? If the time is near?

Are all the earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, climate change reports, refugee crises our summer fig leaves telling us the time is nigh? Don’t you know that there were likely signs such as these in the decades and centuries following Jesus’ death. Since the Ascension faithful Christians have been proclaiming the second coming of the Son of Man, anticipating when things would finally change from the nightmare that is, especially if you are one oppressed. With such hope for something radically different, we want to be aware, to be the first to notice that the tide is turning, the tables shifting, the kingdom of God coming near.

Is this what we’re running toward? Our spiritual marathon is so we can run into the kingdom of God?

“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away,” Jesus says, and for those of us who are looking for a little more tangible goal, we might be puzzled at his words.

In case you didn’t know this about me, I’m not a runner. 😉 But I know runners, and they train and fuel and know the race courses, like all good athletes. There’s a definite beginning and end. Especially for marathons, the last leg of the journey is gruelling; I’ve heard folks describe out of body–or at least out of mind–experiences. There’s a loss of self, a loss of control–there’s just the movement and the breath and the hope of reaching the goal. Like I said, I’m not a runner, and the closest thing I’ve ever done to running a marathon is birthing my children. In that, too, once you’ve hit transition, there’s no going back. The pain is insurmountable, the control over the body gone, and there’s nothing but complete surrender to the process at hand. If we’re lucky, though, we have people nearby reminding us to be present, to breathe, and to keep going one moment at a time.

We don’t always lose ourselves in the journey in good, productive ways. We can lose ourselves to any number of distractions or temptations, drunkenness or worries and fall to the wayside, veering far off the Way that leads us to God. As much as we want to focus on distant goals, something out there or 24 days away, it’s much more difficult to live with the expectation that this might be the moment I realize Christ has broken into our lives.

All this talk of journeying and how to be along the way and how to be a loving, good neighbor, is really practice for how to live with presence that God’s promise wasn’t exclusively for back then or for them or for some distant time in the future, but God’s promise is fulfilled right now. Advent reminds us that it’s not just the work that we do throughout our lives as we follow the path we believe is leading us toward God. It’s preparing ourselves to meet Christ not only at the feast of his nativity but also at any moment when we’re so deep in the Way of Love that we’ve completely given ourselves over to God’s will that the Word that was present at the beginning and made flesh at Christ’s birth is as present now as it always will be.

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On Being Provocative

1 Samuel 1:4-20 | 1 Samuel 2:1-10 | Hebrews 10:11-25 | Mark 13:1-8

We now draw toward the end of this Season after Pentecost, often called “ordinary time.” Ready or not, Advent is only two weeks away. It is in this “green” Season after Pentecost that we also often call it a “growing time.” Not only is it in the summer months, wrapping up at the harvest, but it is also a time when we hear and learn about Israel and her kings and about the faithful people of God, imperfect as they may be. Any time we engage in scripture, to hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest–as our collect says–we are invited to step into the story wholeheartedly to understand how it relates to us now, even though the distance between then and now, let alone between here and there, is so great. Our learning shapes and grows us, too, in our understanding. While we may be growing on the outside, more likely than not there is also growth and formation happening within us.

As much as people seem surprised to encounter women in the Bible, we do so more often than we might realize. Today’s story of Hannah exhibits this internal and external growth quite well. While it is the conception story of the child who would become King Samuel, it’s not told through the lens of his father or even of the high priest of the time, though both make an appearance. It’s the plight of Hannah, Samuel’s mother that draws us into the tale. Hannah, second wife of Elkanah, is faithful yet barren. Even though she’s childless, she has the love of her husband, who makes no effort to hide his favoritism and seems shocked that his love alone doesn’t satisfy her (as if all she should need is a good man to make her happy, right?!?). Not only does her husband not fully understand her distress, but she is also constantly provoked by Penninah, Elkanah’s first wife who has sons and daughters. In case we’ve forgotten, fertility was considered a gift from God, and even though Penninah provokes her severely, irritates her because she hasn’t borne children, Hannah doesn’t rebuke her. Hannah internalizes her grief. She weeps and fasts, and one day she goes to the temple to pray.

