Our Humanity & Transfiguration

2 Kings 2:1-12 | 2 Corinthians 4:3-6 | Mark 9:2-9 | Psalm 50:1-6

You may have read in this week’s newsletter that this weekend is The Clergy Letter Project’s Evolution Weekend, the 13th year of pulling together clergy of all traditions to advocate for a relationship between science and religion rather than putting them at odds with each other. Our Bishop Benfield signed onto the Letter, as did I. As responsible citizens and faithful Christians, we have a responsibility to know how our actions impact our environment, how science enhances our understanding of the world around us. Our growing understanding of the world around us does not negate the existence of God. If anything, this understanding enforces the magnitude of the beauty and mystery of Creation, in what we know and the growing expanse of what we don’t know.

This year the theme of Evolution Weekend is “Our Shared Humanity.” Because of the divisiveness in our societies worldwide, emphasis is placed on our shared humanity, our commonalities even and especially at our genetic level. Often, divisiveness is based on “race,” which is itself a human construct, a designation based on geography or melatonin levels. We’ve used race and ethnicity to sort people throughout history, so much so that we’ve shown a tendency to reduce a person to their race or ethnicity, losing sight of their humanity: that’s how we end up de-humanizing people and finding ourselves in the midst of discrimination and oppression to outright racism and genocide. This seems particularly appropriate during February, Black History Month. So neglected from our American narrative, the black story needs at least a month a year to get recognition as an affirmed part of our collective narrative. We need incentive to pay attention to what often gets the attention and recognition, let alone how we use language and imagery. Think how often we associate darkness with what is bad and light with what is good. We need to think. We need to be aware. We need to wake up more often to our shared humanity.

This Epiphany season we’ve been focusing on how we manifest the Light of Christ in our humanity. We’ve been highlighting wonderful organizations and efforts to serve our neighbors, especially those who are suffering. We recognize the brokenness in our humanity that enables the perpetuation of this suffering, and we realize the desperate need we have for Jesus Christ to be in our midst, the wholly human and divine one that opened our way to reconciliation and redemption.

The transfiguration story we have in the Gospel of Mark highlights the contrast between the humanity of the apostles and the divinity of Jesus, while still holding on to Jesus’ humanity, too. Jesus needed these witnesses, even if he didn’t want them to share anything just yet. There was a hill to climb, a revelation to be had, and a moment to be savored.

There’s so much meaning in the details. Note that when something significant happens, it’s often someplace hard to get to, set apart, or up high. On this high, set apart mountain, Jesus, radiant in glory is accompanied by two who were thought to be ascended directly to heaven (Moses, whose burial site is unknown, though the was buried, and Elijah taken by chariots in the whirlwind): this moment is a revelation of God. In Greek tradition, a transfiguration or transformation occurred when the gods walked the earth in human form and then manifested their divine glory or radiance. Peter’s response to make three dwellings was completely in line with the Greek tradition to build a shrine on the site of an epiphany of a deity, as was their response to be in awe and fear of the divine manifestation.


But what of Jesus’ response of silence, of not knowing what to say? That might seem odd to us–thankfully we have the voice of God speak up–but Mark doesn’t have a problem showing Jesus’ humanity. His divinity has words, but the human doesn’t. We so often don’t have words for the most intense moments of fear, grief, sadness, joy, or love. We just have our witness to those moments. I have no doubt that Jesus brought a full-bodied awareness to the moment with the apostles, with all their fear and awe and wondering. The wisest people have a way with silence, and it’s not always what they don’t know that calls for silence. Think of all that Jesus didn’t say during his wandering in the desert, in his times of prayer, and during his trial and crucifixion. When Jesus does speak, he tells them to hang on until after Easter, which the guys didn’t understand yet because they hadn’t experienced the resurrection yet.

But we have.

And we’re neither Greek nor Jew, nor East nor West, nor male nor female . . . but we are humans, created in the image of God, gifted with the saving grace of Jesus Christ, whose glory we believe in because it shines in our hearts (as Paul says). But because there’s still suffering in the world and God’s glory hasn’t been fully realized in me (and maybe not in you, either), there is need for transfiguration, for transformation. There is need, and there’s a way: through Christ’s reconciliation and redemption.

We start with ourselves. We climb the climb of whatever struggle we’re facing and do it again and again until we’ve seen and tasted the image of God long enough to bring it back into our daily lives, until we’ve heard the Word of God and take it with us, working through our fear/resistance/oppression until we trust in the power of the resurrection to see us through death and even hell itself. We do this because Jesus showed us the power of eternal life. We do this because Jesus Christ is alive, pulsing with every beat of our hearts.

We nurture this pulse of Christ with our prayer, worship, and fellowship. I read an article that addressed the trend of churches giving up time-consuming worship to emphasize sharing a meal and doing deeds. That hits close to home because I find great value in meals shared and service in the community. But like the article emphasizes, the time we share and the service we do outside of our worship times and prayer practices are an extension of our gratitude for all God has given us, our way of sharing in God’s glory, our way of manifesting the Christ Light into the world around us that others might recognize it for themselves. That’s what I think of when I think of ministry. It’s not about doing good to make people feel good about themselves or make them think that our church is “the” place to be. I apologize if I haven’t made that clear.

