What Are We Begging For?

1 Kings 19:1-4, (5-7), 8-15a | Psalm 42 and 43 | Galatians 3:23-29 | Luke 8:26-39

Leave it to the gospel to alert us when things are not okay, when there’s something we’re called to notice and maybe even wrestle with. Surely your ears perked up when we’re told a man with demons met Jesus, a naked man at that, one who lives in the tombs. As if that weren’t “interesting” enough, the demon(s) speak to Jesus, naming him as “Jesus, Son of the Most High God” and begging not to be tormented, which results in Jesus casting out Legion into a herd of swine that then rushes off to drown in a lake. This is our Holy Scripture. This is one of many stories that can give us pause as we wonder, “But what does it mean? What is God saying to God’s people?” As we reaffirm nearly every time we engage in scriptural study, the Word of God can mean many things to different people in various contexts. An important question to ask–and faithfully discern–is where does this holy story intersect with our lives? Before we can match anything up, we have to look closely at what we’re given from as many angles as possible. I’m not going to get to all of them, but there are three in particular that offer a greater depth of understanding.

The spiritual aspect of this story takes main stage, for the focus here is on an exorcism. We don’t talk a lot about exorcisms in The Episcopal Church, but we, too, have exorcists, and the bishops know who their diocesan go-to person is. (It’s not me!) Even though the disciples grapple with understanding who Jesus is, this man possessed by Legion knows right away who Jesus is. (A Roman legion was about 5,000-6,000 men.) The demon knows the command Jesus has over the realm of spirit, which exceeds any physical power as neither chains nor shackles could contain the man before. The demons must also know something of the compassion Jesus has, appealing to the Son of God not to torment them, leaving the demons to their inherent destruction even to the point of self-destruction, for even though they begged not to be ordered to go back into the abyss, when the swine drowned, the demons ended up in the abyss anyway.

The personal or individual aspect of this story is inherently spiritual, too, but in a different way. Focus for a moment on one man possessed but then exorcised and healed by Jesus. We’re told that he sits “at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.” This man, in his right mind, speaking for himself and not for the demons, begs of Jesus to let him go with him basically to become another one of his disciples following him on his way. But Jesus sends him away, to return to his home. In his home he is to “declare how much God has done for (him).” Jesus will give the demons what they want but not the man who’s been restored? Yes. It’s not hard to imagine his disappointment, as we’ve all had prayers that were, at least to us, unanswered (we didn’t get what we said we wanted). And yet. . . The man went to his home and proclaimed what Jesus had done for him and became, along with the disciples, a prominent voice for the Gospel among the Gentiles. This man was himself a Gentile. This man had been transformed by his encounter with Jesus, and what is more powerful than hearing about the transformation of someone who is like you? Transformation is a powerful thing.

Which brings me to the third aspect of understanding this story: the corporate or collective level. What happen with the masses? The swineherds saw what happened and ran off and told everyone in the city and the country. All the people who could came to see for themselves and saw one of their own–whom they had cast out, remember, whom they had chained and shackled and left naked and in the tombs–healed (in his right mind), clothed, and sitting at the feet of Jesus. Did they rejoice in the man’s healing? Did they now beg of Jesus as the demons and then the man had? They did not rejoice; in fact, we’re told they were afraid. They didn’t beg, but we are told they asked Jesus to leave “for they were seized with great fear.” It’s actually after the people ask Jesus to leave that the healed man begs to go with Jesus, and I don’t blame him one bit. The man knows what these people are capable of, and now he sees them afraid. When people are scared, it generally doesn’t make them act any better. I overheard one son ask the other what he would do first in the case of a zombie apocalypse, and after his brother’s response he said that the first thing he would do is try to calm down because he would be freaking out and would need to calm down to think clearly. Our former demoniac is thinking clearly; he’s in his right mind. And he wants to go with Jesus and his crew, not stay with these people who are afraid of staying in the presence of the power and mystery of Jesus, Son of the Most High God.

As I see it, it is just as scary now as it was then to live within the realm of Jesus Christ. It’s a place where power as we understand it can be overturned, where life as we know it can be changed forever, and where resistance in the form of fear battles forces of supreme love. If we’ve been in that battle ground and emerged transformed, with greater understanding, we want to stay in that place. Yet so often that’s not where we’re called to be. God may send us back to the battleground to proclaim how much God has done for us, to share our transformation story with others. We may, like Elijah, be sent back to the wilderness, to carry on until our work is truly done. We may, like Paul, be sent ever outward, travelling as far and wide as we can to proclaim the Good News that through faith in Jesus Christ we are children of God, wholly and inclusively. 

It may be hard, but the healing we know from our deepest wounds reveals the power of God in ways that only wisdom of experience can convey. It’s why outreach workers in the Oxford Houses are supposed to be people who have been through the Oxford House model themselves. It’s why the best counselors have done the personal work themselves. It’s why the voices of those living in poverty are the most powerful testimonies to why we need to advocate for change. It’s why those who have immigrated and those who have fled their countries of origin as refugees are the only ones who can help people in power understand how to fix what is fundamentally missing or broken in our current systems and institutions.

Faced with Truth, we understand real, liberated, restored power, and for those of us functioning with temporal, materialistic power, we realize our weakness, our lack of understanding, and some of the depths of what is unknown. Only when we’ve swam in those depths and came ashore with a tale to tale do we have any idea of te power at play, the grandeur and greatness of God. Evan Garner, the rector at St. Paul’s in Fayetteville contributed to the “Reflections on the Lectionary” in Christian Century on this passage from Luke (June 5, 2019, p. 21). He very astutely writes,

“Sometimes the terror we know is more tolerable than the peace we cannot imagine.”

Our demons are still legion. Addiction of all kinds, mental health issues, poverty, racism, fear, and hatred . . . there are many. And when we get closer to knowing the peace, love, and liberation through Christ, it can seem like if not be that we are confronted with our own demonic cocktail, made specifically for us to chain and shackle us in the tombs. But I don’t think this is where we’re left in our understanding of this story.

The question becomes, “What are we begging for?” What are we asking for that will truly satiate us? What are we asking God of that no matter how it gets answered, when we hear the voice of God in the silence, we’re willing to go where God leads? Most often the spiritual journey doesn’t take us any farther than our own home but takes us to great depths in spiritual maturity.