It wasn’t the custom, apparently, to whisper one’s prayers or to pray silently. (Remember the scribes who say long prayers? They probably say them just loud enough to be heard over everyone else so people can make sure they are there.) Hannah is saying her prayers much like I say morning prayer, mouthing the words but not making much noise. Some days my prayers are more fervent than others, and I can only imagine the intensity in which Hannah prayed to God.  And Eli, the priest nearby, sees her and accuses her of being drunk, making a spectacle of herself. Hannah fills in the blanks for him. She knows he thinks her a worthless woman. But with the strength of a hemorrhaging woman seeking healing, with the persistence of a woman seeking an exorcism for her dying daughter, with the audacity of the woman at the well to speak out for herself, Hannah confesses her trouble and grief. She has “been pouring out (her) soul before the LORD.” If Eli is anything like most men I know, when faced with a woman pouring out her soul, her truth, he faces his own inadequacy and knows there isn’t a thing he can do aside from get out of the way or empower her in her own strength. Eli, in his blessedness, offers her a blessing, that God might grant her her petition. He doesn’t need to know what it is. When we are agents of God’s work in the world, we often don’t and most of the time can’t know toward what end we are working.  Whether it’s from Eli or God or both, Hannah seeks favor and goes on her way.

“And her countenance was sad no longer.”

A change has occurred in Hannah even before she conceived. Like Job Hannah persists in her faith. Like many who want something so dearly, she bargains with God, promising her would-be child to be a faithful Nazirite. In keeping with tradition, she names the child so that his story, her story, would be remembered: Samuel, meaning “asked of the LORD.” Instead of a psalm today, we get what’s often called “Hannah’s song,” though it was likely written later and put into her story because it has the exaltation of God and the attribution of might to God, the kind that takes what is and makes it what God would have it be. It’s an inner transformation that also had outward signs. It wasn’t just the growth of a baby bump but also the change in Hannah’s countenance that showed a change had taken place, that some kind of grace had been internalized.

As Episcopalians who believe in sacraments, this is not unfamiliar to us. Sacraments by nature are outward and visible signs of inward, invisible grace. Holy Eucharist and Baptism are our two Sacraments, but we have other sacramental rites, like marriage, confirmation, unction, ordination, and reconciliation. I venture that we have sacramental moments in our lives, especially at births and deaths, when we perceive something of grace a little more tangibly than at other times, when we sense that what is holy has made itself known, if not visible. Even if we want to ignore the sacramental experiences of our lives, we can’t unknow them. It’s a hard thing to deny when the holy breaks into our lives, and I venture to say that it’s a beautiful thing when we facilitate that occurrence.

So what if instead of being provocative like Penninah, irritating those who are already drowning in grief and woundedness, we became provocative like Hannah, extolling the greatness of God? What if we become provocative like the preacher in Hebrews suggests: provoking “one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.” See, there’s a little tongue-in-cheek there, still the chance to irritate one another in a negative way, but there’s a way to provoke one another to gladness, to laughter, to joy, to companionship, toward Christ.

Bp. Tom Breidenthal from Southern Ohio, who was our speaker at clergy conference this year, spoke about the church reclaiming its role in the center of public life, as being part of the body politic in a Christian way, not in a powers and principalities kind of way. He spoke about the early house churches that became basilicas, how the open space in the middle was where everyone gathered for corporate worship, how the side chapels were like the markets and offices that lined the open space. He mentioned Philander Chase, the first bishop of the Ohio Mission Territory and how he agreed with the importance of having the church at the center of public life. I mention this because Pastor Clint Schnekloth mentioned to me that urban planners often don’t have churches in their master plans any more. It’s not part of the grid. When I brought this up to Bp. Breidenthal, he said it just emphasizes the importance of doing work outside of four walls, or even without walls. (Yeah, he didn’t know our story.)

Well, we still have churches in our town, in our community. We have ours now, too. How provocative are we? Are we irritating, arousing anger in others out of spite or to put others down? Are we Penninah-provocative?

