What We Believe & Why We Do What We Do

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Written on our Hearts

Jeremiah 31:31-34 | Psalm 51:1-13 | Hebrews 5:5-10 | John 12:20-33

On this fifth Sunday in Lent, it seems like being so far into the wilderness journey that I should be bowing my head parched in penitence, wearing my sackcloth and ashes. Especially revisiting Psalm 51, the same psalm we recite as we receive the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday. But I got to attend an ordination this weekend, and to me those services are nearly as joyful as baptisms. I get giddy with joy, even though I know the life in ministry is full of its own trials and tribulations. The bishop ordained six new deacons into the church, one of whom was our own Greg Warren, and it was a delight, honor, and privilege to serve as one of his presenters, alongside Mark. This solemn-joyful contrast reminded me of the video I sent out along with the newsletter this week, the one where Jesus needs some time alone and embarks on the forty days in the desert. Along his way, halfway through, he finds a flower, another day he chases birds, gazes at the sunset, or whistles with a bird. These are portrayed as pleasant experiences, in sharp contrast to the circling vultures, chapped lips, and tests of Satan.

Just because we’re going through a season of acknowledging our sins, of recounting the commandments, of bowing before the Lord in prayer . . . this doesn’t mean that there won’t also be moments of wonder, delight, awe, and even joy. This is life, right? If you’ve ever gone on a strict diet or done a cleanse (I’ve only really done it once or twice), after the first three days of feeling really yucky, there’s a sense of clarity that arrives with being more healthy.

Having let go of that which we don’t need, there’s a lightness and new perspective that’s especially focused around that which we really need.

The Greeks on their way to a festival decided they needed to see Jesus. They did what any of us would do: they go up to someone like them who has a connection to the one they seek. Philip then goes to Andrew, and then they go to Jesus who then says the time has come and again remarks about the kind of death he would die. We don’t know if the Greeks got to see Jesus, but something about their seeking was enough to signify to Jesus that the time was ripe, that his mission was drawing near to completion. For no longer was it just the inner circles who were hearing the message of Jesus; news about the new Way was touching the hearts and minds of others. There was a desire to see Jesus.

When I think about where desire comes from, I think it comes from somewhere deep within. I think of desire as a yearning of the heart. For those of us who just can’t stay away from the church even when we’ve gotten mad or doubted or just wanted to be lazy on Sunday morning, maybe we feel a connection to the Israelites upon whose hearts the LORD had written the law so that God would ever be their God and they God’s people. This was a new covenant for the Israelites because it focused on an internal knowing and God’s forgiveness–not a new law but a new covenant, one that indicated an inward transformation of the human heart that (would) allow the people to know God intimately and to be obedient to the commandments.” This sounds strikingly familiar to us Christians who believe God sent Jesus Christ to bring us a new covenant that transforms the lives of those who believe and commands us to love.

If only we could read what was written on each of our hearts, what the mark of our Creator has spoken to each of us.  How many layers of barriers do you think we need to peel away before we get to a place where we not only recognize with our minds but truly know in our heart, in our being, that we are not only created with love, commanded to love but also worthy of love?

How different do you think our society would be if we lived into what is written upon our hearts?

We’re wrapping up Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy this week in our Lenten Soup and Study (so if you haven’t been and want to see what that’s like, this is your last chance!). Last week we discussed the chapter titled “Mother, Mother,” which shared stories of women who had been incarcerated, separated from their children. This is tough, painful material. Particularly we focused on the story of Marsha. Marsha and her husband both worked but still didn’t have enough to make ends meet. They lived with their six children in a FEMA trailer, their house having been destroyed by a hurricane. The trailer was right by their ruined home so they could keep the kids in the same schools, for these are devoted parents, determined not to fall back into a life destroyed by addiction. Stevenson captures beautifully the love and devotion Marsha has for her children: what she can’t provide for them monetarily, she makes up for in her love and affection, spending time with the children, reading and playing with them, staying clean and sober. When she finds out that she is pregnant, she does what many a poor mother has done and sacrificed her healthcare rather than deprive the rest of the family. She figures she’s been pregnant many times before and pretty much knows what to expect. She would love this child as much as her others. Without prenatal care, however, she missed or ignored the warning signs that her pregnancy showed complications. On a particularly tiresome day she went to soak in the tub of their previous home that still had water . . . only she was met with a fierce and quick preterm labor, and she birthed her stillborn child. She loved the baby instantly and grieved its loss. The family mourned together and held a burial for it at their home. But we know there’s no rest for the weary. Life marched on for them.

But a neighbor . . . a neighbor noticed that Marsha, who had been pregnant, was no longer pregnant, and there wasn’t an infant in sight.

If this were the case for one of our neighbors, mightn’t we wonder what had happened? Wouldn’t we take a deep breath to fortify ourselves and approach our neighbor to gently ask how she’s doing, what happened? I certainly hope I’d be brave enough to ask directly.

But that’s not what the neighbor did. The neighbor reported her to the authorities who came out and searched the place, took pictures of an unflushed toilet and a beer can which was used to testify to the improper, unclean living environment. The baby’s body was exhumed and examined by a fraud of a pathologist who declared that had there been medical attention at the birth, the child would have lived (this wasn’t the case, as determined by credible doctors who testified). But Marsha ended up serving ten years in prison before Stevenson helped her get released. Ten years of being separated from her children. (Children of incarcerated parents are so much more likely to end up drug addicted and/or incarcerated themselves.) One of our study group questions was “who was the most guilty one in Marsha’s case?” We unanimously agreed that it was the neighbor. Instead of showing an ounce of concern or compassion, she had made a judgment that ended up dividing a family, sending them into a wilderness more harsh than the one they were already traversing. She didn’t bother to ask what happened, to know Marsha’s story, to even get a glimpse at what was written on her heart. Lest we be quick to decide that this neighbor was just one of those gossipy women who has her nose in everyone’s business, we don’t know her story, either, what pains and hurts she carries that has blinded her to the call for compassion and love of neighbor. Maybe she thought what she needed to do was make sure that someone else was following the law of the land, blind to the command on her own heart that comes from God.

How well are we listening to the true desire of our heart–not the superficial ones that we mask with whatever makes us feel good in the moment but the deep desire that pulls us in the direction of Christ? Following this desire will definitely lead us into the wilderness where we will have to make choices on whether we hide and build up more barriers or let go and persist along the Way, calling out to God to “Create in me a clean heart . . . and renew a right spirit within me” (Ps. 51:11). It is the clean heart and right spirit that guides us with clarity toward what is written on our heart, that delights in the joyful even amidst the darkness, and that keeps us tethered on our way to seeing Jesus in everyone around us. It’s also this clean heart and right spirit that we’re refining throughout Lent that painfully become part of the crowd who shout, “Crucify him!” in the Passion Narrative. We’re working so hard, dear Christians, to seek Jesus, to see him in our neighbors. Let us not forget how easy it is to slip into darkness and judgment and be the mob quick to crucify and to deny the message of love written on our heart.

 

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