Vulnerable, shackled by all the societal norms that surround us, with the freedom from the tombs of death promised by our faith in Jesus Christ, what is it that we beg for to experience true liberation? In our Noon Bible Study, we’re reading Rachel Held Evans’ Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again. She writes about Jacob wrestling with the angel until he gets what he asks for, even if his encounter leaves him with a limp. In the reading guide provide on the website, we’re invited to consider what we would be willing to wrestle God about through the Bible. What is it that we long for? What would we be willing to beg of God, or are we too afraid of what God can do? Eternal life in God through Christ or destruction empowered by our limited self? The life lived in Christ is not an easy one, but our joy and gladness are inextricably tied to the light and truth of God. Therein lies our ultimate liberation, something worth begging for.

 

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They

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31 | Psalm 8 | Romans 5:1-5 | John 16:12-15

(a draft of the homiletical moment)

I speak to you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sharing these words with you before I preach centers me and brings me to a sense of presence that I know I don’t have on my own. This Trinity Sunday, it gives me extra pause to contemplate how grateful I am that we have a Triune God–God in three persons–and what it means to me in practice of my faith.

If you want to know what we mean by the Trinity, you could flip back to the back of The Book of Common Prayer (pages 864-865) to the Historical Documents section and read through “The Creed of Saint Athanasius.” From the first lines you see that one’s very salvation depends upon adherence to the “Catholic Faith,” the universal faith, which is “That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance” (BCP 864). There’s also a bit about believing rightly in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, most of which we convey in our Nicean Creed. Fortunately, we’re not tested over this. I don’t even recall an incident of someone returning from a near death experience asking what was meant by the true Catholic Faith.

Am I grateful for the Athanasian Creed when I say I’m grateful for a Triune God? I appreciate that people have wrestled with what it means, its implications, and have tried to make sense of 1+1+1=1. Mainly, I am grateful for a God whose very being is relational–our God in three persons, blessed trinity. The God who in the beginning said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness” (Gen 1:26). The God who visited Abraham, manifest as three strangers, and inspires what I consider one of the most inviting icons, Rubliev’s Hospitality of Abraham. 

There’s so much about God that we can’t understand. Abraham and Sarah didn’t understand how they would have a child in their old age. The disciples didn’t understand everything Jesus was telling them about the kingdom, about the Advocate, about the Father in whom he said we all abide.

Thank goodness we’re justified by our faith and not by our complete understanding, yes?

We believe in a relational God who values love above all else–a selfless, rich, all-encompassing love. We believe in a God who defies all boundaries, despite our attempts to draw lines around what God is/isn’t. When for so long we call God “He,” we might be inclined to forget that God is so much more than any masculine image we might conjure.

I appreciate what our transgender community is teaching us about getting outside our solely binary way of thinking. At the parade this weekend, a friend drew my attention to a child sitting in the back of a truck like royalty, the mother tending to the dress, face, and hair. She told me, “I want to go over and talk to the mom, but I’m not sure what pronouns to use.” Watching the two, smiling admiringly at them, I suggested she tell the woman, “What a beautiful child. What pronouns does the child use?” With such a simple question, we immediately empower the child and the mother, too, who is probably more often than not made to feel weak and other rather than uplifted. And in this situation, again, we have a beautiful trinity–of mother, child, and neighbor–dancing together in a loving relationship.

Richard Rohr calls his book on the Trinity The Divine Dance for a reason. With only two, we can get caught in either-or thinking, becoming polarized and at a stand-off. I think we’re entirely too familiar with this end result. But with three, there’s something more. There’s another way; there’s motion. It’s a dance. There’s a fulness of relationship. There’s God.

Rohr shares this poem:

God for us, we call you Father.

God alongside us, we call you Jesus.

God within us, we call you Holy Spirit.

You are the eternal mystery that enables, enfolds, and enlivens all things,

Even us and even me.

Every name falls short of your goodness and greatness.

We can only see who you are in what is.

We ask for such perfect seeing–

As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.

Amen. (So be it.)

–Richard Rohr, “Trinity Prayer,” 2005

In our lives, love, and relationships, may we always leave room for the other, especially allowing space for us to dance with the Holy Spirit.

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What Do You Want?

Acts 16:9-15 | Psalm 67 | Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5 | John 5:1-9

As the weather beckons us outdoors, it is not lost on me that many are fueled in their connection to the divine by being outside. It is crucial that we maintain a relationship with Creation, remembering that we, after all, are the stewards of this fragile earth. Amidst storms, tornadoes, and raging waters, we realize our fragility, too, our vulnerability with forces greater than ourselves. We do the best we can at any given moment, and truly only God knows what the effects will be generations down the road. But like the brand Seventh Generation, who attributes their guiding principle to the ancient philosophy of the Iriquois, we need to think about the actions we take now and how they will affect the sustainability of the future even to seven generations (that’s our great5-grandchildren).

This line of thought about decision-making comes to mind when I hear Jesus asking the ill man at the waters near the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem and after taking the last of the family systems classes I’ve been taking this past year. The man at the pool was asked a question about his personal well-being, and in family systems thinking, we think about ourselves as individuals but also in the context of a larger whole, the collective, a family (however big or small).

Every moment we’re making decisions like how we use our time, which route we take to get where we want to go to dodge traffic, and what we’ll eat. We know these have consequences, hopefully helping us lead safe and healthy lives. We are fortunate to have a baseline of privilege, ability, and a certain level of affluence. It’s hard for me to imagine being in a place like the man lying by the pool in Jerusalem who for 38 years is sick, lame or partially paralyzed, apparently unable to go into the pool by himself where he might at least be cleaned. Surely this man was an untouchable, someone no one would risk their own well-being to help. What does Jesus do? What did the Good Samaritan do? He sees the unwell man. Over 38 years, don’t you imagine that the man had become invisible? How long do you have to live in a city where you no longer notice the homeless sleeping on benches or sidewalks? Hopefully we would never be blind to the suffering of our neighbors, but that homelessness, dire poverty exist, we have let it not be our problem to solve.

Jesus sees the man lying there, knows he had been there a long time, and asks him, “Do you want to be made well?”

I could stop there with this passage and bask in the grace and mercy waiting in the wings. “Jesus, ask us today, ask EACH of us today: Do you want to be made well?” Wouldn’t we fall at his feet and wash him in our tears? “Yes, Lord, make me well. Heal all of us.” Isn’t that what you would imagine us saying?