Or are we Hannah-provocative? Through our suffering and prayers, do we seek God’s guidance to transform us into agents of God’s will? Do we do the work necessary to change our outlook on life so that rather than put others down we can lift one another up, challenging each other in good deeds and love? So when we see another church doing good work, maybe we can help them reach even more by joining in on their effort, as we’re doing with the Thanksgiving boxes with Community Church (the Nazarene church downtown).

Can we remember all that we’ve learned through the stories of those who have gone before and remember the words of Jesus who continually shows us the exemplar way to be provocative for the will of God? The disciples marveled at the grandeur of the stones of the temple and surrounding buildings, but Jesus told them it would all be thrown down. The disciples hadn’t internalized what Jesus said about the temple having been built by the money taken from the widows’ houses. Jesus may have had to slip through the crowd to escape capture a few times, but he didn’t shy away from proclaiming truth to all who would listen. He would stand in the temple, in a boat, in a cave, on a hill, in the field, in the marketplace, and he would provoke his listeners, inciting in them an emotional response. If they didn’t like what he said, wasn’t it usually because they had something to lose, some attachment, possession, or power they didn’t want to sacrifice. If they were already weak, oppressed, or downtrodden or maybe even open-hearted and adventurous, the words of Jesus had a way of landing in their heart and mind and drawing them nearer to him, encouraging them to follow him along the Way.

How do the words of God provoke us today? How does the Eucharist speak to us? How are we empowered to go forth and incite the love of God in the world around us? Even if we, like Hannah, offer our prayers in silence, our actions will speak loudly to our faith and hopefully provoke others in a good way, too.

 

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Giving with Meaning

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17 | Psalm 127 | Hebrews 9:24-28 | Mark 12:38-44

When presented with text that gives us the story of marginalized people, I love to see where God is in the midst of the struggle and hear what it is that Jesus sees as he encounters those whom others might otherwise not see. Such is the case today the story of Naomi and Ruth and in the story of the poor widow and the treasury.

You know me well enough by now to know that my heart goes out to these poor women in our lectionary today. It is easy for me to have compassion for those who are undergoing extreme suffering and hardship. In the Old Testament and the New, people of God are called to care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger–those people who were most at risk in society. We get a sense of how desperate Naomi is when she sends the only one who is left to left to care for her to the tent of a man she is hoping will do right by Ruth. If all goes well for Ruth, Naomi will be cared for, too.

I do struggle with the fact that Ruth is in fact having giving herself to a man in a patriarchal society, obediently giving of herself because her mother-in-law has said she will look out for her and give her a better life. A good life for our children, for future generations is what we all want. But with my 21st-century mindset that hears so much of the evil and horrors in sex trafficking, prostitution, and the #metoo movement, this is a hard story for me to understand. How could the family be in a place where this was their best option, if not their only option? It was a different time a different age, though, and as hard as that is to comprehend, if I had lived that time and if I have been Naomi, this may have been my wish for my daughter-in-law–maybe even for my daughter. Fortunately, it does work out. Boaz marries Ruth, and the LORD sees that they conceive a son, which in turn blesses Naomi with family.

It is easier for me to relate to the poor widow at the treasury who had two coins to rub together but only just. It was all she had to live on, Jesus says, and she’s giving it to the treasury. We don’t know the details of her life, but we know she’s not living without a care in the world. Jesus knows her heart, sees her sacrificial giving, and tells the disciples–without giving the details of her life–that she has given more than everyone else combined. The widows–all three of them–in both of our stories act in great faith. Despite their dire and desperate situations, they can imagine a different way and thus hope for the future. They know there must be something more, and they keep their faith as children of God. Ruth and Naomi didn’t know they would be foremothers of Jesus. The widow at the treasury didn’t know she would be immortalized as a woman who gave all she had that day she went to the treasury, her devotion seen by Jesus even if she didn’t see him.

I want to stay with these women on the margins. My mother was widowed at a young age. I’ve been in a place where I’ve barely had to pennies to rub together. I can’t know what it was like to navigate life as a woman in the first century, but I know something about being a woman in our modern society. As much as I want to go deeper into the stories of our widows, I haven’t been able to shake the tug to look at this from a different perspective.