What we do is an extension of our praise and thanksgiving to God through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. We’ve been saved from death, we’ve died to sin in our baptism. We’ve been redeemed by Jesus Christ. We’ve been given the greatest gift, for which we don’t have the capacity ever to repay. But we’re told to love one another. And our loving one another with thanks and praise to God–genuine worship and gratitude–manifests the Light of Christ in our communities. It shows in the fellowship we share, in the works we do, and we have room to grow and improve in this area, for we have so much to be thankful for. I’m going to continue doing my best to make sure we have beautiful, meaningful, prayerful worship together as a first priority. And I’m going to continue to encourage living out that meaningful faith in acts of service to our neighbors.

When I went to the Q Commons event, Sister Lisa from Mercy shared her 8th Street Motel feeding ministry. The motel was a site for sex trafficking, abuse, drugs, and violence. Since they began the feeding ministry, which occurs once  a week, reports of violence reduced drastically. Relationships built over time also helped former motel residents establish more stable lives. My ears perked up when she said she was starting the same program in Bentonville at a motel that showed great need for positive influence, a place that often houses those who are homeless, addicted, impoverished, and otherwise marginalized. I can imagine a so-called transfiguration story of those who are in the midst of battles making it to a bounteous buffet, receiving the love and hospitality of willing volunteers, and going back to their friends to share the good news of a free meal. That story seems kind of flat. More meaningful is the story of people being fed, listening to one another, encouraging each other, empowering the weak and afraid, and showing up month after month to check in and share where they’ve seen points of hope in their lives, where they’ve sensed grace and experienced faith. More transformational still is the story of those who thought they were easily dropping off a portion of a meal but who stayed with people who might otherwise challenge them–even frighten them–and stayed with them long enough, built relationship with them deep enough, to recognize their shared humanity and develop a common bond, not for their sake alone but because they loved God so much they wanted to share it with others. 

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Healing

Isaiah 40:21-31 | Psalm 147:1-12, 21c | 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 | Mark 1:29-39

When Cathy Luck was here last week, sharing her work with Oasis NWA, she asked how many people were familiar with Becca Stevens. I was surprised to see not everyone knew who she is. If you already know this, bear with me, but there are some things in Episcopal culture everyone needs to be aware of. Becca Stevens founded Magdalene House in 1997, a house of refuge and healing for women who have been trafficked or addicted. Now it’s called Thistle Farms, which started out as the social enterprise side of things, selling oils, cards, and body products made by the women themselves. Now it’s over a million dollar industry and has expanded to include many other products from other countries, focusing on fair trade goods and teas made by women so that they can support themselves, their families, and their communities, too. Meanwhile, the model of the original Magdalene House has been replicated throughout the country, including Oasis here in NWA, Serenity House in Fayetteville, and Coming Home in Little Rock (which is still in development). The unaffiliated religiously and non-governmental model focuses on assuring that the environment is safe, non-judgmental, and holistic. A woman can stay up to two years, spending the first getting the health treatment she needs and the second to continue to heal and to build up her self-confidence and job skills.

A sexual assault survivor herself, Becca knows that healing is a monumental effort, and she said that reading the Gospel, she couldn’t help but hear over and over again how it was God’s love that brought about healing. So when she started selling oils, it was with the intent to heal not magically but with the intention of love and care, with the practice of unction in mind, with anointing those whom we love. How better to put into practice God’s message of love and healing? The motto and the title of her most recent book is “Love Heals”–plain and simple.

The gospel stories affirm the simplicity of God’s power to heal. In fact, there’s a pattern to the healing stories, just like there’s a pattern to a prophet’s call in the Old Testament. As we hear in Mark’s narrative today,

1) there’s the description of illness: Simon Peter’s mother-in-law has a fever, apparently a pretty bad one.

2)Then there’s a request for healing. Simon, Andrew, James, and John hurry back to Jesus to tell him about it. (Like when I tell my kids their room is a mess, I’m really telling them to pick it up.)

3)Following the request, there’s action done by the healer. Jesus takes the woman by the hand and lifts her up.

4)As means of affirmation, the fourth step in the pattern provides evidence of restored health. After the fever’s gone, she’s healthy enough to begin to serve.

So if we take this pattern and apply it to our lives, I agree with steps one and two. We identify our illnesses and make our requests, our intercessions, praying for health to be restored. But at step three, when in the Bible every time Jesus intervenes, health is restored (even if it takes a second try), what do I do with the times healing doesn’t come, when prayers aren’t answered? Because our model is that God has the ability to make all things new, to intervene on our behalf. When the good results come or good things happen to us, don’t we say, “Thanks be to God”? I know I do.

