Work in Progress

Jeremiah 18:1-11 | Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17 | Philemon 1-21 | Luke 14:25-33

God tells his prophet Jeremiah to go down to the potter’s house. Before God says anything more, Jeremiah watches the potter working at the wheel. If you’ve ever worked with clay, you know it’s more intense than watching.

This clay that you’ve kneaded and pushed and shoved is slammed onto the wheel. Then you dribble some water from a sponge onto it to get it more workable, easier to move. The goal at the early stage is to get it centered in the wheel. If it’s not centered just right, the whole thing will be difficult and likely turn out lop-sided, which is more often than not what happened to me when I worked with clay as a hobby years ago. 

But when you watch someone who has developed their practice, they make it look easy. With strong and certain arms and hands, they center the clay on the wheel, and the clay spins like an ice skater, balanced and fast, slowing at will, ready for the next move without falling over.

This doesn’t mean that a perfectly centered piece won’t go awry. An imperfection in the clay, being too wet or too dry . . . anything can cause the piece instantly to wobble into a mess. So the potter begins again to collect it into a centered mass to be reshaped, reworked, still working with the same clay with which he began, hopefully with patience. 

I don’t know how often I thought about this passage from Jeremiah while sitting at the wheel, looking down at my hands, trying to will the clay to be centered. It was a euphoric feeling when the clay got centered, spinning perfectly in the middle. I hoped my life was centered, spinning in alignment with God’s will. Interestingly, Casey and I were working with pottery right before I went to seminary. As I worked with the clay, I was very aware of how much like clay I was, vulnerable, navigating through forces unseen, being shaped along with my own discernment into something yet unknown to me. I still feel this way, as I’m sure we all do as Christians because our journey isn’t one from birth to baptism to perfection and then to death. Created as perfectly as we are, just as we are, we get wobbly along this journey through life. We get off-center, too greedy, too self-righteous, and often self-destructive. We might be an uncentered mess, but we’re not without the hope of repentance, of being rebuilt, reshaped, reformed, and restored. We can be re-created, even resurrected, into the whole person God intends us to be from before we were born.

Richard Rohr talks about “order, dis-order, and re-order” as the process through which we go to experience transformation and reach true change in our life. Gone through intentionally, the re-order can be done oriented toward God, granting us resurrection experience, new life. We rise to be shaped as someone good and useful for the kingdom here and now. We can hear the words from Jeremiah as very dark, with God promising destruction for God’s people, but we can also hear the hope in the people’s option to repent and turn toward God. The people can turn away from the abandonment of God and turn to walk in God’s way. They have the opportunity to be reworked and transformed. 

This theme of transformation continues in Paul’s letter to Philemon. What starts out as a very complimentary letter turns into a serious request and expectation. Philemon and his household and home church are asked to receive Onesimus back to the house not as a slave but as a brother. I imagine Philemon’s heart sinking, the wheel coming to a screeching halt. We witness a moment of decision in slow motion. Scholars presume that Onesimus fled as a slave and was captured. Paul, who probably encountered Onesimus in prison, adopted him as a child in faith, and, knowing the man’s story, Paul writes Philemon to propose that he receive Onesimus back into the household as an equal in Christ. Talk about opportunity for transformation! Scholars can’t affirm that Paul wanted Onesimus to be granted complete freedom, which is what we would want him to mean. Slavery was a social construct of the time that we cannot deny, but our faith and tradition has certainly come to interpret a life lived fully in God through Christ to be one of freedom and true love of God and neighbor, which leads us to uphold the freedom, rights, and dignity of all. Paul affirms that Onesimus has been transformed by his belief in Christ, and now Philemon has a decision to make which will reveal how much his life has been transformed by Christian love: does it indeed transform all his relationships, including those with whom he has enslaved.

In our gospel lesson, where do we see things being reworked and transformed? This lesson can be challenging. Jesus uses the word we translate as “hate,” and if you’re like me, that’s not a word we use lightly.

Jesus lays out what is required to be a disciple. Speaking to the crowd, he says that if they want to be a disciple, they have to “hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters” and “even life itself.” Also, a disciple has to carry the cross and follow Jesus. The crowd at the time didn’t know what we know now. What we know is that to carry the cross and follow Jesus means to carry a great burden even unto death. We end this lesson with Jesus saying that to become a disciple, we have to give up all our possessions. 

What we really need is a transformation of this lesson into good news!

Thankfully, the good news for us is that we have everything we need to be disciples. Our collet says, “Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts.” Our psalm reminds us that we are “marvelously made” and that God has knit us together in our mother’s womb. God has searched us out and knows us–our sitting down and our rising up, our thoughts and our ways; God knows us altogether.

So also does Jesus know the crowd to whom he speaks. Remember that he has just left the dinner with the Pharisees, where he was among the invited guests, likely the privileged people in the community. Perhaps these people are among those who follow him, but maybe others from the community also follow him, people who have a lot, people like Philemon who have households and the ability to hold church in their home and provide hospitality to those gathered. Jesus tells these people to “hate” those whom they would hold near and dear and even life itself if they really want to be disciples. If we hate something, we completely detest it, are almost if not completely repulsed by it. Maybe we don’t realize how much we hate something until we encounter it and feel physically sickened by it. Maybe Jesus wants the crowd to hate their attachment to the way things are, their attachment to protect and preserve “me and mine.” Rather than all the stuff we think we need in our lives, what Jesus knows we need is our whole heart, our whole self, without extra baggage. 

Like Paul telling Philemon to exercise Christian love in receiving Onesimus into his home, Jesus is telling the crowd and even us to let go of all our superficial attachments so that our life might truly be centered in Christ. Yes, we navigate in our familial relationships and society, but our Christian family is so much bigger. The human family is likewise our family, deserving and worthy of our love as siblings, as children of God.

Our very life as we think it should be, when it is reworked to be aligned with God, is no longer our own. We are not coerced into obedience to God, but because we love God so much, love one another, we want to be obedient to God. We want to reach out to our neighbors in Christian charity, in true love, and share what God has graciously provided. We want to carry the cross we are given to bear and to follow Jesus even to the grave.

Jesus uses strong language that definitely gets our attention, but it’s not our attention that Jesus wants. Jesus desires a transformation and sincere disciples. If we allow his words to rework our thinking, our perspective, we realize that if we detest the social structures that make us overly protective of what we think is ours alone, then we can transform our worldview to see the great human family, all of God’s children, wonderfully and marvelously made. With Christian love, we want everyone to have access to that which helps them thrive, and we will reach out to our neighbors, even strangers, to uplift them, even if it challenges what we thought we knew or understood.

All Jesus asks of us is ourselves. Love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love our neighbors as ourselves. “Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts.” Sometimes we need a transformation of our own ways of thinking, and God knows this, too. We are enough. Centered in the love of God through Jesus Christ, we have all the perspective we need to live a life that is transformed by that love. When we encounter those moments in our life when we are conscious that the decisions we make have the opportunity to reflect our love of God, we have immense power to give witness to our life as a disciple. Thanks to God’s infinite mercy, God keeps us on the wheel even when we mess up, guiding and shaping us when we listen and allow it, holding us in infinite love and strength.

The human vocation is to be true co-workers with God and stewards of creation. 

~Denis Edwards

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Humble Work

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

This weekend, many enjoy the celebration of Labor Day, extending the time to re-create into Monday, offering a final farewell to summer with one more picnic, barbecue, or blow-out sale. Labor Day is another one of those holidays I take for granted, so I did a quick Wikipedia review of the origins of Labor Day. I was reminded that it is, indeed, a holiday for the working class, its origins in the early 1880s (about 1882) meant to benefit the labor unions and celebrate the labor laws. Unions aren’t what they could be around here, but we definitely benefit from federal labor laws they advocated for and achieved. Interestingly, there was an effort to make “Labor Sunday” a thing–a day to focus on spiritual and educational aspects of the labor movement. Obviously the effort didn’t work out, maybe because it lacked the more appealing parades and picnics. Fortunately for us, we have processionals, food, and fellowship, and we have the opportunity to think about our Christian work and labor from spiritual and educational perspectives.