I am compelled to look at it differently because of the way I feel when Jesus talks about the wealthy giving out of their abundance. The wealthy, giving out of their abundance, come and go, checking of their to-do list for the day. It sounds familiar to me as one who can automate my monthly giving to All Saints’. I can click and give and not really think about it anymore because I live a privileged life. I have freedom to work and travel great distances because I have a care. We actually have two cars in our household. We have a house, too, for that matter–a place where we have our own beds night after night and where we have cabinets and a refrigerator with food to eat. We come to church because we want to, because it does something for us–not because we have to. We can think about spiritual, lofty, and esoteric things because as far as the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are concerned, ours are being met and exceeded. But is my giving out of my abundance really not as meaningful in the eyes of Jesus as the widow who gave everything she had?

I know we’re wrapping up our stewardship season, and you may be thinking, “Um, Mother Sara, shouldn’t you be lifting our spirits about being generous, grateful givers?” The easy answer would be “yes,” but I rarely take the easy road, as much as I may try. What I am more interested in today is how to make our giving truly  valuable, truly meaningful. That’s why we’ve been asking when we talking about giving to All Saints’: “Why All Saints’?” Why do we give to All Saints’? Why do we choose this place as the place we give our time, talent, and treasure to build up the kingdom of God?

I hope that when we give to All Saints’, we are giving in meaningful ways that catch the eye of Jesus through the people in our community. Sure, we may automate our giving, but it doesn’t stop there. We have a vision for the future, too, a hope that we imagine, even if we don’t exactly know how to get there or what it will look like. I know when the dream of a building was being cast, this wasn’t exactly what you had in mind, but here we are. And it is good. There were many All Saints’ folks involved in getting the food pantry and Feast of Grace at Christ the King started, and think of how many lives have been touched. We have neighbors who through the imagination of their daughter started sending art supplies to children who might not otherwise have opportunity for creative expression (I hope we’ll hear more about this in the future!). So many of us give to All Saints’ because we know that there is a sense of welcome in this place that reminds everyone that we are all beloved children of God. Unfortunately, that’s a message most people don’t hear on a regular basis. If you leave this place not feeling that, I’m not doing my job–WE aren’t doing what we’re here to do.

Maybe some of us are giving out of desperation, hoping that by giving to God, the nightmare of our reality will be transformed into God’s dream. Whether or not we’re desperate–and you can certainly be privileged and desperate, don’t get me wrong–we all give for hope of transformation. That whatever material possession we give for the work of God would be transformed into something that conveys the love of God and the presence of Christ at work in the world around us by the power of the Holy Spirit. That’s part of our mission, our work as a church, and it takes all of us. It takes each of us giving with hope and expectation. It takes each of us seeing one another and knowing that we are working together to build something great and good, even if we don’t know exactly what it is God has in store.

God blesses us all with imagination, planting seeds for all the thoughts and ideas that will manifest God’s dream for us. This is our hope for the future, and giving with the hope that we’re nourishing God’s dream makes my giving meaningful enough for me.

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You Are Called . . . Take Heart

Job 42:1-6, 10-17 | Psalm 34:1-8 | Hebrews 7:23-28 | Mark 10:46-52

If thinking about the suffering of Job these past weeks has you feeling more anxious than normal, you can take a deep breath as we conclude his suffering and see his trial over and his fortune restored. Rather than feeling anxious, I find myself more aware of how often I allude to the suffering of Job when I encounter someone with what seems like rotten luck, someone who can’t seem to catch a break. God’s man Job triumphs, remaining blameless and upright, but while we get this lavish description of all that is restored to him–double what he had before in some cases, including his lifetime–we aren’t told–and I don’t see–Job standing triumphant on a pedestal.