But true healing isn’t as simple as that. Just as true love isn’t as simple as it sounds. God’s love for us is abiding and unconditional. God’s love affords us–all of us–free will. God’s love, God’s healing participates with us, in relationship. And always, when we are in full relationship with God, we are moving toward our fullest restoration into God’s image. If that can happen in a miraculous recovery or if that can happen in death, I imagine that one is not greater than the other, if we have the fullness of understanding that God has. We hurt and anger and fight and doubt and turn away because sickness and death are not what we want. We don’t want the suffering and pain. The words of Julian of Norwich sound trite when she says, “All shall be well,” just as when someone tells us everything will be alright when our whole world is crashing in on us: everything is not well and alright. We may even scream it in rage at the well-intentioned speaker. But Julian’s “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well” comes from a deep well of wisdom, prayer, contemplation, and practice. She knew it. She knew what being healed meant in body and spirit, and it was well with her soul. Times of tribulation truly try the sagest of souls, for when we are wounded or in danger, our defenses are up, our ego on watch though completely vulnerable. It’s painful to watch a wounded animal. Humans aren’t that different when we’re deeply hurt. What we need to be fully restored isn’t always diagnosable or treatable, if there even is a cure. But the peace of mind, body, and spirit that Julian speaks of connects to the healing love of God that guides us through the times we wonder if we’ll make it through. And all the while, whether we realize it or not, God is ever present, loving us, guiding us, healing us in ways we can’t even comprehend, let alone name.

When we are healed in a manner that allows for evidence of our restoration, what is it that we do with our lives? The mother-in-law gets up and gets to work, serving her guests. As a feminist, this might make you cringe a little bit. Shouldn’t she be getting rest? But so full and complete is her recovery that she is able to fully live into her honor as the head woman of the household. A servant or Peter’s wife could have done the work, but this was an important event, Jesus and all the disciples gathered in her home. It would be like me as a young woman offering to make my grandmother’s chicken dressing at Thanksgiving. She wouldn’t have dreamed of it as long as she was well enough to do it.

Today, a 30-years sober alcoholic might faithfully facilitate a meeting, carry a coin, and mentor someone new in recovery. A cancer survivor might lead support groups. The bereaved share in grief groups. Former sex slaves share their story to prevent others from being kidnapped and trafficked. Parents who lose a child advocate for legislation regarding gun violence, car seat safety, bullying . . . the list goes on and on.

However complicated and individual the story, it does appear that the pattern is simple: love heals. But it’s mighty hard.

It’s hard to say what’s hurt, sick, or broken.

It’s hard to ask for help.

It’s hard to be at peace when the action we’re asking for isn’t visible or visibly doesn’t happen, to trust that God is at work loving and healing us.

It’s hard to live into the fullness of health when things still seem hurt, sick, and broken.

It didn’t seem to be incredibly easy for Jesus, either. He retreats to a lonely place and prays, knowing full well the weight of everyone hunting and searching for him with all their dis-ease. But he had shown them hope, brought his message of peace, and proclaimed the gospel message: that the kingdom of heaven had come near. He offered them words but also showed evidence in his healings.

In our own ways, may we be so empowered, so loved, so healed.

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Free

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

When I was at St. Paul’s, the Servant Leadership classes they offered enriched my spiritual growth and development. The classes taught and introduced me to ways of expressing my experiences that I didn’t get by attending church every Sunday. (It seems funny to me that we would think that an hour or so a week will give us all we need to make our joy complete, but I digress…) One of the classes was on Compassion, one of the main tenets of servant leadership. It was in this class that we talked about the effect we have on one another. If you’re like my husband, you think this is where I start sounding new age-y: we read about studies of coherence, how researchers quantify the feeling, the energy, the aura–if you will–that we put off ourselves and that we experience when we’re in the proximity of others. I’m pretty open-minded and tend to let my experience guide me. It seemed to me like we are measuring our heart rate, how calm we are, but still . . . that sense of presence extends beyond us, and  invites or distances others from ourselves. So when I talk about imagining being in the presence of Jesus and how compelling it must have been, I’m trying to imagine being in the presence of God made manifest, in the presence of holiness, in the presence of the imago dei–the image of God, that says, “This. This is who you are called to be. Beloved. At one with me.”

Coherence defined is “the quality of forming a unified whole.” In physics, coherence is “a fixed relationship between the phase of waves in a beam of radiation of a single frequency. Two beams of light are coherent when the phase difference between their waves is constant.” So in class when we focused on compassion, among other things, we talked about being coherent with ourselves and one another. If we want to feel at one with one another, in sync, we focus on recognizing suffering and not inflicting it ourselves: we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. As Christians, this looks like recognizing the lack of belovedness that’s present in the world around us, and we show love.

One of the greatest exercises we did in the class and that I’ve done in small groups many times since, is a compassion exercise of taking a moment of love and joy in my life, breathing it in and exhaling it, intentionally spreading it beyond myself until it expands to God beyond the cosmos . . . and bringing it back in to me, here and now. I think we often forget that we have a great capacity to make a difference in our world, near and far.

This matter of forgetting is of critical importance. In the Jewish tradition, recall the imperative behind telling the stories to the children, to the future generations so that the people wouldn’t forget who they are, whose they are, the imperative behind maintaining their identity. Isn’t that true in every cultural group? What’s your story? What’s your narrative? What do you know in your bones, tell to others, and share with the world? What are the most used words on your social media sites? Who do you surround yourself with and share in the same narrative?

We are inclined these days to align with our social or interest groups, right? A big game is happening next week: are you Eagles or Patriots? People get passionate about their recreation. We also identify with our employment or lack thereof. Politics, too. Republican or Democrat? Conservative, mainstream, progressive, or liberal? Our place of origin. East or West? North or South? Legal or Immigrant? Our very identity: gender; ethnicity; sexuality; fertility . . . every which way we have to classify and sort ourselves, we accomplish it by furthering whatever story we have to affirm for ourselves, even if that means part of our story is to separate or alienate ourselves from others.