But that’s not what the sick man says, the one who has been lying in sickness and filth for 38 years, 13,870 days and nights. He says, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool . . ., and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Do you hear this the way that I do? Jesus asked if he wanted to be made well, and the man replies that he has no one to help him or others get in his way. He places the blame outside of himself, but it presupposes that the way to be well is that he has to get into that pool.

Jesus knows the man has been there a long time. Jesus knows the man wants to be well. Jesus knows that man needs to be shown another way. When Jesus says to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk,” he is doing just that. Listen to my voice, follow my command, and you shall be made well. The man heard these words and believed Jesus spoke what is true. His believing and following made him well, but for those looking on, they saw Jesus heal a man on the sabbath, doing work on a day of rest.  We know this is another of Jesus’s signs in the gospel and that it’s also something his adversaries will use as fuel against him. I think it’s also important that we know Jesus isn’t telling the man to pull himself up by his bootstraps. Not only is the man not wearing boots, but everything about his situation puts him at a handicap so great that he cannot overcome it alone. He needed an intervention. He needed help. He needed to be shown another way, yet it still remains within his agency whether or not he heeded the way revealed to him.

Unfortunately we don’t often have power of the Almighty to speak the Word and make restoration complete. When we see a problem, we might think we know how to fix it, make it better. We may give a few dollars away or hand out bags of sustenance and hygiene to the homeless on the roadside, and this is good, helpful for a moment. This Friday I got off the interstate and realized no one was in the left turning lane. I looked at the corner and noticed a man standing there with a sign, as is often the case. The other turning lane had at least six cars in it, and honestly it crossed my mind to get in line behind them so as not to have to interact with the person on the side of the road. I didn’t have any money or food within my reach. I had nothing to give him. I recalled, however, that visibility means something. I had a card with our church number. This happens all in seconds, right, this decision-making. I rolled down my window as I approached the man, who turned his weary eyes my way. “I don’t have any money or food to give, but what do you need?” I asked him, hoping that I might at least be able to point him in the right direction. “If you could give me a prayer,” he said. I stuck my arm out the window, extending my hand to him, and he gave me his hand to hold as I prayed that the Lord would bless him and show him the way, provide for him and guide his path, and whatever else I said, hoping that the Holy Spirit was giving him the words he needed to hear. I realized as I drove away that I forgot to remove my sunglasses so that he could see clearly that I saw him. I had remembered to ask his name. Gregory.

“Do you want to be made well?” Jesus asked.

We don’t always know what we need for ourselves, and we certainly seldom know what another person needs. We do know that our individual well-being benefits us all, and we have to want to be well ourselves before we can take next steps. But just because we want to be well doesn’t necessarily mean we want the whole system to be well.

I can make full recovery and then return to the activities or exploits that made me sick or ill or dis-eased to begin with. I can make my way up out of the valley and once on higher ground contribute to keeping others in the valley. How many people who have truly experienced the pitfalls in the welfare, medical, incarceration, housing, immigration, and all other systems are actually in positions to make the changes that need to be made to heal what is broken or flat out isn’t working?

This is where the family systems class struck me. At the end of the class, we were posed with a powerful question. (That’s often the case that some of the most intense questions or would-be conversation comes when time is up, isn’t it?) The question was

How many people would it take, doing even one of the following:

  • Connecting with their generations, eradicating all their personal cutoffs
  • Educating themselves as to the facts in our society
  • Becoming clear on their guiding principles, being guided by them instead of the anxiety of the moment or groupthink (mob mentality)
  • Taking a stand, after careful consideration
  • Defining a self in their families
  • Becoming principle-guided parents, rather than projecting a worried focus

to bring the regression to an end?

The regression speaks to the place we are in our society that is incredibly polarized, emotional to the point of triggering fight/flight responses, and reactive rather than proactive for the benefit of the common good (my lay summary). From a family systems perspective, the regression indicates that we are not well. We really need only look at the increased violence, depression, anxiety, addiction, and everything else that contributes to our dis-ease to affirm that we’re not in an overall good place, not to mention the groaning of the earth itself with the weight of our population and exploitation of natural resources.

Family systems say that there are leadership principles that can influence the system or society in a positive way. Those principles are to

  • Learn the facts,
  • Learn to “think systems” (or to think relationally),
  • Get clear on one’s guiding principles, and
  • Take a stand.

“Do you want to be made well?”

I want to be well. I want our society to be well. I want our earth to be well. Is my guiding principle for everything to be well? I am fond of repeating Julian of Norwich’s mantra, “All shall be well.” Or is my guiding principle that God’s will be done. My love and obedience to God will guide me and others toward what is good and best for the whole. Come what may, my love of God is steadfast. The Lamb of God is my Light in the darkness; by night I do not need the brightness of the moon. I am open to hear the Word of God; like Lydia I am willing to open my heart and home that the Way of Christ may fluorish. May God use my heart, my mind, my feet, my hands to move us all toward God’s will. Love of God is love for us all.

“Do you want to be made well?”

God’s will be done, now and for generations to come.

 

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The Lord Is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!

Acts 5:27-32 | Psalm 118:14-29 | Revelation 1:4-8 | John 20:19-31

When we feel strongly about something, we don’t often keep it to ourselves. Well, we can. This week I was reluctant to share too much about the place where I found respite. It’s wonderful, and if too many people know about it, it will be hard to make reservations. But it is so good that I want it to stay in business. I want others to have this wonderful experience, too, so I wrote a positive review . . . after I made my next reservation, of course. (You can find it on AirBnB, search for “the Nest at Sewanee.”) When we have something good, we can hoard it, or we can share it: we can work from scarcity or abundance.It sounds like economic terminology, but it works across the board.

We have folks here from the Arkansas Poor People’s Campaign: A Call for a Moral Revival. The Poor People’s Campaign (PPC for short) has twelve main objectives, all based around the moral call we hear from our prophetic ancestors to raise the lowly, to make straight the pathway to heaven, to the kingdom of God. The basis is that we have enough; there’s plenty to go around. The problem is that in our industrial complex, we’ve prioritized materialism, particularly capitalism, over every other aspect of life, including our spirituality. Not that we can’t monetize spirituality, either. Think of all the products we can buy to make us feel like we’re better, more pious people because we have all the right stuff. But we know the truth. All the money in the world can’t make you a better Christian, any more than it can solve all medical crises, your family life, your mental stability, or any other aspect of our life. But when we know we have enough and find contentment where we are, know that we have a network of support, our life worth, our true quality of life reaches that priceless point. You know what I’m saying? Contentment. Blessed assurance. True happiness.