Job encountered God in the whirlwind last week and received God’s voice as God described the cosmos and all creation as God created it to be. This wasn’t a divine knockdown; this was God stating what is, revealing creation as seen from God’s perspective. In today’s lesson we hear Job’s response and hopefully can sympathize with him as he realizes that he had spoken without understanding. Now . . . now that he has heard the voice of God with his ears, he has a direct knowledge of God. Now his eyes “see” God as God has been revealed to him, and his new understanding leads him not to “despise himself” as it’s translated or even to “repent,” but to “recant and relent” being but dust and ashes. Job, as blameless and upright as he is, is humbled before God. All that he had said prior to his new understanding of God, he recants: he no longer holds onto his old beliefs. His whole worldview has changed as he relents, giving way to God and accepting his mortality and feeble understanding of the world. For all the riches and extended lifetime he receives, the true beauty of this story is not only Job’s faithfulness to God but also God’s faithfulness to those who believe.

Job’s faithfulness seemed to come easy for him, but we’ve seen in the past weeks that that’s not the case for everyone. The rich man, remember, wanted eternal life and asked Jesus how he could obtain it. When Jesus told him, he balked and turned away. Even the disciples, James and John in particular, said they wanted the best seats in glory, but they were speaking without understanding and knew not what they were asking. Bartimaeus, on the other hand, is a different story.

A blind beggar on the roadside isn’t hard for us to imagine. I can picture the flat, dusty road in Jericho with mountains in the distance, and I can also see in my mind’s eye the crowd surrounding Jesus making their way out of town, heading back toward Jerusalem. The poor, blind man of course heard the approaching crowd and caught the name of Jesus, and he knew him. At least, he knew stories of him, enough to call him out as the Son of David. He had heard of all that Jesus had been doing, and that recognition couldn’t be contained. From his position at the side of the road, “he began to shout and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’”

In typical fashion, those in a more favorable position suppressed the voice from the margin. “Many sternly ordered him to be quiet,” and it’s quite possible that those who didn’t say anything that the man could hear were probably casting him disdainful looks or ignoring him altogether, as was their custom. But the man persisted, crying “out even more loudly” for Jesus’s mercy.

We don’t get a whirlwind here. Jesus stands still, and then he turns the tables when he says, “Call him here.” Notice that? Jesus involves those who are keeping the blind man at bay. You want to follow me? You’re going to do what I say? Practice.

And they do! Maybe with a grimace, maybe a little embarrassed, maybe with a fake smile they say to Bartimaeus, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” Jesus has a way of helping us see one another on a level field. Just as the disciples have been called, so now is Jesus calling Bartimaeus. Whether they’re telling Bartimaeus to take heart or reminding themselves, I see the phrase as one reminding them all to be courageous. Those come-to-Jesus moments take courage, do they not?

Bartimaeus throws off his cloak and springs up to come to Jesus. I’m not exaggerating; this is what it says! He’s excited and doesn’t take a moment to hesitate. When Jesus asks Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus replied, “My teacher, let me see again.” And Jesus tells him his faith has made him well. Immediately Bartimaeus regains sight and follows Jesus on the way.

I’m reminded of the hemorrhaging woman who had nothing to lose and works her way through the crowd to touch the fringe Jesus’s garment. I’m reminded of the Syrophoenician woman with a possessed daughter who also asked the Son of David for mercy and persisted until she got it. These women, like Bartimaeus, knew where society placed them, how it devalued them, yet in their humility, they were persistent and were healed by their faith. But Bartimaeus asked for sight and is the one who is healed and goes on to follow Jesus on the way. He doesn’t look back. He doesn’t even go back to get his cloak, probably one of the few possessions he had. With his new sight, he sees the way forward through Jesus, even if he doesn’t know for certain where that leads. He probably had no idea he was following Jesus and the crowd toward Jerusalem and toward the Passion. Like Job, he has vision revealed through God, which gives insight that exceeds our human understanding.

Does this kind of revelation or restoration still happen today? Of course. It’s why we read the Bible, why we pray, why we gather in community. Because this doesn’t just happen on its own. There has to be intentional effort to give way to this kind of transformation.