I’ve mentioned Brené Brown so many times, and she preached in the National Cathedral last week, so I’ll revisit her words again: she states flat-out that we’re in a spiritual crisis. Our spirituality is based on belief that we are connected, not only to ourselves but also to something greater. Sure, our spirituality can be that we’re die-hard Eagles fans, and we’re bonded with other Eagles fans. But is the Eagles that “something greater”? We’re dyed in the wool Democrats or Republicans, Yankees or Rebels . . . but is our political or geographical homeland that “something greater”? I’m a priest in The Episcopal Church. Is the National Cathedral or even the organizing bodies at 815 my “something greater”? Our “something greaters” have a tendency to become idols, false gods, lifted up by false prophets, stumbling blocks to the weak. These idols don’t sever our connection with one another even from the “other” who doesn’t support or understand where we’re coming from, why we do what we do; they can’t sever that connection anymore than they can destroy the frequency between us: it can make it incoherent. The idols have a way of distancing ourselves from what is truly greater, making things in life so discordant and segregated that we forget what is truly great. As Christians, what is truly great is God, the God who imprinted God’s own image in each of us, whose divine imprint is breathed within every living thing. Especially as humans, who bear the image of God, we are inextricably connected to one another, and this is so important that we make vows in our baptism to respect the dignity of every human being. And when one person hurts in the whole world, our compassion compels us to recognize that suffering and work to alleviate the pain that it might not be inflicted upon them or us so that we can be whole with God.

Buddhism taught me the word compassion. “This is what Christ is all about!” I nearly exclaimed to my professor. “Why have I never heard this word before?” I had never heard the word, but I had seen it in practice. We see it now. Students are dying in schools from gun violence, and we hurt. MOMS Demand groups sprang up five years ago after Sandy Hook to say no more children will die this way . . . my child won’t die that way. Every week, the possibility draws closer to kids we know. God forbid it be our own. What are we doing to bring coherence? To manifest compassion.

We all know someone affected by the layoffs, right? Maybe you’ve experienced in the past if not now. Maybe you’ve had to deliver the news yourself if not with Walmart then in other lines of work. No one wants to fire or lay off anyone. We want everyone to have gainful employment. We want to plug people in and make deeper, truer connections, enable fruitful labor. Yet I hear rumblings that people are recognized as humans but rather as just another employee, just another calculation affecting the bottom line. What are we doing within our places of employment to reinforce our dignity and humanity and connection? Our work isn’t the greatest thing we do. Our lives are the greatest thing we have to show forth the love we have. Yes, we need to pay the bills in our homes and offices and churches, but at the end of the day, even at the end of our lives, how did we show the world our love of God and God’s love for us?

Jesus taught with authority in the synagogue and cast out the demon from the man who never speaks for himself. And those gathered around him wondered at his words and work. Great crowds followed Jesus. Where was their focus? Where was their “something greater”? They made famous a man who did amazing things.

The unclean spirit, however, called Jesus “the Holy One of God.” The demon, the embodiment of evil knew the coherence of Jesus, perceived the frequency, knew the divinity Jesus possessed, and the demon was powerless at His command though it did not leave without convulsions and crying out. The unclean spirit made a scene.

Our idols or our demons don’t call out divinity when it appears, but they are mighty strong at enabling us to forget our imago dei, to forget the Christ Light we bear, to forget our connection with others, even to forget our connection to God. If we’re inclined to forget all this, how dim becomes the story of Jesus, the life he lived, the death he suffered, the resurrection and ascension he showed us as he returned to full Glory in God, in unity, wholeness, and perfect coherence.

Hear our prayers, O God, and grant us peace, that we might be free from all that binds us and blinds us to the power of the Life and Love of Christ to restore us all to God.

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For further reading on compassion, I commend Karen Armstrong’s work on compassion, highlighted by this article on Brainpickings.

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For God Alone . . .

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

I don’t normally talk about specific theologies, but there’s one out there called “prosperity theology” or “prosperity gospel.” What do you think of when you hear the word prosperity? Success? Wealth? Favor? You’re doing good, right? The main premise, as I understand it, is that if you’re doing good, living right, giving generously (especially to your church), then God will bless you with an abundance of health and wealth. It’s like the really good Good News. Actually, someone sent me an email linking to an article that said one of these prosperity gospel pastors was calling for her congregation to give the equivalent of one month’s salary to the church. I don’t know if this was to tithe or if it was a bonus gift requirement, but the joke was that this could help us shore up the budget at All Saints’. But that’s not what we do or how we do it. Because what happens when you’re doing everything right, and suddenly the wheels fall of? What happens when bad things happen to good people? Does that mean God has rejected you or punished you? When everything’s going right, it’s easy to celebrate abundance. It’s easy to celebrate Nineveh’s repentance and God changing God’s mind. Our Psalm is like a cheerful lullaby, for of course we wait for God alone our hope and strength. And of course the disciples are just going to pick up and follow the charismatic Jesus along his way. All is good! The kingdom of God is theirs. Honestly, this view of doing good and being good and getting abundance and blessing in return sounds conditional and very me-centered. What am I getting out of my living a seemingly godly life?