In our readings today, we can think about our spiritual work from a “what-not-to-do” perspective. The prophet Jeremiah, who has accepted the call to share the Word of God even if it means sharing God’s judgment on the people, plainly states two evils the people have committed:

  1. They have forsaken God.
  2. They have dug out cisterns for themselves.

The people have abandoned God, deserted the Almighty. Despite all that God has done for them, despite God being the eternal, living water, the people have turned away from God. AND, they have sought to be self-sufficient. These people of the desert think they can create their own containers for the water that sustains them, but God says their cisterns are cracked and can hold no water. Do we as humans have anything that can contain all the life that God gives us? Even if we put someone on life support, can we restore the life that we know? To abandon God and to presume that we can hold what truly gives us life, these are evil acts, according to God through the prophet Jeremiah.

Similarly, in our gospel lesson, we get words of caution from Jesus, more what-not-to-do’s. Jesus offers a parable to illustrate what is a familiar quote from Proverbs: “for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble” (25:7). Jesus cautions against our arrogance and conceit, for he knows we are susceptible to pride. Jesus also warns us not to give expecting return. Don’t invite someone to your party or give someone a fancy gift and then expect the same invitation or “generosity” to be returned. True generosity is when what we give is a blessing, filled with grace, and absent any expectation except that it might glorify God.

Sometimes some of us need to be told, “Don’t do this or that!” Other times we need direction on what to do. This is what we get in the life of Jesus when we pay attention, as he did. He was invited to a meal, and he watched others scramble to get the best seats. His own power and authority didn’t come from wealth, but he had enough privilege to make the guest list. In his person, in his being, the Son of God lived humbly, with great humility. He knew that with his privilege there is great responsibility. For the Son of God this meant ultimately sacrificing his life, but while he lived it also meant walking every day with the intention to proclaim the love of God and to pursue peace, justice, and love. With every step, every story, every meal, and every prayer, Jesus perpetually reveals to us the presence of God in every moment AND shows us how we can, too, if we put God first.

In our psalm today, the voice of God says, “Oh, that my people would listen to me.” If they had been listening, they would have known God’s promise: “Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it.” It wasn’t intended to be a one-time manna in the desert experience. God’s promise to provide nourishment, daily bread, living water, and all good things is continual. This promise continues today. There is enough. There is plenty for everyone. God will and does provide.

What do we do to show that we haven’t forsaken God, that we don’t rely on ourselves exclusively or seek our own glory?

The lesson in Hebrews offers guidance, even some helpful suggestions. “Let mutual love continue.” If we love God as much as we profess we do, then by extension, we love our neighbor, too. We love God, we believe in God, we are nourished by our God, and we show others that we are God-loving Christians in our work: work of showing hospitality to strangers, trusting that there truly is enough, even an abundance–again, not expecting anything in return; work of remembering those in prison or being tortured–spiritually, emotionally, or physically–having empathy and compassion for them so that their human dignity is maintained, that they are not forgotten, and that as a child of God they are entitled to repentance, reconciliation, and restoration. We do the work of upholding our relationships, our marriages and friendships, keeping God in our midst and as our greatest love so that we don’t lose ourselves or become too full of ourselves. We keep free from the love of money and work to be content with what we have. All this is summed up: “do good” and “share what you have.” This will be a sacrifice–we have to let go of something we think solely to be ours–but “such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” Pleasing God is work toward which we can all aspire.

Our collect reminds us how we can remain focused in our work as Christians:

  • Have the love of God’s name in our heart–not superficially but permanently written;
  • Grow in true religion, religion that puts God first, not ourselves;
  • Let God provide us with all goodness and recognize the goodness we receive from God; and
  • Pay attention to the fruit of good works we accomplish in God’s name.

We certainly don’t go waving the Bible in people’s faces or putting a cross around everyone’s neck, but we can speak loudly for the love of God in the work that we do . . . if we understand what it means. Do we know the stories and lessons of our faith? Do we realize how they still manifest to this day?

The story of the loaves and fish feeding the multitudes speaks clearly to the abundance God provides. There were loaves and fish leftover, right? Last week there was an article released by the Episcopal News Service about a vicar in North Carolina who leads a small 20-member congregation in English and also meets in a home to celebrate Holy Eucharist in Spanish with about 9 people. The congregation wanted to help the under-served neighbors get health care they needed, so they facilitate a health access ministry where a nurse meets with neighbors to talk about diagnoses and facilitate resources for treatment. While people wait, the congregation decided to offer a free meal also. Over 40 people participate in the ministry, benefitting from the medical attention and a strong sense of community. It’s not about what the people provide or even what they can do: it’s about what God does through and for God’s people when they listen.

Our lives as faithful Christians will always be about putting God first and realizing that everything we think we have or think we’ve accomplished is really all thanks to God. When we’re doing really well and thinking we’re deserving of that front row seat, it’s probably a good time to step back and triple check our priorities–double check that to-do list from Hebrews–and ask ourselves if in our work we labor humbly for love of God and for the benefit of our neighbor, for the good of all. And if it seems like we’re trying to keep a cracked cistern full of water, if for all the work we’re busy doing we feel like we’re running ourselves ragged in a hamster wheel, maybe it’s time for us to pause and listen and reorient ourselves. A holiday, a holy day, can give us the moment we need to pause and do just that.

*For a podcast that deeply reflects about listening: https://onbeing.org/programs/gordon-hempton-silence-and-the-presence-of-everything/

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Not Consumed

Exodus 3:1-15 | Psalm 63:1-8 | 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 | Luke 13:1-9

Recall the story of Moses, the Hebrew baby who was sent down the river only to be taken in by the pharaoh’s daughter and raised as an Egyptian. As an adult, he witnessed the beating of a Hebrew slave and killed the attacking Egyptian. He thought no one knew of his deed, but another Hebrew the next day called him out on it. Moses knew that others knew, and it wasn’t long before Pharaoh knew, too. So Moses fled to Midian, where he ends up defending the priest Jethro’s daughters from other shepherds and shortly thereafter marrying one of them.

Now Moses, our family man, was tending to his father-in-law’s flock, venturing a bit further than normal, perhaps. He came to Horeb, the mountain of God, which we commonly call Mt. Sinai. We’re told straight away that it’s an angel of the LORD appearing to Moses “in a flame of fire out of a bush,” but can you imagine Moses either suddenly seeing a shrub burst into flame or rounding a corner to see a ball of fire? Surely a fire in the dry mountains is a dangerous thing, and a first response would be one of fear in anticipation of the fire spreading. Whatever his first reaction, Moses looked at this sight, the bush blazing in flame, and observed that “it was not consumed.” He couldn’t know right away that the fire was the presence of God, but in his assessment of the situation, evaluating whether he and his father-in-law’s flock were in immediate danger, he observed that the fire wasn’t spreading, which would have been natural. More than that, the bush itself was not consumed. Instead of disintegrating into ash, this desert shrub was holding its shape, its form: it was holding this flaming fire.

Then the perception of what Moses is contending with shifts. He’s dealing with something unnatural. He must now turn to look at this “great sight” indirectly. He wants to know why the bush isn’t consumed, but he knows from his tradition that humans cannot survive the full presence of God. If this is something of God, he doesn’t want to take unnecessary risks. So he looks aside, sort of askance. As if now the possibility of the presence of God is an option for Moses, what happens next? The voice of God calls out to him: “Moses, Moses!” To which Moses responds, “Here I am.”

Transfixed by this voice emanating from a burning bush, Moses is told to come no closer and to remove his sandals because the ground he’s on is holy. The voice introduces itself as the God of the forefathers, and Moses is afraid to look upon God. God goes on to share that the plight of the Hebrew people hasn’t gone unnoticed, and now it is Moses himself who will go to bring the people out of Egypt. Moses protests, of course, but God reveals further the name above all others: the great I AM. God promises to be with Moses and the people.

Moses is called. The presence of God is revealed to him in a way that captures our attention, in a way mysterious and indescribable. Moses is given a mission, something that sounds so simple yet seems impossible. It would be impossible, without God’s help.

How is this familiar, this story of Moses? Is it solely emblazoned in our memories through movies or mere repetition in our lectionary, or is it more than that? Before Moses was the deliverer of the Hebrew slaves, he was a guy doing his job, being a good son. He had been a good and helpful stranger to Jethro’s daughters, but he was also a murderer fleeing persecution. At his birth, Moses was born in a time when his people were oppressed. The Hebrew people were growing too numerous, too strong, so the Pharaoh ordered the male babies to be thrown into the Nile. Moses was fleeing persecution the day he was born. He had been surrounded by so much, knew anger and rage, knew fear, yet he had not been consumed by them. He still had faith in God. All of who Moses was was known by God, and still he was called by God to do the impossible.