Anne Lamott shares a bit of her journey and struggle in a recent Facebook post. She says she often thinks about writing a book called All The People I Still Hate: A Christian Perspective. She hasn’t written it yet, mind you, and in this post she shares why. Anne speaks from her experience in recovery quite openly–recovery from drugs, alcohol, eating disorders, and I think also codependency. She was reminded of her friends who talk about Step Zero, the step before the 12 Steps, the step when you realize “this s*** has GOT to stop.” She realized that since the election she had let herself go into rage mode and be angry until she was reaching a level of toxicity that was bordering on explosive. Focusing on her self-care, she asked herself about her mortality. If she only had one year left, is this the way she’d want to live? No, she’d want to be a “Love bug,” she says, and “if you want to have loving feelings, you have to do loving things.” A huge part of being a loving person is realizing that everyone, even the person you think you despise the most, is a precious child of God.

So she thinks she’s ruined her chances of writing a book about all the people she hates because her whole perspective, her worldview has changed. Taking wisdom from 8-year olds, she’s okay with leaning into the 80% that believes God is there and is good and is within us all the time. Except she flips it to give herself 20% of that goodness, which she thinks is a miracle. The lens through which she views the world has changed; she has new insight, new vision. Like Job and Bartimaeus, she has been restored in a way that only Love can make happen.

And we need that kind of restoration and transformation happening today. When the news is full of two innocent African American people shot and killed in Kroger by a white supremacist, yet another bomb mailed to critics of the president, and a place of worship becoming a scene of terror, cutting short the lives of 11 faithful Jewish people. A CNN story came across my phone this morning: 72 hours in America: Three hate-filled crimes. Three hate-filled suspects. I’ve heard all these stories, and they’re like background music to our lives these days.

This has got to stop. Step Zero.

We can call out for Jesus to have mercy on us, and he already has. It’s up to us to open our eyes, hearts, and minds to see clearly what is happening and follow Jesus on the way of love–a love that doesn’t make peace with injustice and is greater than hate, fear, and even death, if we have eyes to see.

 

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One Thing

Job 23:1-9, 16-17 | Psalm 22:1-15 | Hebrews 4:12-16 | Mark 10:17-31

This week we continue with the story of Job, a man who is blameless and upright, the epitome of righteousness, and who suffers the unimaginable. The main question posed by Satan, the Adversary in the heavenly court, was “Would Job be so faithful if he had nothing?” Is Job’s faith just because he’s such a richly blessed man? As Job is tested, he remains faithful, neither cursing nor sinning against God. Even this week when we find Job amidst his bitter complaint, he struggles mightily in his depths of suffering, but he remains faithful. Like Dr. Marsh said, the prayer of the believer in times of trouble is a request for the way through, the way forward. Job is sure that if only God would hear his prayer, God would rescue him. Job isn’t giving up. Job knows who he is and whose he is. Even when his friends are offering their unhelpful advice and commentary, Job doesn’t falter, even though we must admit he sounds awfully miserable.

Curiously enough, we encounter a different rich man in today’s gospel lesson. This blessed man runs up to kneel before Jesus in a righteous quest, asking our Lord: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus’s response is quick and to the point, reminding the man that no one is good save God alone, and he also tells the man that he knows the commandments. In case he’s forgotten them, Jesus gives him an abbreviated version. The man is probably nodding along, saying “yeah, yeah” until he’s finally saying, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth!” He’s been doing what he’s been taught his whole life, but what does Jesus say he needs to do to inherit eternal life?

“…go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

The man is shocked and goes away grieving, for he has many possessions. We understand his disappointment. There are few of us who would willingly give up everything we have to follow Christ, especially if it meant putting ourselves in way of danger or in especially vulnerable circumstances. But Jesus doesn’t seem terribly surprised or shocked at the man’s response.

Did you catch what Jesus does and says before he gives the man instructions? He looks at him and loved him, and then he tells him that he lacks “one thing.” Only he doesn’t say, as far as I can tell, what that “one thing” is.

If we were to ask the rich man before his encounter with Jesus what he lacks, what might his response have been? He’s rich? He lacks nothing, except maybe the finest wine press, crown jewels, or the latest breed of camel?

But Jesus–in looking at the man and loving him–can easily identify the one thing he lacks.