Peter and the apostles are confronted by the authorities in our reading from Acts. Readings later in this past Easter week have included the apostles not being able to keep quiet about Jesus. Whereas everyone knew he had been crucified, only a few had been privy to his resurrection appearances. And once they had seen and known, they had good news to share. Not only that, but they were filled with the power of the Holy Spirit and were proclaiming the Good News and performing good works in the name of Jesus. They were filled with power and continuing to manifest the presence of Jesus Christ among the poor and marginalized, giving them hope and raising them out of their despair. And they couldn’t keep quiet.

“We’ve told you,” the authorities say, but when you’ve got something to say, when truly you have a message to share, especially when it is aligned with the will of God, woe be it to the authorities to stand in your way; they’re just going to have more work to do! Peter and crew answer, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” We must obey God.

Now, the Feast of St. Mark is normally on April 25th, but it got transferred to Monday due to Easter Week, which takes precedence in the church calendar. In the Gospel according to Mark, we get the Great Commission (16:15).

“Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.”

The apostles were told to go to the WORLD and PROCLAIM the GOOD NEWS. Alleluia! Christ is risen! Don’t we say that? We just did, at the beginning of service. Do we say that out in the world? Our gospel lesson today focuses on bringing forgiveness and reconciliation to the world. Do we spread that good news in the world, outside the church walls?

Maybe we’re not so sure we believe in the resurrection and all this “power of the Holy Spirit” stuff. It sounds like a bunch of ghost stories, almost. Idle tales, right? Unless we see and touch and know for ourselves, we’re just gonna stay as we are, trying to follow the way of Jesus as he showed us in his lifetime, keeping his memory alive. That’s a good thing to do, right? Many, in fact, believe the historical Jesus was just that, an example. Maybe that’s where Thomas was in his belief–that it was wonderful while it lasted, but now . . . what do we have now that Jesus is dead aside from our deep grief? Thomas doubted the truth of what the disciples had proclaimed to him until he touched the wounded flesh of the risen Christ, proclaiming, “My Lord and my God!” In that moment, he believed and knew for himself that Jesus Christ was all he had foretold, was everything they hoped for, and more than they could have imagined. The risen Christ was real. Thomas knew personally the reality of the risen Lord, like the apostles gathered with him. With every confidence, they would go out into the world and proclaim that Christ lived, died, and rose again, showing the way to eternal life in God, showing the power of God to triumph over sin and death. And if that was possible, there’s no limit to what love can do. Let us go out and proclaim to the world this Good News.

It would be easier to proclaim the Good News if we actually believed for ourselves that the power of the Holy Spirit could work a miracle or two here and now. There are a lot more Thomases in our faith than there are apostles who share the true Good News. We’re living in dark times now if we only read the headlines, and hope flickers dimly if at all for many and for good reasons.

I was listening to OnBeing, and in the interview between Krista Tippett and Joanna Macy, a Buddhist philosopher of ecology who translated Rilke’s poetry, Macy says that she didn’t believe Rilke emphasized hope. In a way, she said, he seemed to foresee the darkness coming in the 20th century, and his poetry often seemed to address God, especially God in Creation, lamenting humanity’s degradation of that which had been so freely and lovingly given. She said that Rilke didn’t emphasize hope because hoping or gauging how much hope we have can be exhausting. Kind of like if Thomas had never touched the risen Christ and was constantly compared to the other apostles who believed without a doubt. Macy also shared a bit of her own story and journey and recalled one of the main things she gleaned from Buddhist teaching: showing up, being present. Being present and showing up is our biggest gift, she says. Even when Thomas didn’t believe as the others, he returned to be with them, right? He was in the room with them another week later. He showed up.

It is in our showing up that we “have the capacity to love,” Macy said, and this capacity to love gives us solidarity, the power to heal the world. Our heart might be breaking every day, but with our hearts wide open, we give God more room to fill us with the power of Holy Spirit. Macy said something to the effect of “What’s a heart for, if not to be broken?” (The title of the interview is “A Wild Love for the World.”)

The healing we experience from our deepest wounds teach us great things; it gives us a learning we know in our bones, so to speak. Maybe our lessons aren’t major, like me being tired and going on retreat. The experience of restoration is wonderful, and I have experience to share with others about the benefits of self-care. But maybe they are significant. If I’m in recovery and making the daily decisions to support life and health, I have my experiences to share and offer support to others, helping them toward a way of life and health. If I’ve been a victim of child abuse, through foster homes, through counselors good and bad, I have invaluable experience to share with others to find their way toward a life of peace, a life restored. If I’ve been living a life in the dark, drowning in sorrow and despair, and found a point of light I could cling to until I surfaced into a life that offered a sense of wholeness and joy I didn’t think was possible, I have good news to share. It’s my personal experiences that make all the difference, that affirm my belief that there is something to this life that speaks to love, and when I lean into that love for myself, and especially toward God and my neighbor, it gets big quickly.

Joanna Macy, in talking about her journey, said that she grew up in a liberal Protestant church, but it wasn’t until she was at church camp when she was about 16 that Jesus and God became personal, alive for her in a way they hadn’t before. In all the resurrection experiences, it’s personal: the risen Lord appears to people who eventually see and believe. What if in my life experiences and the lessons I’ve learned I look for the presence of Christ? What if it’s not the wounded hands and sides we need to touch, but it’s the lives of ourselves and others that we need to be present to, to show up for until we know that we are connected in a way that passes our understanding? Like in the Truth & Poverty tour, we need to see our neighbors, reach out to them, hear their stories, lend a helping hand or bond money or food or advocacy, and be the presence of Christ to them. Even with broken hearts, maybe even helpless, if we show up and allow the presence of Love to be in our midst, doesn’t that speak to our faith?