Anymore, when things seem a little too good to be true or a little too shiny, perfect, or easy, I wonder where the mess is. Because real life is messy and complicated. Real life has uncompromising people and shutdowns, poverty and illness, affluence and addiction. Real life has bad things happen to good people without our understanding why, and if our whole view of God is that we get the good when we are good, then to get reality means that we’re bad. That’s not our theology. That’s not our understanding of God because that’s not what’s been revealed to us in our Scripture nor in the life of Jesus Christ.

Did you hear the reading from Jonah? Was this account from his first call from God? No. It’s the second time…because the first time he got a call from God, he thought it would be a good idea to run the other way; only that plan led him to the belly of a big fish. He ended up in Nineveh anyway. This, the second time, he decided to go ahead and do what God told him to. I imagine him walking across a big city like Little Rock, a three days’ walk across, proclaiming the city’s doom. But the people actually listen and repent, and then what’s God do but see their repentance and change God’s mind! That’s great for the people and God, but where does that leave Jonah? What kind of prophet is he if what he says doesn’t come true? What kind of credibility does he have? Jonah goes into a pretty deep pity party, feeling sorry for himself, and he more accurately reflects the Psalms that describe the doubt and despair than hope and praise.

When we hear about faithful and imperfect lives of people more like ourselves, what do we see revealed about God? How do we read “For God alone my soul in silence waits; truly, there is my hope”? It comes not always from a place of richness and abundance with a tone of rejoicing; we can read the same line from a place of wondering, wandering . . . a place of wilderness . . . a place where we are really hoping there is hope at all.

Maybe we can hear the letter to the Corinthians not as a dismissal of things of this world but of a non-attachment grounded in the assurance of the kingdom of heaven, consistent with love of neighbor and self and God. As we navigate the reality of our lives, we see that it is but for the grace of God that any of us experience the gift of life, let alone that of abundance. And our concept and perception of what is rich in this life truly depends on what we value . . . and not just materially. Jesus’s Way set forth the example of living into a life of radical hospitality and welcome, of invitation and generosity, and of inverting the status quo. I repeat often: this doesn’t mean it will be easy. Jesus shows us the way of life, death, and resurrection; therein lies our hope.

Before we hear about Simon and Andrew, James and John dropping what they’re doing to follow Jesus, we hear that this happens after John has been arrested. John was doing what he did, being the prophet that he was. He had said that he would decrease and that the one to come would increase. We know John doesn’t get a happy ending. Lest we too lightly see the apostles cheerfully following Jesus, we’re given the simple fact that John had been arrested. There is reason for pause. There are risks to be taken. Risks not just in living life as we are given it to live but especially if we are living into who God has called us to be.

Here’s a big clue for whether or not we’re following the way of Christ: who stands to receive the glory? If we are living deeply into a life for the glory of God, it’s God who gets the glory, and that’s not something our ego likes to hear.

But it’s so good for our hearts.

I took the time to hear Scarlett Lewis talk about the Choose Love Movement when she came to St. Thomas in Springdale. Her child Jesse was one of those murdered at Sandy Hook. Rather than be anchored by the weight of the tragedy, she had the presence to notice signs that surrounded her and grace to give her strength that the best thing she could do would be to choose love and to forgive. What an incredible witness to following Christ.

I also know that we’re forming a Faith Voices NWA, a regional group of Faith Voices Arkansas. As a regional group, the intent is to bring together clergy in our area so that we can share a united voice that can be louder and stronger on moral issues of our time. But before we can be united in one voice, we have to build relationships not just between faiths but even between denominations. What can we do to reach across the denominational divide so that we can actually be one Body? Such relationship-building truly requires us to know ourselves and be open enough to let God work through us.

For God alone my soul in silence waits; truly, there is my hope.

It’s okay to be still. It’s okay to step aside and let the Holy Spirit move through us. Because isn’t the hope for us all that God’s dream for us be manifest, that the presence of Christ be realized in, through, and by us and our neighbors? That’s our invitation. Jesus, in inviting the apostles to follow him, is likewise inviting us. “Follow me, and I’ll teach you to fish for people,” he’s saying. Follow him, and we’ll learn how to be caught up in the net of unconditional love, grace, and mercy of God. Therein lies our hope.

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Called Out

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

Back in November (Proper 28) was when we had to opportunity to look at Judges as our Old Testament reading, when Deborah is named as a prophet of the time and when Jael made a surprising move involving a tent peg and Sisera’s skull (and that’s not even the worst thing accounted for in the time of the judges). Now, in the season after Epiphany we hear a bit of Samuel’s story. I say “a bit” because his life from before conception to after his death is accounted for in the Bible, which is quite a rarity. This also the transition from the period of judges (which wasn’t working out so well for the Israelites) to the rise of the monarchs.

Today we have this opening sentence setting the scene for us, a brief yet telling commentary of the time.

“Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”

Samuel, a young lad, ministers to the high priest Eli, who is all but blind and depends greatly upon Samuel. And the word of Lord–revelations of God–were rare; visions or prophecies were equally sparse. Since we’re reading the Word of God, a God of abundance and in our season when Christ Light is manifest, our sense of anticipation builds. What happens next? We know it’s the LORD calling out to Samuel in the night, but Samuel, naturally thinks it’s his master.  Even the High Priest isn’t aware of the LORD’s voice, as infrequent as it had become, until the voice has called out three times. The faithful master gives his “son” instruction on heeding the voice of the LORD, little does he know it will indicate his own ruin. For Eli’s sons had blasphemed God, disobeying laws regarding how fat and meat are separated and offered to God before they are consumed. It seems a little outrageous to us, to be judged for such a minor offense, but these were the commandments the faithful were to abide by, and Eli as a High Priest has standards against which to be held. He, like most parents these days, loved his kids, and probably chided them like I do mine for their transgressions, but things were different then. The LORD proclaimed what he was going to do, and Samuel was to be the one to deliver the news. Samuel, who has heard the voice of God is, as his first task as prophet, to deliver the news to Eli. Was this call a joy to Samuel? Was this something he looked forward to? Don’t you know the weight and dread he carried to the next day when Eli convinced him to share? And Eli, good and faithful as he was, accepted the LORD’s judgment, not arguing or protesting, showing us the way of obedience. Similarly, we see Samuel assuming his call, and we are told that he becomes a trustworthy prophet as he continues to heed the voice of the LORD, bearing the burden of responsibility faithfully, obediently.

Our gospel shows us a different call commencing. Jesus decides to go to Galilee and finds Philip, telling him to “Follow me.” I’m sure it was Jesus’ charisma and presence that compelled Philip to follow, but Philip finds Nathanael and tells him that they need to follow Jesus of Nazareth, the one of whom prophecies have been told. Nathanael protests: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”

Now, in the news lately there’s been lots said about countries from which the outcome would be questionable. I’ve seen memes already generated calling Nazareth one of these kind of countries.

Philip doesn’t react much, though. He just says, “Come and See.”

Isn’t that what we have to do? We can’t tell someone how they’re going to experience Jesus. We can love our experience at church and feel like it’s helping us live a godly life, but we can’t describe or even pretend to know how someone else will experience Christ here. They have to come and see for themselves. First, they have to be invited. (That’s our ongoing responsibility, to invite others to come and see the presence of Christ in our midst!) Thankfully, Nathanael does go with Philip, and what happens next? Nathanael calls Jesus “Rabbi,” “Son of God, “King of Israel.”

What happened in the point between saying “What good can come out of Nazareth?” to “Rabbi, Son of God, King of Isarel”? Nathanael encountered Jesus and something transformative happened, something we can’t understand except that it was some kind of epiphany, some kind of realization about God being manifest before him. That’s the kind of thing we expect in the presence of Christ, but where do we see that around us today? Maybe we are attuned to see it all the time, but maybe not.

A couple of weeks ago, comedian Sarah Silverman was called something profane on Twitter. It would have been completely normal for her, a witty comedian, to fire back an intelligent insult, invoking the supporting rage of her followers and erupting a flame war of epic proportions. No one would have thought much about it.

But she didn’t.

Sarah said something to the effect of: “Behind all your hate and rage, I see pain. I see you just trying to get kicked off Twitter.” She took a moment before quipping back to him to look at his profile and saw that this was a desperate, pain-riddled guy who was on the path to further isolate himself and seek further into despair. And she wasn’t having it. She identified with him and invited him to see a different way, to choose love, to have a little hope. And she offered tangible hope to him, helping him out tremendously, networking him with resources in his community. She didn’t have to. When he asked why she was offering him hope, why she was offering to help him, she basically admitted that she didn’t know but that maybe it was something in his eyes. I looked at the guy’s profile. I’m not sure that I would have reacted the same way she did. I might have just chosen not to react at all, turned a blind eye.

But that’s always a choice we have when we are called out. How do we react? Do we hear it at all? Do we understand what’s being asked of us? Do we reply with a smart-alec response? Do we choose love? It’s up to us, but however we reply, I’m not sure we always perceive that we are in the presence of God or that we have the eyes of many paying attention. We just don’t realize the importance of our lives in the scheme of things. It takes someone who knows us fully, intimately, someone who knows our rising up and going down, someone who knit us in our mother’s womb, someone like God. God knows us intimately, loves us deeply, and calls us always to live fully into the life for which we were created. It’s up for us to discern how we are to do this, and it’s not going to be easy. But it’s up for us to decide what it looks like to choose to heed the voice of God, to follow Christ, and to choose love.

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Light & Spirit

Epiphany

Isaiah 60:1-6 | Psalm 72:1-7,10-14 | Ephesians 3:1-12 | Matthew 2:1-12

Baptism of our Lord

Genesis 1:1-5 | Psalm 29 | Acts 19:1-7 | Mark 1:4-11

The 12th Night party was both delicious and fun, a beautiful way to mark the end of the Christmas season and turn to the light of Epiphany. Last week we were reminded of the Word made flesh, and I emphasized that the Word was Light: what’s born in Jesus Christ is Light. So it’s appropriate that a celestial star guided the three magi from the East to the birthplace of Jesus, though they checked at the palace in Jerusalem first–the likely abode of a newly born king–surprising King Herod who thinks he’s the only king in town. The star guides the magi to the true King of kings, and they pay him homage, bringing gifts decidedly not for a baby but perfect markers of royalty. And these three from afar are not Jews but gentiles and are part of the manger scene we see as complete, for Jesus Christ is the Lord of all nations, a Light for all. Epiphany commonly means a realization, an a-ha moment. Our Epiphany is when Christ was manifested to the gentile magi, as our gospel tells it. Christ’s manifestation for all is reaffirmed in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. The Light of Christ knows no bounds.