Does this story of Moses feel familiar, more deeply than that we know of the story or have seen or heard it before? Can it be that we’ve experienced it ourselves? Could it be that we are experiencing it now?

So much has happened between the time of Moses and today. Paul reminds us that the Jewish people were not perfect in their time of deliverance. They made mistakes along the way, as we all do. We know Moses himself was not above the crime of murder. We all go along our way and do what we do. Nations, empires, rise and fall, and people navigate the stresses and strains of living in relationship with one another, guided or not by their concept of the Divine and its import in their lives. In the unfolding of our world, we believe that God revealed God’s self again this time not in a burning bush but in the flesh of a man.

This time, in the Incarnation, God called not one but twelve to join in a particular work to deliver a people oppressed. Wearing their sandals they traveled around to share a message of peace, of healing, of wholeness, and even a message of repentance. The sick and the suffering flocked to Jesus, and they were numerous. The powers in charge did not want these people to gain strength as they were increasing in number. Jesus was crucified, seemingly consumed by the hatred and anger, the fear of others, especially those in power.

But death did not consume him any more than the presence of God consumed the burning bush. Instead, the resurrection of Christ revealed God again to those who believed, and brought a message of deliverance available to anyone and everyone who identifies this story with theirs, of being brought out of bondage into liberation, of living a life whole and restored to live and love as we have been loved by God.

These stories aren’t merely familiar, they are ours. We know the presence of God in our lives, and whether we realize it or not, that presence has filled us, especially at particular moments. While we may have felt broken wide open, filled with fiery passions that maybe even presented as anger or rage, we were not consumed. If we had the presence of mind and spirit to hear the prayers of our heart and the whispers of wisdom, maybe we, too, heard what God is calling us to do, with God’s help.

I realize this is a powerful theological claim: that the presence of God is not merely outside of us but that as Christians we also embody the presence of God. This means that at once we can be both the burning bush and the one being called.

In the context of the parable of the fig tree we also heard today, this feels pretty scary. If we can be a burning bush and a prophet, can we also be a fig tree bearing fruit or not? If we’re not fruitful, does that mean we’ll be cut down, judged to death? In my readings, this parable was offered as an impetus to repent, to bear fruits worthy of repentance, because the second coming was near–it hadn’t happened yet, but it was due any day. They were fortunate to have the extra time to do what needed to be done. They were fortunate to have the extra time in the first century, as we are fortunate to have the time now. The story itself gives us an impetus to act, as fear of death is very motivating.

There was a story I heard that described Inuit storytelling and how it conveys their values. The essay is about how Inuits teach their children to control their anger, and it also mentions how stories with a dose of danger are told to their children. The stories might involve scary monsters and dire consequences, which can raise caution in the children. They might be afraid of going into situations that could very well harm if not kill them, like getting caught in the frigid air or water, because they have an association of a monster. The emphasis is not on traumatic, paralyzing fear but a notion of playfulness, grounded in nurturing love and care.

I think of this means of storytelling to get us to do what we are called to do in relation to the parable of the fig tree. Yes, we need to repent for our sins, the myriad ways we turn away from God and don’t build up the Realm of God, which is what the Gospel according to Luke is all about us doing. And it doesn’t need to be done at a later time; it needs to be done now. We don’t have to, of course. We can get quite good at redirecting that burning we feel, the passion we have. We have many options for numbing or distracting ourselves, some even considered healthy. But that’s now what we’re called to.

On more than one occasion I’ve spoken with someone who rounds a corner in life and finds him- or herself completely consumed. Instead of a cautious, “Here I am,” it’s more of an on-their-knees, “yes, here I am but why me?” And perhaps we know what we are called to do, but it seems impossible. Others may laugh it off or shake their heads in ridicule. When we’re able to stand again, we can’t help but see it everywhere, this that we’re called to. Maybe we see it in ourselves or see evidences of it or its consequences all around us. No one else seems to notice, except maybe a few with whom we share what we see and feel to make sure we’re not crazy.

So here’s the thing: what is the seed that God has planted within you? What, given the nurturing of others and the unconditional love of God, would bear fruit in your life or in the community around you? Don’t judge yourself. Don’t listen to the judgment of others; we don’t know. God knows. You might not even know what it is exactly, and the mere thought of fueling the passion, the desire, the yearning, may be terrifying because surely it will consume you and lead to destruction.

Strangely enough, being consumed by love of God can be like death. There are lots of ways we die when we fulfill our relationship with God. Some of them may be consequentially negative, but they can also be rewarding in untold ways. We don’t know any more than we can know how a bush can burn without being consumed. But we do know or at least trust in faith, as Paul said, “God is faithful, and … will not let (us) be tested beyond (our) strength, but with the testing (God) will also provide the way out so that (we) may be able to endure it” (1 Cor 10:13b).

All the things we do and are called to do in this Christian life, we do them with God’s help, and God has a way of bringing us together so that we don’t have to walk this Way of Love alone. We do this hard and often scary work together, which will always make us stronger.

 

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Carrying Our Cross

Proverbs 1:20-33 | Psalm 19 | James 3:1-12 | Mark 8:27-38

Where’s the good news today, my friends, in these words where Jesus speaks sternly, rebukes his disciple and friend, and promises to be ashamed of us if we’ve been ashamed of him? Is this a case of “this is going to hurt you more than it hurts me” or Jesus showing us tough love? It might seem like it at first glance, but think of how much we miss in our lives when we’re too hurried. If we rush through the lessons and the gospel today, we might miss the most important invitation of all, which is to take up the cross and follow Jesus.

The seriousness of Jesus’ words and actions catch our attention. He might not be flipping tables here, but he’s using a tone of voice that can stop us mid-stride. Walking along to Caesarea Philippi, we imagine the crowd around Jesus talking and walking along. Jesus seemingly casually asks, “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples answer: “John the Baptist,” “Elijah,” “one of the prophets.” He hears them and shifts the question: “But who do YOU say that I am?” Peter answered him, without hesitation it seems, but maybe because everyone else got really quiet: “You are the Messiah.” Jesus sternly tells them not to tell anyone.

But why not? I mean, Jesus is still walking around doing the amazing things he does, saying the incredible things he says. Why not share that this is the Messiah they’ve all be waiting for? Because he’s not what they’ve been waiting for, as they understand it. Remember, they wanted a militaristic messiah who would overthrow Rome and restore the chosen people to their freedom from oppression. Even as the disciples understood him, they couldn’t grasp who he was and is, really. Their tongues would deceive people at this point in time, not reflecting the full reality of Jesus as Christ.

Jesus goes on to foretell his suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection which is in a way a result of the people’s disappointment that he’s not the messiah they’ve imagined. Mostly, though, this is what will happen. The words that Jesus speaks are the Word of God. He knows this must be the way the salvation of the world unfolds, our great Paschal Mystery. Even hearing this teaching, Peter again steps to the fore, rebuking Jesus, saying things we don’t have recorded. It’s not hard to imagine him telling Jesus he’s off his rocker, that they wouldn’t ever let those things happen to him. Every time I hear this story, I imagine the hurt Peter feels when he’s rebuked by Jesus, something akin to a teacher’s pet being reprimanded by the beloved teacher when he truly thought he was doing what was right. But again, Peter didn’t know, didn’t understand. Jesus is foretelling what is to be. Jesus foretells what makes way for God’s will to be done. Above human understanding, even above human affection and attachment, Jesus places God’s will above all else.

So far it’s been about Jesus and his disciples, right? It’s easy to think about them and their relationship with Jesus, their mistaken understanding because they couldn’t know what was to unfold. We have such a better understanding, right . . . until the words of Jesus turn to a much broader scope as he calls to the crowd and his disciples, and we know as readers of the Word that we’re part of the crowd, too.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” ~ Jesus

First of all, he’s just said that he’s going to suffer, be rejected, and die. Secondly, the cross for them is a symbol of humiliation and torture. Third, our whole life? Isn’t there value in our lives? Don’t our lives need to be here to spread whatever good news we have to share?