  • Could it be that he lacks the ability to detach from his possessions? He doesn’t want to let go of his accumulated wealth.
  • Could it be that he doesn’t was to distribute his wealth to the poor, who haven’t worked as hard as he has for his status? Does he lack compassion for their plight?
  • Could it be that he lacks the ability to let go of the security, stability, and sense of control in his life that his wealth and position afford him? I think with this last one we’re getting closer to the heart of the matter.

If we consider the two wealthy men of today–Job and the unnamed rich man–Job represents an ideal, but Job wasn’t given a choice of giving up everything in his life. Everything Job knew and loved were taken from him, and still he remained faithful and righteous. The rich man in our reading today comes seeking–he thinks–to follow Jesus to eternal life, yet when Jesus tells him what’s required, the man turns away, unwilling to do what Jesus says must be done. If only the man had that one thing.

Maybe three years from now when we encounter this lesson again in the lectionary I might have a different inclination, but today I see that what the rich man lacks is belief. The man keeps the law, is obedient, successful, and just knows that there is something to this man Jesus that draws him to him. In the gaze of Jesus, our hearts are known, our strengths and our weaknesses.

Did you notice the commandments that Jesus recites for the rich man? All the ones he mentioned have to do with our duty to our neighbors. As our children who are familiar with the “Ten Best Ways” lesson in Godly Play and our folks who are going to be learning more about The Episcopal Church in our newcomers and confirmation class will soon recall, we can break down the ten commandments into two sections: 1) our duty to God and 2) our duty to our neighbor.

What if in the rich man’s life of comfort, his obeisance to religion had become perfunctory? He was doing all he had to do on the surface, but as he accumulated wealth and possessions, his duty to God might have fallen to the edge as the duty to maintain his wealth, position, and power depended more and more on him accomplishing his worldly tasks. When we become masters of our personal agendas, we are extremely prone to becoming functioning atheists because we know how things need to be done and don’t need any help, thank you very much. Maybe the man’s self-reliance had obscured the need for God in his life and relationships.

Given the choice, maybe Job, too, would have laughed at the option of giving up everything to follow God–we don’t know. But having lost everything, Job doesn’t question God’s existence–God’s whereabouts maybe, but not God’s existence. Job’s belief is steadfast, his faith secure, and we know and will be reminded soon that his faith is rewarded. Peter and the disciples who believe Jesus even if they don’t completely understand him, are reminded that yes, Jesus knows they’ve already given up everything, and they, too, will be rewarded. But the rich man of today lacks that belief in God that in turn fuels the faith, trust, and love of God that would see him through any loss of worldly status.

It’s hard to take that risk, though. As much as we might say, “Awwww, if only he had taken Jesus up on that offer, he would have known the joy of eternal life!” Would we have done differently? Do we know the rewards Jesus has in store for us? Are we certain of the glory of the kingdom of God and what that looks like?

A woman in Conway yesterday spoke to the ECW about a ministry she and her husband helped found called Harbor Home, which is very similar to the Magdalene program. When they were just getting started she said they spoke to a small rural church with about 13 members, all 70 years old or older, to share their ministry with them. It wasn’t very long after she spoke with them that they called her and told her that they wanted to donate their church to the ministry, to be a home for the women seeking safe harbor. Now, she said, a place that saw 13 folks on Wednesday night and Sundays is teeming with life seven days a week, full of kids on the weekend when the little ones come to see their mothers, and there’s still church on Wednesday and Sunday. The original church members, save the one who has since died, have become the grandparents to these women who may have never had such caring, nurturing people in their lives.

Don’t you know it was a huge risk for a church to give up what it’s always been, to take a risk on a new ministry that didn’t even originate in their church, and to even do something different when they’re at a stage of life that is typically resistant to change? Take such a risk, such a leap of faith, illustrates how we can put God first in our lives and trust that whatever outcome arises, God will be there, too.

Certainty isn’t ours to have, and any time we make a choice, we might be taking a risk. But we do know that God alone is good and that the Paschal Mystery–the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ–is ours to ponder and to believe in. Let us do maintain our confession–our belief in God and of God’s son Jesus Christ–so that when we are told to “go,” to follow the way of Christ, it’s not because we lack anything but because we have one thing to gain: eternal life in God.

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