If we’ve already seen the presence of God in our lives and have a faith that in one way or another has touched the wounds of Christ and known the power of God’s reconciling love, why don’t we share that faith in as many words with others? Why don’t we risk letting our hearts be broken, risk being embarrassed for a minute, risk being rejected, to say outloud that we love Jesus Christ, that we’ve experienced the presence of God in  our lives, and that coming to our church helps us stay strong in that faith if not feel the presence of the Holy Spirit directly. Or do we want to hold that love for ourselves? My loves, our hearts aren’t big enough for the love of God, for all of Creation. Let’s risk being broken hearted for love of the world, for love of God. Let’s tend to our neighbors and this little bit of earth and do our best to say it like we mean it, knowing that the powers and principalities in this world have no hold on the children of God: Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

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Our Story

Romans 6:3-11  | Psalm 114 | Luke 24:1-12

This service, unlike others in so many ways, captures as much of our Christian story as it can, which is why it is longer and why I’ll keep this brief. We move from creation to the empty tomb in one fell swoop, and what do we do with that? Do we leave this place like we’re clicking the remote, getting up from our seats saying, “Well, that was nice”? I dare say that if you are fully engaged throughout this service, for at least a moment, your heart and soul are stirred. For if anything is true about what research claims about cellular memory, these stories are written in our hearts, so to speak, or at least in our cells. So the story of our ancestors, of the Hebrews, of the women, of the apostles, of Jesus are all part of our story, very much a part of who we are. This story of ours isn’t meant to be kept in the dark.

We know for ourselves what is real, what is true. Like I shared last night, I’m as skeptical as anyone when laying claim to what is really real, but when something grabs hold of us and speaks to us like nothing else we’ve ever known, we pay attention. As our Christian Education lecture series says through Prof. Bart Ehrman, what happened in the past might not be counted as history, as what can be proven with evidence and supported with scholarship. The exodus and Passover are taken as history, the raising of the dry bones not so much. The person of Jesus of Nazareth, even his crucifixion under Pontius Pilate, are history, but his resurrection leaves historians in a quandary. Perhaps it has you in one, too. What exactly are we celebrating this Easter? Jesus’ houdini-an act of rising from death and fleeing the tomb?

What we celebrate this Easter Vigil is the light of life coming from even the darkest of times. It’s why we start from creation, for the ultimate void to the generation of life. It’s why we remember the Exodus, the liberation from oppression and despair. It’s why we aren’t afraid to talk about death, a most natural part of the life cycle. It’s why as Christians we remember our baptism, because it is one way that we die to ourselves, giving ourselves over to life in Christ. We are given new life, new birth. It’s not a coincidence we celebrate this in spring, when everywhere we look, new life is rising from the darkness of the earth or from branches that looked all but dead.

Maybe like the disciples, you think this resurrection hope is an idle tale, an opiate for the masses, giving false hope to make people feel better about the nightmare of life in this broken world. Chances are if you’re here, that’s not your perspective, but we all have days when we’re not our most optimistic. I have days, too, when I wonder if all that I work for and strive for is worth it.

But even in death, there are things we do, making arrangements, preparations. A few take care of this, like the women going to the tomb; it’s usually the few who were closest. And we can close that chapter of our lives, or we can reflect on what it means for us that one we loved so much has taught us things we’ll spend the rest of our lives processing. But what if we were the women at the tomb, and what we expected to see wasn’t what we faced? What if what we thought was the end of the story, the death of our Teacher and Lord, wasn’t so? What if we then remembered, after being prompted by another, that Jesus had actually told us this would happen, that he would rise again? Wouldn’t we tell others?

And wouldn’t they in their despair question us, write us off as crazy or making up idle tales?

But love is a strong thing. Even after death, don’t we hope for a sign from our beloveds that they aren’t truly gone from us, even if it’s in our dreams? It’s blessed Peter, isn’t it, who acts first and thinks about it later. Peter, who had denied Jesus three times and regretted it deeply. He gets up and runs to the tomb. Now, according to this gospel, he doesn’t immediately go back and credit the women, apologizing for not trusting them at their word. But he goes to his home, his place of safety, and we end with him in amazement today. When we think we know how the story ends, we can tune out or fall into our habits and routine.

But this story doesn’t end. It goes on. The devotion of the women, the discerning of the disciples, the searching for themselves for the truth, the questioning, wondering, and amazement: all this is ours, too. All this is fuel for our hope that life triumphs over death, that light prevails in the darkest of times.

If those of us here tonight have to be reminded of the hope of our story, how many others who aren’t here could us a few words to remind them that they are part of our story, too? For the love of God that couldn’t be held in a tomb certainly isn’t just for us but is open for all the world. Our story is nothing less than a love story, radiant with the light of Christ, written upon our hearts.

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Good Friday 2019

Isaiah 52:13-53:12 | Psalm 22 | Hebrews 10:16-25 | John 18:1-19:42

Every Friday in Morning Prayer, the Collect for the day was written by William Reed Huntington, an Episcopal priest who died in 1909.

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.

Especially on Good Friday, we are ever mindful of walking in the way of the cross, and we likely focus on the suffering, pain, and crucifixion more so than the joy and glory to come. It’s hard to see the way of the cross this day as the way of life and peace.

I want to wish that Christ didn’t have to suffer and die, but in our human experiences, this is our way. All that we know comes from learning the hard way, unless we’re one of the few who actually heed the advice of others who have learned on their own the “hard knocks” of life. All the hardships I’ve gone through and the suffering I’ve known give me some of my greatest lessons, shaping who I am by how I shape myself in response to these adversities. At our best even when we’ve gone through the worst, our suffering humbles us to reach out for help, to strengthen our network of support. When we feel weak is when we’re most likely to call on divine intervention, maybe like the psalmist to cry out why God has forsaken us and maybe also in our cry for help to call out praise for the only one who fully knows our hearts, the one to whom we’ve been entrusted since before we were born and has been with us ever since. And in our humility, we’re more likely to show compassion for others in their times of trial. If we haven’t been through what they’re going through, we know there’s nothing that exempts us from such suffering. It could easily be us brought to our knees, crying out for help, begging with outstretched hand, weeping silently in the night. We know the sufferings we’ve endured. So does God.

Of my time in Israel last spring, there were two places that spoke to me most deeply: Magdala and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City, downtown Jerusalem. Because tourism is a major industry in Israel, there are many efforts to preserve ancient history and prevent building contemporary structures. But over 2,000 years, much has been built, shrines built even over a thousand years ago draw many pilgrims and lay claim to ancient stories. Our tour guide pointed out to me one such stone around which a few pilgrims were listening intently to their guide. Father Kamal advised me how important it is to know the scripture and the scholarship so as not to be fooled. He needn’t worry; I’m naturally a skeptic when people claim something is “real.”