As if reading their and our minds, Jesus continues, saying, “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation (meaning that they’ve turned toward other gods and away from the one true God), of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Why does Jesus throw in the shaming language? We notice it, don’t we? Think about what he’s saying.

You’re going to be ashamed of me now, be embarrassed or humiliated to be one of my followers or to heed my words, then so I’ll be ashamed of you.  But do we embarrass or humiliate the Son of Man? The meanings of words get complicated here.

In the Greek, the word translated as “ashamed” is “shall be being on viled.” Vile is the strong word there. We associate vile with toxicity, unpleasantness, foulness, but in archaic terms, it also meant “of little worth or value.” If we place little value on Jesus and his Word, Jesus will also put little value on us. We don’t like to talk about judgment in our church, but here is Jesus saying if we are so selfish as not to heed the Son of Man who gave and gives everything to us, then we can expect to be judged accordingly. Our psalm today assures us that the judgments of the LORD are true and righteous.

Maybe you’re thinking, “Okay, I get the tough love. What’s the good news? Where’s that most important invitation?”

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” ~ Jesus

What if instead of all the self-centered worries and fears that Jesus’ followers had when they first heard these words, we hear them today anew. What if we hear Jesus saying to us these same words but know that

  • we keep our reason, our thinking mind and critical skills,
  • we have faith in a tradition that sees through the suffering and death and knows Easter joy in the Resurrection,
  • we often carry or display crosses as a symbol of the mystery that gives us eternal salvation,
  • And, most importantly, we know that in our baptism we die to a self-centered way of living and give our lives over to God’s will.

In our baptism, we are given a cross–the cross marked on our foreheads. I imagine a great heavenly joke where there’s a blacklight of sorts that shines on the foreheads of Christians to make us feel truly special as it picks up the remnants of the oil from the chrism that marked us as Christ’s own forever.

As children of God in the Christian tradition, we need to know what is expected of us, where the boundaries are, what our consequences are. This isn’t when I start putting conditions or qualifiers around God’s unconditional love for us. God’s love for us, the salvation given to us through Christ, and the power given to us by the Holy Spirit is ours to have, just as Wisdom is ever available to us, should we heed it. When we turn away from God, when we deny Christ, when we squander the power given to us by the Holy Spirit or don’t listen to the Wisdom whispering in our heart of hearts, there are consequences. We set up ourselves to struggle in a self-made cycle of suffering and run in our hamster wheel of self-sufficiency.

Maybe it’s not so much that we have to take up a cross but remember that we already have a cross given to us as a symbol of so much more. Or maybe we want to have that cross to help direct us and guide us because our way of doing things isn’t getting us anywhere. Or maybe we want nothing to do with a cross that is a symbol of humanity’s interpretation of power in the name of God that’s led to so much suffering and pain. We have to pause and listen. We can do a lot of discernment on our own, but sometimes we have to say things out loud to know where things get real and when we are more serious than we’ve ever been.

If we’re going to be serious about being Christians, serious about being followers of Christ, we know it’s not all fun and games. There are times for feasts and merry-making. There are also times to pause and listen to what Jesus is saying to us. There are times to have a reality check and evaluate how we’re doing in carrying that cross of ours, even if no one else can see it.

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Allegiance, Servitude and Servanthood

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 | Psalm 100 | Ephesians 1:15-23 | Matthew 25:31-46

In 1925, Pope Pious XI established Christ the King feast day in the Roman Catholic Church as a response to rising secularism and especially as a counter to the Mexican government that was demanding ultimate allegiance. Those of us following the lectionary get the associated propers to remind us to whom we owe our ultimate allegiance: the King of kings and Lord of lords. As Americans, we have a complicated relationship with allegiance, with to whom or what we pledge our loyalty. We revolted against England to establish our own governance, and we pride ourselves on our independence. One of the reasons Anglicans had to expedite a new prayer book was because we had to remove allegiance paid to the English monarch, who also stood as defender of the faith. Today we are, however, expected to pledge allegiance to the flag and to the Republic for which it stands. Loyalty to the nation is a serious matter, and we’re still not sure how to conduct civil discourse when that loyalty is questioned or challenged.

I kept hearing Bob Dylan’s song, “Gotta Serve Somebody” in my head this week. In it, he’s basically saying it doesn’t matter who you are or what you do, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody. “It may be the devil or it may be the Lord/But you’re gonna have to serve somebody” so the song goes.

Whom do we serve? Can we say with full confidence, like Joshua, “as for me and my household, we … serve the LORD” (Joshua 24:15)? If someone looks at our bank account, does it look like we’re a cheerful giver, not just to the church even but to worthwhile causes, too? If someone looks at our schedule, does it reflect times of prayer? If we believe in God, are we loyal to God? Do we pay allegiance to God?

And maybe a better question is “How do we serve God?”

Because, yes, we serve the Lord, we give, and we pray, but how do we do it? Because we’re told? Because we have to? Because we’re supposed to, so we do what we gotta do and be done with it and live our lives the way we want the rest of the time? You don’t have to tell me, but I bet you can come up with at least something you do that you just have to power through. You don’t want to do it, but it’s good for you, like my going to the gym. Or eating all those vegetables that are so good for you, like celery. There may be other things, too, that you do that are hard but you don’t want to admit but that just are, like going to funerals or nursing homes or even going to parties and special events. Maybe they just aren’t your thing. But you do it. You’re loyal. Sometimes that brings with it a sense of servitude. We don’t like it, but we do it. We push through it. We get it done, and we can probably describe in methodical detail every aspect of our tasks because we’re very conscientious about what it is we have to do, unless we’ve let ourselves develop a habit and stopped paying attention to why we do what we do. If we lose our conscientiousness about it, then we’ve become little more than an automaton going through the motions.

“Be joyful in the LORD, all you lands;/serve the LORD with gladness and come before his presence with a song” (Ps. 100:1) (I always think there should be an exclamation mark at the end of that sentence.) I don’t think an automaton makes a joyful servant. Do we serve God with gladness, with gladness and singleness of heart? Maybe not all the time but even sometimes?

Maybe you do this more than you know. When you are doing what you’re good at, when you’re settled into your groove, and when you’re humming or smiling or focusing so intently that all else fades away, that’s it: you’re serving with gladness and singleness of heart because you are being fully you. So often we try to complicate a sense of being a wholehearted person or someone fully restored to God, but it’s really quite simple. You be you to your fullest, and in that moment when you think you can’t hold anything else, be joyful that God has created you for this moment. Be glad that you are restored to your Creator through our Lord Jesus Christ, for however far away we’ve strayed, every moment we have the chance to return.

It doesn’t sound like we have infinite opportunity when we’ve heard so much about being cast out or accursed, with all the weeping and gnashing of teeth. But things aren’t always what they seem. Jesus wasn’t the stereotypical Messiah; I don’t expect him to be the typical King. How many kings liken themselves to shepherds?

God in Ezekiel likened God to the ultimate Good Shepherd, and then appointed David as prince and shepherd. Jesus likens himself to the Good Shepherd, one of my favorite Godly Play lessons. We want to be sheep of the Good Shepherd, loved, protected, known, and sought after. As archaic as the image seems to us, we get that a good shepherd is what the sheep want.

But what about strength and might, power and dominion?

Even the nations become like sheep and goats when the Son of Man returns, our gospel today imagines. Nations who may have persecuted the early followers of Christ, nations who may persecute the poor and weak today–all are judged by the rule of Christ the King. That rule, that measure isn’t about power; it’s about how well you loved. How well did you love God? How well did you love others? How well did you love yourself so you could reflect that love of God in the mobius strip of holy communion, no beginning, no end?

Ultimately, what matters most is how we are living into our servanthood. As faithful, loyal followers of Jesus Christ, how’s our servant’s heart? Are we humble, merciful, pure, strong, peacemakers (with God’s help, of course!)? Not because we have to but because it’s the right thing to do: do we feed the hungry, water the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, comfort the sick, and visit the imprisoned? Not just as individuals but as a nation? If not, why not? Whom are we serving?

In any of the advocacy work I’ve been a part of or causes I’ve supported, the bottom line in all of them is that true change starts at the ground level. It starts at a point and reaches a critical mass until it becomes a groundswell that changes things, forcing the top to move as the masses mandate. It doesn’t take an expert sociologist to tell us that we’re not a united people right now, not even united as Christians, I’m sorry to say. Some of us would probably rather see the face of God in another religious tradition than work with other members in the Body of Christ. What does that say about our heart? Our faith and love?