This Sunday marks the feast of the Baptism of our Lord, instantly not a baby but a grown man, arriving just as John the Baptist, the witness, said he would. Jesus, just one of the crowd. John, obedient unto death, baptized Jesus as he had so many others. But at Jesus’ baptism, the heavens broke open, and the Spirit descended upon him, proclaiming him as the Son, the Beloved, with whom God is well please. (I truly kind of anticipate this happening at every baptism, and it only increases the excitement of the event!) There had to be some at Jesus’ baptism who heard the voice of God and decided to ignore it, others who missed it, and still others who heard it and couldn’t shake off what happened. So they followed the one, not fully understanding why. We, too, will follow Jesus into his ministry this season of Epiphany as he calls his disciples and does that risky thing of living into who he is–one of Light and Spirit.

As Christians, as faithful people, we seek after Christ, his Light and Spirit. In our baptism, we confess our belief in Jesus Christ and receive the power of the Holy Spirit. To keep our faith strong, we look for affirmation in the world around us, or we use tools at hand to strengthen or renew our faith. Think about what you do to look for the light of Christ in the world. Where do you look for strengthening of Spirit or even the presence of Spirit?

I asked a few of my friends so that my experiences wouldn’t be all you hear, but in their responses I heard my own answers. Maybe you hear yours, too.

  • A candle during meditation
  • Music
  • Being with others, especially connecting with their humanity
  • Poetry
  • Sitting in the sunlight
  • Reading holy words about light

All these energize the Christ-light within for us and maybe for you, too.

And when we’re looking for strength and presence of Spirit, you can probably guess our go-to’s:

  • Meditation,
  • Church, especially to sit alone,
  • Silence,
  • A retreat,
  • A garden, and
  • The outdoors in general.

As much as these are ways we seek the Christ-light or discern the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, sometimes–a lot of times, actually, especially if we have an active prayer life–light and spirit have a way of showing up and finding us. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that where they appear are often the same:

  • Places of good word: food banks/pantries, social justice events, social service agencies/organization,
  • Times of birth and death and other significant life events,
  • Relationships, be they brief encounters or long-term, and
  • Difficult situations.

These name just a few instances, and these are just times we actually notice.

Truthfully, the Light of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit are with us all along, anxiously waiting for us to cooperate in this “divine dance,” as Richard Rohr calls the Holy Trinity. How much more could God invite us into divine relationship than by offering us the only Son and giving us the power of the Holy Spirit? We’re not here just to follow the example of Christ; we’re here to live into Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. And like our church calendar, it’s cyclical, repetitive, and hopefully enriching and truly enlightening, deepening our relationship with the Holy Mystery that draws us near and holds us in perfect love, even when we ourselves are far from perfect.

So we can be like the moon, planets, and comets and merely reflect the light of the Son. (I hope you saw the full moon this past week!) Honestly, I’m a lot like the moon, the strength of my faith and spirit waxing or waning, depending on the day or season. But we are more like stars ourselves. For stars radiate their own light “through nuclear reactions, using energy stored in the tiny nucleus at the center of atoms.” Our sun is a huge star. Who’s to say we can’t be like tiny stars, trying to shine as brightly as the sun? Where is that Christ Light and power of the Holy Spirit if not at the center of our being? Why do we feel the need to be still and quiet or seek out others who radiate a light and power we sense as familiar, if we didn’t already know it in the center of our being?

Whoever we are, wherever we come from, the Light of all ages shines for us and within us, and by the power of the Holy Spirit we shine brightly in our lives through not just the extraordinary but also in the ordinary things we do. Living into our baptismal covenant gives us guidance on how to keep living into the Light and reminding us that we do all things with God’s help, thanks to the power of the Holy Spirit. It could be that our star is one that might lead others to Christ.

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Glory & Prayer

Exodus 34:29-35 | Psalm 99 | 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2 | Luke 9:28-43a

There’s a lot of energy buzzing around with it being Super Bowl Sunday, with racing season underway, and with Mardi Gras beads all around. Even the daffodils and hyacinth are blooming around the church. There’s lively spring energy everywhere, life and light shining all around us. To top it all off before we enter the coming season of Lent, we get a glimpse of the glory of God revealed in the radiant transfiguration of Jesus, as Luke would tell it. And as Luke would tell it, “Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray” (Lk 9:28).

If you’ve been doing Bible study (especially with CB) for any length of time or have been in Christian ed these past few weeks, you know that the gospel writers usually have a slightly different account to give for the same event. Such is the case for the account of the Transfiguration. It’s mostly the same, but little things are different between them. For instance, Luke is the only one to say Jesus and all were going up on the mountain to pray and that it was while Jesus was praying that “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” In all three synoptic gospels, however, there’s the voice from the cloud that tells them to listen to Jesus.