But the walls in the Old City drew me in. We went through the building surrounding the sepulchre, scrutinized a crack in one of the 1st century stonesin the wall that could affirm a quake of some sort, and made our way to the entrance of the sepulchre. It’s a stone stairway that curves upward alongside a wall. You have to crouch or bow a bit to make it through the low and narrow entry and continue to ascend the small stone steps. Like many places we visited, I again felt like we were cattle being corralled and pushed through to arrive at a place.

It’s a darkened place, illuminated by light and many candles, filled with incense and the smell of crowded bodies–at least when we were there. Honestly, I felt it was cluttered, crammed with all the things of devotion. It was so much to take in when we were being ushered along by those anxious pilgrims behind us.

Reflecting on it now, I don’t think I’ve ever had the experience before of being someplace and knowing that all the stuff didn’t matter. The place itself was holy. We came to see the place of the Skull, Golgotha, where Jesus had been crucified. We came to see how our ancestors had built around it to mark this sacred place and preserve it.

 

Being there, it wasn’t what I saw but what I felt. Stepping closer to the place where others bowed and kissed the ground, my chest constricted, my capacity to breathe felt blocked. I could barely speak. I grabbed the arm of a friend as an anchor, unsure of where this feeling was taking me. I remember him asking if I wanted to move closer, and I remember shaking my head, heart full and tight at the same time and saying, “This is it; this is the place.” I remember thinking, this stuff isn’t what I’m here to see.

I’m here to feel the presence of Christ in his suffering. I’m here to feel the presence of his mother and disciples and friends who witnessed his crucifixion. I’m here to know that all my suffering for love and against God’s love are known, even as my heart is fully known. And I couldn’t stay in that place. It was so crowded, and people were pushing in. I still felt like I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t stand the feeling of suffering. It was too much.

But I wanted to go back. I still want to go back because I wasn’t able to while we were there. Because I wonder if it was the suffering I couldn’t stand or the incredible love shown, the kind of heart-breaking love that is so broken open that it draws everything and everyone into its embrace. God laid claim on my heart, and I wanted to turn away. I realize, though, that it’s that knowing that I yearn for, that nothing else comes close to fulfilling. On the other side of that suffering is joy. On the other side of the crucifixion is glory. The way of the cross leads to eternal life because the way of the cross is the way of Jesus is the way of love. That love may hurt us and break us, but if we are truly following that way of love, we have nothing to fear and everything to gain.

 

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Loving Redemption

The Liturgy of the Palms: Luke 19:28-40 | Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29

The Liturgy of the Word: Isaiah 50:4-9a | Psalm 31:9-16 | Philippians 2:5-11 | Luke 22:14-23:56

From the invitation into the observance of a holy Lent on Ash Wednesday, we knew that it would culminate in our observance of Holy Week. But what are we observing, exactly? Heretofore, our primary focus has been on ourselves, focusing on our experiences, especially in regard to our sacrifices or additions that bring us to mindful attention to God’s presence in our lives. In Holy Week, given our cultural tendencies, we might place most of our focus on the crucifixion, the betrayal that led to it and the violence of it. But we are given a holy week to take in the story, even if we try to cram as much of it into today as we can in case you don’t come back until next Sunday. When we focus on the holiness of this week, let us turn our attention to the acts of love shown to us by Jesus.

  • We begin this week with our palms raised high with our cry of “Hosanna!” (“Save us!” or “Savior!”) We look to Jesus as Savior, the one who will save us, deliver us. He willingly goes before us, knowing that we hope but don’t fully understand.
  • Monday’s gospel lesson revisits the account of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet, which he lets her do and chastizes Judas for chiding her. Love often looks like calling out truth, be it beautiful or painful.
  • On Tuesday, Jesus’ words almost implore his followers to understand who he is and what is about to happen; he’s trying to prepare his followers, to give them understanding and insight as the time draws near. As frustrated as he may be, Jesus never forces anyone into understanding or submission.
  • Wednesday night, at the last of our Lent Soup & Study events, we will again have an agapé meal, a simple Eucharist around the table preceding our meal together. For us it’s a way we draw close to the experience of a meal between Jesus and the disciples, a feast rooted in love. In the gospel lesson that night, Judas betrays Jesus, yet Jesus continues to affirm that God has been glorified in the Son of Man. Jesus doesn’t prohibit Judas from doing what he has chosen to do, but many of us know the betrayal of a friend or loved one and how hard it is not to be attached to what they are doing, especially if it is destructive; it’s an extreme act of love.
  • Maundy Thursday we begin the Triduum by receiving the great commandment from Jesus to love one another, and we practice by washing one another’s feet as Jesus showed us, ending the service with the stripping of the altar. In our timeline, this might be the night Jesus was arrested, neither resisting nor condemning anyone.
  • Good Friday we observe the crucifixion of Jesus, from which he neither flees nor complains. Some of us will walk the Stations of the Cross to encounter more moments along the way when Jesus interacts with others, silently though it may be. Some may choose to make their confession as we, like Peter, realize that we have denied Jesus in thought, word, or deed. We will gather Friday night for the service that includes the recitation of Psalm 22 — “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We will have a cross before us, and we can choose to bow before it in veneration, recognizing that Jesus’ ultimate act of love was his death.

What does it mean for us that we recount Jesus’ acts of love and remember that our redemption comes after a great suffering?

If we pay attention to our dreams, some of us have recurring dreams. They might be the exact same dream or some variation on a theme. I’m not trained in Jungian psychology or even in dream work, but the little I have dappled in both, dreams have something to teach us, something that is often nestled deeply in our subconscious. A recurring dream could suggest that we are experiencing a similar situation over again–like stress expressed in a dream of being in high school again and not finding your locker or schedule or being late or unprepared for a test (yes, that’s one of mine). A recurring dream could also indicate an insight that we’re being offered but haven’t given it enough attention to discern what it is that we have to learn.

Holy Week for me–increasingly so since I’ve been ordained–is much like a dream, and this year the words of Paul resonate with me like the voice of the narrator in a dream. Maybe it has something to do with the Bible study, where we’re taking our time reading Romans. (The more time you spend with anyone, the more they can grow on you, right?) Again, Paul is writing from prison, and he sends this letter to the Philippians. Someone described the portion we read today as a love song since it shows some of the characteristics of love songs from the time. There’s union, a union not to be exploited, and an emptying of self, all of which are ideals in a mutually loving relationship.