“We are his people and the sheep of his pasture.” We have the ability to serve with gladness and singleness of heart, to be joyful and sing. We also have the ability to go out and be a guiding light for our community and our nation. God’s will for us all is to be restored, to be returned to our fullness of glory in the image of God. What each of us does to that end is going to vary, but it’s something we get to do. We can ignore it, do it begrudgingly, or do it with love and joy. I promise it’s so much more rewarding to do it with love and joy. Not easier! Just ask the Ephesians. Ask those persecuted for righteousness’ sake. They wouldn’t describe their allegiance to God as bondage, a servitude suppressing their freedom. Rather, in their oppression by the powers of this world, their allegiance to God through Jesus Christ bound their hearts in solidarity to the Sovereign of all ages. The mutual love and affection to achieve glory not only fulfilled their best selves but also fulfills God’s will.

And Paul gives us a beautiful prayer for our servant-heart:

“I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.”

Amen.

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The Long Haul

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 | Psalm 78:1-7 | 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 | Matthew 25:1-13

Most families about this time are finalizing Thanksgiving plans, determining who’s going to be where, bringing some part of the great feast. Perhaps your family, like ours, lingers around the table a little while, too full really to move, and starts storytelling. Casey’s dad is really good at this and is prone to exaggeration or throwing a joke in when you least expect it, so you fall for it completely. Then his mom starts in, sometimes barely getting the words out from laughing so hard, and we’re all laughing, too, though we’ve heard the stories hundreds of times (and I can’t tell you many of them because we’re in church and you probably know your own family legends). We can almost guess which stories are going to be told, depending on the theme of the conversation. I’ve noticed my older kids recognize this pattern and can jump in to jog memories if details or stories are left out of the conversation. In a sense, this is the Milford family’s oral tradition. These are the stories we tell when we gather together that demonstrate our resilience, our bond, and our sense of humor (to be sure!).

We gather each week for our Great Thanksgiving, our Eucharist, and we share our stories. Stories like Joshua leading the Israelites to the Promised Land, making sure through a bit of reverse psychology that they’re all in, committed to following one God, like him and his house. (So, yes, they’re really going to have to get rid of all the other idols.) Stories like in the letter to the Thessalonians that offer encouragement, hope, and assurance. They just knew the Son of Man was coming at any moment, but people were dying before he got there. What about their reward? In light of the foolish and wise bridesmaids, how can they–how can we–be sure we’re all ready, fully prepared? It doesn’t seem sustainable to be in red alert mode all the time. Something doesn’t seem right.

We know there’s a lot “not right” right now. A quick glance over the headlines just this past week tells a story of a people clamoring for something but getting tripped up on themselves. Where in all our stories does it say point a finger at anyone but ourselves? We want to do that. We could read and live our tradition blaming everyone else for our plight–from the Egyptians to the pharisees, to the Romans, to the Islamic State, to nonbelievers, to addiction, to mental illness. . . our list is legion. Last week when we were given the Beatitudes, Padre Guillermo and I both read them as instruction for how we live our lives in relationship, in community. They are how we live our lives ultimately because we are in relationship with God, and nowhere in the instructions does Jesus tell us that we are to rationalize or make excuses for not loving God or our neighbor, blaming our inadequacies on anyone and anything but ourselves. This acceptance or even realization that we are accountable for ourselves doesn’t feel good, but it allows us to seek out help; it helps us admit our weaknesses and vulnerabilities for which we need support. We could use our own letter from Paul.

When we’re living into the Christian life and trucking along with a new convert’s fervor, we might shine the light of faith brightly for all to see. We make our decisions based on what is right and good because it seems so clear. We know whose we are. We know where we’re going. We’re ready to meet the Lord now or in the kingdom to come. Our lamps are lit, and we’re prepared. We’re wise. And good. (And incredibly prone to being self-congratulatory.)

(http://www.clarion-journal.com/clarion_journal_of_spirit/2015/03/parable-of-the-ten-virgins-whats-the-oil-brad-jersak.html)

Maybe we started this life of faith with such vigor but started to lose our way. Unconditional love and acceptance drew us in and lit a fire we didn’t know we were capable of. Our light shines as brightly as for those who are wise, or at least it does at times . . . or did at one point. We just missed the instructions on how to keep the oil filled, our lamps ready and prepared. So how do we stay on fire for Jesus? How do we stay in love when things get hard, when the blessedness assured by Jesus seems hypothetical and archaic?

We share our stories.

Remember when Moses saw the Glory of God and was transfigured so much he had to wear a veil to talk to the ordinary folks? Remember how Moses died at the LORD’s command without much ado, and then Joshua was chosen to lead the people on into the Promised Land? Remember how Jesus summarized the law as loving God with all your heart, soul, and mind and loving your neighbor as yourself? Remember how Jesus lived, died, and rose again to show us the triumph of life and love on Easter morning? Remember the first time you experienced the unconditional love of God? Remember when you experienced the radical hospitality of this place? Remember how All Saints’ was planted and all the crazy things you’ve been through? Remember the first service on the Land? Remember the first bilingual service?

All our experiences now are the stuff of tomorrow’s stories, and it’s okay to look at the stories, the memories and learn from our mistakes. The gospel doesn’t say the foolish bridesmaids couldn’t get oil to fill their lamps; they just hadn’t done it in time. The wise ones knew the stories, learned from them, and remained steadfast, ready for whatever came next.

The important thing for us today is that we realize we’re in this for the long haul: “this” being our Christian life. This Christian life isn’t a sprint to the Second Coming but rather a marathon of following Jesus’s way through life, death, and resurrection–physically and spiritually. We need the light of Christ to illumine our way forward, and we need the oil, the fuel for that light. What do we do to nurture our faith in Christ? When and what do we pray? Do we hear Bible stories or read them on days other than Sunday? Do we consider our church family part of our support network? How much of what we do in the other 166 hours of the week reflects that we follow Jesus and that He is the light of our life? If we don’t know how or why or when, know that’s what I’m here for, to help you in your walk in faith, to find fuel for your faith. Normally people seek out the church in times of crisis, but if we keep maintaining a life of faith, we have a reservoir at the ready.

And what about All Saints’? We’ve considered the stories of the past, but what of its trajectory? What do we need to make ready so that when Jesus wanders in in the guise of the unemployed, the hungry, or any one of us, we’re prepared to show love of God and neighbor in practice? Keep in mind, we’re not pointing fingers or making excuses. This isn’t just a prompt for a “we need a building” discussion. This is really a prompt for us to prayerfully consider who we are as a church, as a people of God who proclaim the Risen Lord and who are gifted with Holy Spirit. Because if you put us in a room with a hundred other people from a hundred other religious traditions, we couldn’t distinguish the foolish or wise, the lazy or the prepared. Looking out at all of you, I don’t know your heart and mind (though some of you are likely still thinking about Thanksgiving). How does who we are affect our trajectory as a church in Bentonville, in the world?

These are the kinds of questions the vestry and I ask ourselves as we put together a yearly budget. Good caretakers, good stewards consider not just the material but also the intention and the hope. As we gather weekly for our Great Thanksgiving and tell our stories, what stirs in your heart? What fuels the light of Christ within you? What are you grateful for? What gives you a sense of wisdom? Those are things we can’t really put a pricetag on and say, “Well, match your yearly pledge to that.” The work we do here, the preparations we make from a place of faith are not of this world but are still very much within it. I know in the newsletter there’s been an emphasis on pledges that haven’t been met and how we have a deficit. But I believe we are a community that knows how to prepare. We are a community of abundance–of love, of talents, gifts, and treasure. We’re also a community of vision; we see All Saints’ filling an important role in the faith community in Northwest Arkansas. We’ll watch and wait together, but our anticipation isn’t idle. There’s work to be done, memories to be made, and stories to tell. We’re in it for the long haul.

 

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Our Command

Deuteronomy 34:1-12 | Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17 | 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 | Matthew 22:34-46

(More of what was preached for Proper 25)

The other day on the radio I heard an engineer talking about the amazing thing that a tiny robot can do (called the robo-bee). Fifteen of them together weigh about as much as a penny, she said. It flies, and now it can swim. More than that, it can launch itself out of water, converting water to gas to create enough propulsion so it can break through the water’s tension and emerge above water ready to fly again. Amazing. Most of you know my husband is a computer guy, so I understand there’s a whole programming side of things that I will never fully understand. My husband spends a lot of time at the command line on the black terminal screen that most of us regular users never see, but it’s the commands that he puts in that keep the software running as it should, just as the programs coded for the little robo-bees direct them in what they are able to do.