We’ve spent these past weeks in Epiphany highlighting Jesus’s life, giving witness to the works of the Son of God, the Light of the world, in what we might call ordinary time. After all, today isn’t the Feast of the Transfiguration (which comes in early August). Today’s gospel is a glimpse into Jesus’s life at the very basic level of who he is–the beloved, chosen Son of God, full of greatness and glory–and of what is to come–his departure.

OptimisticHikeWanting to dig deeper in the text in a different kind of way, I took advantage of this beautiful weather we’re having to go for a hike . . . up a mountain. I hadn’t yet been on any of the trails on West Mountain, so I thought I’d give it a go.

First of all, I didn’t listen to the directions I was given very well, and I ended up at the trailhead on Blacksnake Road, at the Sunset trail.

Second, I had realized earlier in the morning that not only had I forgotten the rest of my coffee but I had also forgotten my water bottle on the kitchen counter at home.

Third, I had no snacks or bars with me, and it was the noon hour, over four hours since I’d eaten breakfast.

For consolation, I told myself that I didn’t have to go far, that the steps would be good for me, and that if I got tired, I could turn back.

As I walked along the uphill trail–for it starts out uphill right away–I had to watch the rocky path and pay attention to my footing, but I also imagined following Jesus up a mountain, not knowing exactly where we were going or what we were going to do. Those thoughts drifted to noticing the trees around me, tall and skeletal, the scurry of something in the dead, dry leaves, my heart pulsing in my ears, and the white hot sun.

Directly over the top of the mountain, there shone the sun, so white it made me wonder why we color it yellow when it’s high in the sky. It shone so brightly that even the shadows of the trees weren’t very dark, and I was grateful for the cool breeze that kept me from feeling too hot, though my body had already begun to sweat. The sunlight was strong and all-encompassing. I could turn away from it, but it was always there, shining all around me and drawing attention to the nakedness of the woods in wintertime.

NotQuiteThereWhen I got to the sign that said I had 1 ¾ mile left to get to the lookout, I was thirsty and tired and wished I had been better prepared. I risked a glance at the sun, and then with spots in my vision, I turned back the way I came, downhill all the way.

No, I didn’t have any grand epiphany on my partial-mountain hike, but through the bare trees, I took in some beautiful views. Up on the trail, the air was fresh and cool, and there was a sense of clarity of thought and vision, helped along, I’m sure, by the bright blue sky. It makes perfect sense why Jesus would go to a mountain top to pray, putting for the effort to escape the crowds that surrounded him below.

It also makes sense that Jesus brought three of his apostles with him, to witness what happened, even if they didn’t understand it, and to hear the voice command them to listen to Jesus. For Jesus had already told them once that he would be killed and rise again. He would tell them again, more than once. He had already told them to take up their cross and follow him at great cost. He would reiterate the cost of discipleship and continue to tell them more about the kingdom of heaven. More than tell them, he would show them, and he would continue to pray with them.

Jesus doesn’t become some esoteric hermit in a mountain top cave. He does everything he sets out to do, with us and among us, before us and beyond us.

And he tries to get it through our thick skulls and our hardened or broken hearts that all of His life here on Earth is to bring us into the glory of God, to bring us into the kingdom sooner or later. I think Luke gives us a hint here today that prayer is a surefire key to tap into the glory of God, which is all-encompassing and strengthens us to make it through the peaks and valleys of our lives. The glory of God gives us strength because it is assurance that love and life prevails.

A great crowd was anxious to get to Jesus when he got back from the mountain top. One of them was a father who had a child who needed to be rid of a demon. Luke shows us an annoyed Jesus who even then is able to heal the boy and show the greatness of God. In Mark’s account, though, which has a kind of private debriefing with the twelve, Jesus tells his bewildered disciples that the kind of demon the boy had could “come out only through prayer” (Mk 9:29).

When darkness descends, when the demons fill our mind, sometimes our only recourse is prayer. Prayers our faith has taught us. Prayers we speak spontaneously. Prayers we repeat again and again because they give voice to our deepest longing, our greatest hopes, and biggest fears. It can be the words of prayer or our place of prayer or our very mindset that we have when we are deep in prayer that recall for us the real presence of Christ in our midst. Prayer can be a soothing balm for our souls or a suit of armor as we live into that hardest prayer of “God’s will be done.”

I think it is in times of prayer that Jesus aligns himself with God’s will. We might like to think he’s going apart to find a little peace and quiet, to get away from the loud and demanding masses. I imagine he is seeking peace and quiet, the kind of stillness that comes from being fully aligned with the will of God. As humans, living into God’s will is our ongoing struggle, one we persevere through with unceasing prayer.

The former admissions coordinator for Sewanee had a saying: “Stay prayed up.” She told me in her Tennessee twang, “If we’re all prayed up, we’re never far from His will.” If we’re prayed up, we realize we don’t have to hike to mountain tops to witness the glory of God. If we’re prayed up, we have the assurance of faith to see us through the valleys. If we’re prayed up, we are ready to traverse some darkness and do some soul clearing and renewing before reaching the Easter Light. Even if we know the glory of God is with us all along, we keep praying.

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