But this isn’t a romantic love, the love between Jesus and God or Jesus Christ and us. Paul tells the Philippians to be of the same mind as Christ Jesus. If we are of one mind with Jesus, our thoughts, words, and deeds will present in tender love and humility, in an endurance of suffering, and in enduring hope–all characteristics present in Jesus’ acts throughout this week. In all that we do, can we have Christ’s mind about us? Can we be at one with Christ? As Jesus emptied himself to experience fully the human condition even through suffering and death, is there something we need to empty ourselves of so that we can be faithful to God, follow Christ, and be who God created us to be? This kind of faithful obedience underscores the prayer from the Gospel according to Luke where Jesus says, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” Giving ourselves to obedience to God and God’s will doesn’t mean we don’t make conscious decisions.

The invitation to a holy Lent and even into Holy Week is just that, an invitation. We could, like many others, not observe a thing, and our lives would continue. But for those of us who have given thought and awareness to the presence of God in our lives, meeting that with the recognition of Jesus’ acts of love might illumine for us how we can further reveal to others the presence of Christ in our lives, in all our suffering and all our hope.

 

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Almost, Not Yet, Already

Isaiah 43:16-21 | Psalm 126 | Philippians 3:4b-14 | John 12:1-8

The cherry blossoms and tulips taunt me with the coming season of Easter, but we’re not there yet. Entering this fifth week of Lent, we know we’ve been in the season a while. After a month more likely than not, we’ve either given up on our practices, or they’ve become habit. As any of us know who have had to cut ourselves off of an addiction, at this point if we’ve been off for a month, we’re clean. It doesn’t mean we don’t still struggle with temptation, but after a period of detox, we have a bit more clarity. For those with powerful substance abuse addictions, that period of detox is especially cruel to witness, let alone experience. Addicts will think they’re dying, that they won’t survive, and those who are helping them make it through will offer witness and assurance that while, yes, they feel like they’re dying, they will make it. They will survive, and they will be stronger for it. They’re at a critical moment in their journey–a tipping point, if you will–and now more than ever, as people of faith, we know that God’s grace is needed.  Wherever we are in our journey of faith, wherever we are in our wilderness, whether it’s in the throws of painful cleansing/detox/transition or in the lush jungle of joyful, life-giving discernment, there comes a decisive moment of taking that next step into a new chapter and hopefully with a newness of life rooted in Christ.

It sounds like easy words, but we know the process is more complicated. Even if we gave up something simple for Lent, the intent is still to give up something in our lives that makes more room for God’s will to speak to us and guide us on our way, which at our best is God’s way. We do this because we remember that after baptism, Jesus went into the wilderness for forty days, was tempted in every way but did not sin. He emerged from the desert, prevailing over evil, and fully lived into his life’s ministry, perfectly living into God’s will. Jesus’ faithfulness prevails in every way. And we remember, too, that God’s faithfulness always prevails. God’s faithfulness is what gives the psalmist hope in Ps. 126: recalling the great things that God has done, from deliverance from Egypt to the restoration of fortunes, whatever it is they lament now, the will of God is to be faithful, to keep promises, and to transform the lives of those who survive the wilderness.

It is this transformation that we hope for when we’re going through difficult times. I don’t want to suffer for nothing. If I’m going to give up sugar, I want to lose weight and be healthier. If I’m going to give up drugs, I want to live a life worth living. If I’m going to do good, I want to know that what I’m sacrificing for is worth it. I want something to look forward to. This is hard for us because we can’t promise that because we’re doing good things that life will be sunshine and roses. We can’t assure there won’t be daily temptation, that our bodies will stay in remission, that there won’t be some senseless tragedy, despite our best efforts in our home or at the capitol. But our remembering God’s faithfulness strengthens our faith in God’s will and fortifies our hope, our imagination of what is to come. Not yet are we transformed ourselves or as a community, but there is hope that it can be.

When we have this faith and hope of what can and will be done through the grace of God and our cooperation, if this is our belief, we can’t help but act upon it. Paul, sitting in prison, writing to the Philippians, couldn’t help but strain toward the future, toward what is to come. Paul wants to know Christ fully, even to the sharing of his suffering. In commentary on The Working Preacher, Edward Pillar suggests three ways that Paul demonstrates how the knowledge of Christ could be obtained. To me they sound like Paul’s three ways of love because they include

  • Letting go of status or significance in our culture–value is only rooted in love;
  • Being obedient to the values and ethos of God, which is love; and
  • Maintaining love and loving even to the death, even if it’s at the hands of the powerful/unjust/corrupt.

We are given how Paul does this, having given up his status as a blameless leader. We know that this is the very model of Jesus in his life and death, which is why by our experiencing these things, we are more inclined to know what it is to live in Christ, to have the Christ-mind, to be Christ-like, to be truly Christian.

In our gospel lesson today, we are given a couple of people through whom we can see how they are orienting their lives toward knowing God through Christ, or not. Martha and Lazarus are there at this dinner party, Martha serving as she does and Lazarus living his resurrected life (wouldn’t we love to hear more of his thoughts?). But it’s Mary and Judas who are the two characters we focus in on today.

We don’t know what Jesus said during the meal, but at some point, Mary gets the perfume and anoints Jesus, filling the room with the scent of nard, a fragrance that takes me back to Jerusalem in a heartbeat. This fragrance, they would know, is the fragrance of a burial anointing. Six days before the Passover . . . maybe Jesus had said something again of his coming death, of going to be with his Father. Maybe Mary is letting go of her attachment to Jesus in recognition of him living into God’s will and is showing her utmost act of love in supporting him, encouraging him, and loving him up to his death. She’s the one who sits at the feet of Jesus and listens to him intently. Whatever he says, this is how she responds, acting in faith, hope, and love. Her act is tender and heart-wrenching, if she truly anticipates his death. This isn’t to say it couldn’t also be an impulsive act of adoration, but either way, Mary is giving herself over to Love, offering probably one of the most precious material possessions she has.

Judas, however, I imagine him going from being annoyed at Mary’s affection to disgusted that she would waste the nard. The value of the perfume–I read that it’s about a year’s salary for a laborer–could have filled the disciples’ discretionary fund, providing him with more for his own pockets. Not only are we told here that Judas will be the one to betray Jesus, but he’s also a thief, a dishonest treasurer. How, we might wonder, can Judas be with the disciples all this time, even up to the end, and be so cold-hearted? Quite obviously, the way of love is not Judas’ way of living. There’s something he benefits from being among the disciples, if even it’s the status of treasurer or being among the band of misfits making a ruckus. His values are self-centered, and ultimately he doesn’t show love in his betrayal, even to himself.