So when we have this account of Moses death, that he died as the LORD commanded, I marvel at the significance of his obedience even in death, knowing full well that his life has not been perfect. Even in his imperfection, Moses had been singled out by God to know and experience God in a way few have. Joshua had big shoes to fill, leading the Israelites, but they carried on, doing as the LORD had commanded Moses. They persisted in following the law, keeping their tradition alive through generations.

By the time of Jesus, there are an estimated 613 laws to follow in Judaism. The Pharisees know them and are responsible for keeping them. A lawyer would presumably be one skilled in Mosaic law, also, and that’s the person who speaks up to test Jesus, offering what he’s sure to consider a trick-question. “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” To which Jesus unhesitantly replies, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” And the second is like the first: “Love your neighbor as yourself,” a natural outgrowth, seemingly, of the first.

Knowing your Book of Common Prayer, you of course knew this summary of the commandments, as it’s in the Catechism. This “Greatest Commandment” is also in Mark and Luke, with the addition of loving God with all our strength. We can know these commands by memory, but what does it mean to love God with all our heart, mind, and soul? “Love” alone is complicated. Sometimes we want to focus on agape as a love that seems to evoke the all-compassionate love of God, philia that has the brotherly-love emphasis, or eros that gets at desire. Yes to all of these, and more. There’s so much more than sentimentality here. This all-encompassing love asks for all of our heart. However much we think we love, it’s that and more, requiring our loyalty and devotion. It’s putting God before all else, before any idols we might have, be they animate or inanimate (thinking of relationships, power, money, etc.). Love God with all our heart and with all our mind. I can’t even begin to wrap my feeble mind around God, but with all that I am, I let my thoughtful self love God. I allow myself to bring all of my questions, doubts, concerns, and fears to God. I bring my whole intellect, even when what I’m wrestling with makes no rational or logical sense. Love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our mind, and with all our soul.With the very essence of our being, we love God. It is our soul which most yearns for restoration in full likeness of God.

With whole-hearted, holistic love of God, love of neighbor is both a natural outgrowth and a societal obligation. But especially here, it’s important not to forget that Jesus is talking with people who want him dead. Earlier, in Chapter 7, Jesus tells his followers that the greatest thing they can do is treat others as they want to be treated, thus we get the golden rule. Now, he’s telling his enemies, his neighbors, that they are to first love God and then love one another. Jesus could have easily pointed out how these people were disobeying both commandments, kind of like the scene with the men charging a woman with adultery when he tells the one without sin to cast the first stone. Jesus is writing something in the dirt, and when he looks up, everyone but the woman is gone. Perhaps he was enumerating their own transgressions. But Jesus doesn’t do that here. He goes on to ask a question of his own, a question that as he interprets it, points to his own divinity. Psalm 110 is referenced about 37 times in the New Testament. In Christianity, it points obviously to Jesus’ Davidic ancestry but also to his divinity, his life as fully human and fully divine. Obviously, this isn’t so for the Jews then any more than now, but that didn’t change the Truth of who Jesus was and is. He had his own commands inscribed in His being and in His will. It’s no wonder those who were adamantly trying Jesus were ultimately left speechless, not daring for a time to ask any more questions.

We can love God with all our heart, soul, and mind and love our neighbors as ourselves, but in practice, things can get a little fuzzy. We have a day like Thursday. I’m all ready to go to the gym to practice my self-care after I drop Avery off at school, but on the way to school, my oil light comes on in my car. It’s the big red hazard light and another oil can light. Rarely do they both come on at the same time, so this is a huge red flag, and I’m just praying my engine doesn’t seize up in 8:00 traffic on 102. I stop in for an oil change at my regular place, and they tell me it will at least be an hour and a half, but I have a lunch appointment in Siloam. So I go to a 15-minute oil change place. I have my schedule to stick with, things I’ve got to get done. As the mechanic is welcoming me to my new venture, being my first time there, he’s smooth. I’m thinking he’s about to up-sale me on everything, but he assures me he’s not. At some point in the conversation, I tell him I’m an Episcopal priest. Before long, he brings my air filters to me to show me that they’re not bad, that I have a bulb out, and that they’re about finished. When we’re wrapping up the paperwork, where he’s giving me a first-time discount, it’s mentioned how expensive things are, and he says something about not being able to afford the best stuff, either. And I say, “Are you doing okay, though?” “Yeah, I’m alright,” he says. And he shares with me in less than five minutes the abbreviated version of his life story. How his mom’s life changed drastically when she found out she was pregnant with him, how it was her come to Jesus moment. How he didn’t really have a relationship with his birth father, but his mom found Jesus and also found a husband in a Church of Christ pastor. He shared a lively story about her being caught up in Spirit. His family is mostly in central Arkansas, so he’s a bit isolated up here, but he’s radiant with life. I probably would have bought anything he suggested, because I was smiling as I pulled away from the shop. That feeling of fullness and contentment, that happens when we let go of our preconceived notions of how things should be or how we think they are, even when they’re not. Opening ourselves to love God first and then extend it to our neighbors, we open ourselves to unlimited possibilities–yes, of potentially being hurt but only because the love is so grand.

So with the fullness and taste of joy and a much happier car, I drive to the gym and eventually make my way to Siloam, where the sapphire skies are shining, it’s nearly 80 degrees, and all seems right in the world (I rocked out to Hamilton rather than listen to the news). My colleague treated me to lunch as we caught up on life and work. He showed me some of the plans that Grace has for their expansion, as they get ready to break ground. I left with that same feeling of having had a lovely time.

But on my way back to pick up Avery, I started to feel a bit of worry, maybe a touch of anxiety or fear because I had signed up to go to the Q Commons event, an event sponsored by–as my colleague pointed out–some very conservative evangelical folks. Even the speakers were from the very conservative side of the spectrum. People who are probably praying for me, right? I’m going to this event where I imagine I’ll be judged, and I don’t know anyone else. We see what’s happened, don’t we? I’ve walled off myself in fear and worry, already forgetting what God has revealed to me just in this one day, let alone my whole life!

So I go, and there’s Christian folk being played from the stage, the tables are set, the food truck vendor has a buffet at the back and I judge it to be typical hipster scene. (The cookies on the table were a nice touch!) I’m mistaken for a sister, but the mistake informs me that someone I know will be there. Before long, I get to see her and make contact with someone I know. I talk to people in line, at my table. I start to see and converse with people I recognize but also meet new friends, all of us coming from various Christian denominations. But the whole event was about showing up to address Questions of this particular cultural moment, when we’re as divisive now, it’s perceived, as we were during the Vietnam era.

During the talk, NYTimes contributor David Brooks talks about cultivating virtue. Kara Powell talks about our addiction to technology. Propaganda talks about how complicated our lives are, how truly connected we are to one another so that we shouldn’t judge one another. Local folks spoke about art, service, and the Confederate statue. We listened, and at our tables we had a few moments to share. Of the many things I heard that still resonate in my mind, David Brooks mentioned how much our society shies away from commitment; we’re not anchored. We’re like the fall leaves right now, barely hanging on, and when a gust comes along that makes life difficult, we run away. We’ve been told by society we’re free to do whatever we want, be whatever we want, and have forgotten our covenant. We’ve forgotten that while we are free, we are in a committed relationship not only to God but to one another, with all our heart, all our mind, and all our soul. This covenantal relationship anchors us through trials and tribulations and keeps us moving forward in life, hopefully more aligned with God’s will.

So we can see how we have commands built into our Christian DNA. Born in Baptism, we are commanded to do certain things. We agree to them in our Covenant. It’s not just a contract, though; it’s a relationship. It doesn’t make life easy, but it roots us deeply in something bigger than ourselves. It might come with persecution or ridicule, but it promises us eternal life through Christ. It comes with expectation, too. Dr. James Hawkins from New Heights in Fayetteville, who spoke about the statue, said that we keep looking to our government, to politicians, to make changes. He told us that it’s up to believers to start the revolution, the radical move to life lived for love of God, that it’s up to us to pave the road of reconciliation. It’s up to us to love God with all our heart, with all our mind, with all our soul and love our neighbors as ourselves. It’s what we’re commanded to do, but it’s also what I want to do with every fiber of my being.

 

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Priceless Discipleship

1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21 | Psalm 16 | Galatians 5:1, 13-25 | Luke 9:51-62


Rarely does one walk into an employment obligation without really knowing the full range of requirements, expectations, and compensation. Sure, a teenager might take a summer job and not know what her hourly wage will be, and her mother might sign up to be part of summer camp staff for a couple of weeks without a clue as what exactly to expect. But most people most of the time know what they’re signing up for. We want to make sure that we’ll be able to fulfill expectations and that the effort we put into something will be justly compensated. Our needs and abilities are paramount when we make these important decisions about how we invest our time and energy. When it comes to how we make our living, it’s a matter of getting the math to work in our favor. When it comes to how we live a life, however, especially a Christian life, it’s a matter of something else entirely. When we signed on to be Christians, we signed on to a life of discipleship. Even though discipleship is spelled out for us in the Word, we’re still trying to figure out what it means for us … and what it will cost us.

From what we learn from Elisha and the would-be followers of Jesus, one has to be crazy to be a disciple. Crazy because it doesn’t make sense in our fight or flight world to leave what is comfortable, to surrender oneself, or to let go of control. Who gives up everything to take on something new and unknown? But that’s what Elisha did when Elijah called him. Maybe not right at first, but when he realized that Elijah meant business, Elisha cut his ties quickly and followed Elijah completely, becoming his servant. Likewise, Jesus makes no qualms about the expectations of his followers. It’s going to be difficult. There are going to be times of alienation, and it’s going to require everything, all of their being, all of their focus. It’s all or nothing, and the same is true even today: Jesus demands our all with a focus as determined as he was with his sight set on Jerusalem.

This full demand of ourselves perhaps doesn’t sit so well with us because humanity’s evolutionary process and technological advances strive to make our lives successful and efficient. “We live in an environment of ease and abundance,” says National Geographic explorer and Blue Zones author Dan Buettner, but it turns out that ease and abundance are not serving us well. As we focus on making a living to keep life easy and abundant, we can end up caught in a hamster wheel of stress, illness, and discontent, chasing an illusion. Continuing that cycle seems crazy, too.

The Blue Zones that Buettner studied are places where people live longer, healthier, and happier lives. Yes, diet and natural exercise are important factors, but so are one’s outlook on life and sense of belonging. Having a sense of purpose, knowing what one’s purpose is, along with belonging to a family and practicing a faith tradition are crucial components of living a fulfilling life. (I’m fairly certain some of you are already in on these not-so-secret ideas.)

There was also a recent article about an assistant professor of psychology at Sewanee who conducted a study to compare “the emotional efficacy of strategies that people might use to make themselves feel better–doing something nice for themselves, doing something to benefit another person, and doing something for the betterment of the world.” Again, not-so-surprisingly, doing something for others or for the world enhances one’s well-being by increasing experiences of feelings like love, gratitude, and trust. Contrary to media and advertising, doing something self-indulgent like getting a massage, going shopping, or eating a decadent dessert has the same long-lasting effect on well-being and happiness as doing nothing.

So where does that leave us? I think it leaves us pondering upon Paul’s words to the Galatians. “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another” (Gal 5:13). We have the freedom to do what we want, which means we can remain contained in a finite web centered upon ourselves. But we also have the freedom to seek and to serve the kingdom of God, opening our lives to the infinite. We cannot open to the infinite on our own but only through Christ. We are invited to be willing servants to one another through Christ, through love, and it’s not without compensation.

As disciples of Christ, we follow his way, expressing our love of God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind. We follow his way, loving our neighbors as ourselves. We follow his way, teaching the Good News of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension, making way for more disciples. We use the resources and gifts that we have because we realize that they are all from God. Even in our feeble understanding and humKeller Dining Hall, Camp Mitchell, Arkansasble efforts, God sees fit to nurture within us fruits of the Spirit. These are our rewards in our faithful service: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. When manifest, these fruits further empower the works of the devoted disciples to do things we didn’t think we were capable of. Moments marked with signs of these fruits are beyond precious and remind us how near and dear God moves through the Holy Spirit.

It’s okay to be the crazy Christian. We can all be the disciple who accepts the call of God, who embarks upon the thankless, sometimes dangerous, and unpredictable adventure of discipleship. “If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit” (Gal 5:25). We can trust the work that we do or the hobbies that we have to enrich our witness to Christ as we proclaim the name of God and not only make disciples of others but become better disciples ourselves.

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What is True at Christmas

Isaiah 9:2-4, 6-7 | Titus 2:11-14 | Luke 2:1-14

Around the ages of 6 to 10, each of my children in turn have been keen to point out to me in polite whispers that people obviously dressed up as Santa aren’t the real Santa. I meet their earnest eyes with a smile and a wink and mouth, “I know.” They, too, smile in their assurance of finding something true, but I remind them that that person dressed as Santa embodies a symbol of the Spirit of Christmas–the joy we have in sharing gifts with one another, given as tokens of our love. The season of Advent has ideally prepared us to share our intangible gifts of faith and love with one another joyfully and especially prepared us to rejoice in the gift that is Christ our Saviour.

Earlier this week in prayer, a line from Psalm 62 called out a reminder:

“For God alone my soul in silence waits;

from him comes my salvation.”

I had to read it again.

“For God alone my soul in silence waits;

from him comes my salvation.”

Whatever the past four weeks have held for us, in this moment we breathe in sacred stillness and let our bodies, minds, and spirits quiet, leaving outside the door all that would distract us.

Fully present here and now, as the gathered faithful, we have come to adore the blessed babe, come to heed the angel’s declaration, come to witness that God is indeed with us. We’ve come to hear the story of the true spirit of Christmas and to welcome our salvation in the form of the infant Christ.

Our story is set with a backdrop of people of all sorts, some righteous but not all. The world has become thick with social, political, and religious constructs, which further constricts one’s freedom. In a time of expectation, an angel, a messenger of God, visits a young woman, asking if she’s willing to serve God’s will. In Matthew’s gospel, Joseph is guided by an angel in a dream to cooperate with God. And shepherds minding their flocks are interrupted by yet another angel to tell them the “good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Lk 2:10-11). Mary births a baby boy, attended by we know not whom, but God is fully present. The angels are rejoicing and singing, and shepherds come to see if all this is true, for the “child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger” has changed everything.

Former Archbishop Rowan Williams said in a recent lecture that God doesn’t rend the heavens open to shower upon us the gift of our salvation; rather, God overflows into the world God created and fills from within, like a spring bubbling up from the earth. God changes things in the world in the world’s own terms, in its own life, within human relationship. In fact, he suggests that God “redefines human nature from within by defenseless love.”

“Redefines human nature” because we are shown our full, previously untapped capacity to be in relationship with others and especially with God. We are not so distinctly separate; God has been within us and remains among us. God redefines human nature because it would soon come to pass that no longer are we bound to this world in fear of death. Jesus lay wrapped in cloths as a babe as he would years later in a tomb, but at no point is he bound by this world. God redefines human nature because the least valued are given the greatest responsibility. Mary in her humility and silence bears her strength as she bore the Son of Man, and the shepherds, well, we can only imagine that the flock came with them. The shepherds who are both obedient to the will of God and able to care for and protect their flocks fill a role that resonates deeply with our Lord.

God doesn’t make a command at this moment in creation. God doesn’t say, “Realize today is the day to love me and do my will!” God offers us God’s self, the greatest gift we never thought to ask for.

Williams says that “God values our humanity beyond all imagining” and that “no risk or gift is too great for any one person.” For God it was never doubted that “humanity is supremely worthwhile.” God in infinite wisdom saw a new way to be among us so that we might once again know freedom and perfect love because on our own, we keep moving farther and farther away. Apparently the only way we could know such love was to experience it in the flesh, in flesh like ours. For that to happen, we had to show a mutual interest, a mutual willingness. We had to listen to what God had to say through the ages and trust that God still speaks in the present, yearning to share light and life with us.

The Christ child was and is the gift. God is the giver of God’s self, our greatest gift. The extraordinary was brought to the ordinary not in diminished form but as light from light. This gift born of Love shows us that the true spirit of Christmas is selfless, gracious Love. It is not forced. As much as God could have forcefully burst open the heavens and commanded obedience and loyalty through great power, God waited for the offer, the invitation to be accepted by an unassuming young woman.

The Spirit of Christmas is about receiving God’s in-breaking Love. Being aware of my own humanity and weaknesses, I realize that I needed Jesus to be born into this world those many years ago. I needed Jesus to be born into this world, to live and breathe among friends and foes, to die as one blameless yet crucified. I needed God to show me that I am beloved, that I am worth everything even if I don’t always believe it myself. And because God showed just how creatively love can be shared, just how beautifully life can grow from relationships, I know that God overflows into our world in immeasurable ways.

We try at Christmas to share our love for others in giving of our abundance. It’s what we do, and most of us enjoy the thoughtful preparation of choosing gifts and delight in the giving. We try to imitate God’s giving and do what we can to share. But the true spirit of Christmas comes from God’s giving and depends upon our receiving. Receiving the good news. Receiving God’s love. Opening our whole life to receive God and thereby receive our salvation, which is our perfect freedom and wholeness. Through this Christ child, we see how God breaks through the chaos, the darkness, and shows us that all shall be well. That there is hope.

We have to be able to recognize what is true, what is real. We have to remember the miracle of Jesus’s birth–that it happened at all–and open our lives to receive God fully, not because we’ve earned it or deserve it but just for the sake of receiving God’s unconditional love. We move about in this world not separate from God. There is no glass nor wall nor space between us. When we smile at a stranger, when we kiss a loved one, when we great one another in peace, we have every reason to overflow with joy at the presence of God in our world, in the face of everyone we meet. This night, we not only marvel and rejoice in the birth of Christ but also humbly bow before the babe at the manger and let our Light be ignited by the one true Light. We can imagine looking over to Mary and saying in excited yet hushed tones, “This, this is real.” And her smiling back at us and saying softly, “I know.”

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On Being Grounded and Getting Oriented

Zephaniah 3:14-20 | Canticle 9 | Philippians 4:4-7 | Luke 3:7-18

If you think on it a moment, I bet you can think of people who seem as flighty as a helium balloon–not just free spirits who at least have some sense of who they are but people who truly seem to have not even one foot planted in reality. That’s no one here, of course.

On the contrary, we also know people–some people we probably hold quite dear, who are grounded and sure-footed in this world. These people tend to know who they are, where they come from, what they stand for, and often they have a pretty clear sense of what their purpose in life is. If we’re not one of these people ourselves, we may be working to get there. It’s not bad work.

Whether or not we have a firm foundation, when we approach someone or something, we come as who we are, even if we are sometimes the flighty one. Who we are is a mixture of all that our lives have taught us and the circumstances we’ve been born into. Who we are is precious and unique; individually, our worldview, our perspective, is shaped by what we know. In our tradition we say that Scripture, tradition, and reason shape our theology, how we understand God. Similarly, several factors come into play to create the context for our worldview, how we understand and relate to the world around us.

In this crowd here today, we’d be hard-pressed to find people who have exactly the same perspectives. We’d come close, but there would be nuances. We’d be more likely to find others with completely different viewpoints but who are no less firmly grounded in their sense of being, especially in their love of Christ. That’s one of the beauties of our common worship.

—-

Just because we’re grounded, even in our love for God and God’s love for us, it doesn’t mean we’re perfect.

“You brood of vipers!” John calls his gathered crowd.

I’m sure it sounded harsh to them, too. John the Baptist had a crowd who assembled to be baptized. They heeded his call to a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. These are presumably good people, people who have heard something in John’s message that led them to this moment. Did they really deserve to be berated?

Not necessarily, but John warrants no apology. The Baptist’s admonition is a verbal slap in the face to WAKE UP! There’s urgency and necessity. A matter of life and death.

He calls out to the brood to jar them, to awaken the one lost in the clouds, carried away on every whim; the one so grounded and steeped in tradition that the footing has become shackled and immobile; the one planted in infertile soil, kept alive by synthetic fertilizers of the latest fad, the quickest fix, and empty promises; and the one buried into the ground by shame, guilt, and fear. And there are others still.

Surely it’s by the grace of God that they came to John at all, and he has to keep their attention, catch them while there’s a chance of waking them up. For asleep most of us are no better than vipers, bound to the ground with no footing, venomous, ready to strike, and a threat to those around us. The poison is within a viper. The potential is there in them as it is in us to do great harm. Provoked or afraid, a viper–humans, too–can deal a dangerous, painful, if not fatal, strike.

Even if we think we know who we are, John demands attention. John, the last prophet of the old way and the first martyr of the new, catches us and turns our attention toward God in a way that even he may not have fully understood but that he firmly believed.

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So the crowd in the gospel reading today does not get baptized with water but is sort of instructed in a baptism of repentance instead. Neither ritual cleansing nor repentance were a new thing. Repentance–or teshuva–is a practice of faithful Jews, providing a way to turn away from sin, from ways that are harmful, and to turn toward God, toward one’s true self whom God created to be whole. Repentance was and still is an act that can be done by one’s self or in community.

Jewish ethicist Louis Newman, in discussion with Krista Tippett in the podcast On Being, spoke about a study with professionals–in this case pediatricians and trial court judges, people with immense power. One thing the study found, as I understand, was that some of these doctors and judges had no outlet through which to process, let alone acknowledge their mistakes or biases.

A pediatrician who prescribed the wrong treatment that proved fatal found a safe space within the study’s controlled group to acknowledge the mistake for what it was and to emphasize the need for doctors in particular to admit to mistakes so that they can learn from them.

A judge realized that the power could go to his head and knew he had to be careful since he realized the vulnerability he had in the biases he held. In his court an attractive young woman might get a lesser sentence than someone who fit his mind’s stereotypical convict if he wasn’t paying attention to his prejudices.

Newman says that looking at our shortcomings and knowing our vulnerabilities clues us into what we need to be repentant about. It’s like knowing what triggers us to release our poison, whether within ourselves or onto others. If we let our self-awareness grow dim, we risk harming others and missing the opportunity for wholeness. We don’t want to miss that chance.

Whether we are doctors or judges, tax collectors or soldiers, men or women, young or old, we ask as if with one voice, “What then should we do?”

We could band together with others and provide a safe place to share. Recovery groups do this. John the Baptist offers examples of what one might do if one is truly repentant. Share clothes and food. Charge fairly. Be content with earnings. Preparing the way for the Lord means being honest with ourselves and perhaps even seeing “those people” or “others” as our neighbors. What John says causes me to think we are to consider ourselves and one another bound not to that which makes us sick and angry but bound together in what is to come through Christ: a new covenant of love, a covenant strong enough to hold us when we fail and big enough to provide space for many perspectives.

As Christians, our wholeness is realized through Christ. Sometimes we have to change our footing and get reoriented toward the way of our Lord. We repent and begin anew, often repeatedly. I believe God makes no exceptions for those who seek God’s grace and knows the hearts of all believers in every land in a way I cannot comprehend. What this viper has a chance of doing is not controlling the other vipers in my brood or the ones next door; my chance at wholeness is to align myself with the one who brings peace and pass that goodness along.

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If I trust John has awakened me to a new way, toward Truth, then wherever or however I’m grounded, what’s important is that I’m oriented toward Christ. That gives us all reason not only to repent in all sincerity but also to rejoice.

We have reason to rejoice with our lives turned toward Christ and joyfully anticipate his arrival.

All who have humbly repented know the anguish and discomfort overcome. Repentance is our anti-venom. The peace of Christ is our calm assurance, rooted in our trust in God that all shall be well. Really. Paul was sincere in his exhortation to the Philippians to rejoice and not to worry. The more we live into our whole selves, the more keenly aware we are not only of our potential to fall into sin but also of our capacity to experience true joy. It is imperative that we keep our heading focused on Jesus.

It may only be a moment–a moment from this morning or from many years ago–but we have known joy. If it’s been too long for us, we especially need to heed John’s call and repent, letting go of that which holds us down and riddles us with dis-ease and deceit. Either in prayer or with the support of our community here, we let go of what isn’t true. With integrity we embrace our wholeness through Christ. Whoever we are in the crowd, we turn toward the one through whom our joy is made complete.

The time is drawing nigh.

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