Who do we see leaning into God’s grace in their actions in this life? Judas never lets go of his self-interest. In Mary we see repeated acts of her following the guidance of Spirit or love or impulse–whatever we want to call it. In those moments, we can see where her actions reveal something of love made manifest in unexpected ways. There’s something sacramental about it because it is making visible and tangible something invisible and spiritual. Mary’s act demonstrates grace, which is an offering of God’s love. It’s unwarranted, unearned, and unconditional. Grace is always ready to be received.

At the end of our wilderness pilgrimage, or after a long period of struggle, we know that point when we say “I’m done” or “I can’t do this anymore” or “I don’t want to.” Those of us advocating for the rights of the poor and marginalized might feel like it’s an endless uphill battle. What does it mean for us to hear these words of Jesus, spoken to the one who does not embody or understand the importance of love? What does it mean to hear Jesus speaking to cold-heartedness, “Leave her alone,” she’s doing work for what is to come. This is her act of faith and hope, and my receiving her act of love lets my grace be fulfilled with mutual affection. Does it prevent what is to come? No, but it emphasizes the importance of moment to moment actions, the significance of one act of grace, one donation given, one kindness exchanged, one life transformed.

Remembering our stories and promises sustain our faith. Seeking the transformation of nightmarish realities into dreams of God’s will made manifest in the kingdom of heaven speaks to our hope. Above all of what is “almost” and “not yet” is what already is in the prevalence of God’s love for us from beginning to end, through and beyond. How are we leaning into God’s grace, acting in ways of love, especially when we are most ready to give up and walk away? Do we turn away from God’s grace, or can we act in love and take that next step into new life in Christ?

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Prodigal Son, Revisited

Joshua 5:9-12 | Psalm 32 | 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 | Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

As I’ve mentioned before about Godly Play lessons, the parables are set apart as gifts. Parables convey a special and usually simple story with a spiritual lesson for us. I say “for us” because we’re the ones hearing and reading it today, but in the gospel, Jesus shares the parable for the pharisees and scribes, who are grumbling about Jesus welcoming sinners and–God forbid–eating with them. Before the parable of the father and sons, Jesus tells two other parables: the parable of the lost sheep and of the lost coin. You already know this, but to jog your memory, the lost sheep is about the shepherd going after the one lost sheep who has strayed away from the other 99. The parable of the lost coin shares the story of the woman who searches high and low in her home to find the one lost coin. So our context is that the scribes and pharisees–law abiding, faithful men they are–are given these parables by Jesus about people looking not for what they already have, but for what is lost.

And there was a man who had two sons. The younger one decides that he needs to go ahead and get his inheritance so he can go and live the high life, doing whatever he wants for immediate satisfaction and personal pleasure. Before long, he has nothing. Not only that, but there’s famine in the land. This younger son hires himself out to a pig farmer and finds himself at the brink of starvation, imagining eating the pig feed. In a moment of clarity, he thinks about the hired hands on his father’s estate, who never wanted for food. In this “a-ha” moment, he prepares his speech to his father, where he will confess that he’s not only sinned against heaven but also before his father. He will admit he’s not worthy to be called his son and beg to be a hired hand. We can cue the scene of him walking off into the sunset with a knapsack with a renewed resolve, a much different man than the one who blew through his inheritance.

If we were the young man returning home to say all this to our father, we would have to know that this could go a couple of different ways. Jesus doesn’t leave us in suspense for long, though, because we’re told that while the younger son “was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion.” We might smile with tears in our eyes as we picture the heart-weary father, who had probably heard rumors and figured his son was as good as dead, taking his son his in his arms, kissing him and holding him, making all the noises a parent makes when showering a child with affection. As practiced, the son makes his confession, word for word: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” Before he can ask to be hired on, the father calls his servants to adorn the son as royalty and to prepare a feast. And why? Because “this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And like in the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin, there is much rejoicing and celebration.

But unlike the other two parables, where we don’t get the perspective of the other 99 sheep or the woman’s other material items, this parable gives us the perspective of the elder son. When he approached the house, hears the festivities, and finds out from one of the servants what’s going on, what’s his response? . . . “He became angry and refused to go in,” even when his father begs him to partake in the festivities. The older son explains with a voice many of us know, especially us first-born and perfectionists. “Listen!” he begins with a voice that makes me almost cringe, because that is not a voice I’ve been taught to use with my parents or elders. The son goes on to vent his frustration. He’s worked like a slave and always obeyed, yet never has he been rewarded. His brother, on the other hand, has brought shame to their family and is now being treated like a prince. It’s not fair.

With parental excellence, the father showers this son with affection, too, though in a different way. “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” The father and older son have been co-existing in full relationship. Does the son not know that he is so fulfilled? “But we had to celebrate and rejoice,” the father says, “because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” Does the brother not realize what had been lost? Did he not feel the grief of losing a member of the family? I don’t think it’s an accident that we’re given a trinitarian parable here. The father and the two sons have a triune relationship. When one is missing, the fullness of the relationship is missing. We’re left without knowing how the son responds to the father’s explanation.

But if we’re the pharisees and scribes listening to this parable, how might we respond? We might resonate with the elder son. We see ourselves like the brother who works like a slave to keep the letter of the law and to uphold all righteousness, and we might grumble about not being recognized by the popular guy in town. But in the presence of the compassion of Jesus, through the voice of the father in the parable, can they hear what Jesus is saying? If they are living to the letter of the law, what are they grumbling about? They are part of the kingdom, counted among God’s chosen.

But what about those sinners? What about what the younger son did? What makes who they are or who he is okay?

This is where this parable also differs from the other two. In this parable, we’re given insight into the thought process of the one who is lost. In the first two parables, we don’t know what the sheep was thinking, and we can assume that the coin didn’t have the capacity to think. But the younger son we know made a conscious decision to get his inheritance and squander it in ways that made his position as a hired hand on a pig farm seem like the position he deserved. “But when he came to himself,” Jesus says, when the young man is in his right mind, he has a moment when he realizes who he is and who his father is. He becomes aware of what he has done and names it as sin. “I have sinned against heaven and before you,” he practices saying to his father. Just as he made a conscious decision to go on his self-indulgent spree, he now makes a conscious decision to turn back toward what is right, to return to his father, and to accept his position with all humility, unworthy as he is. The son is self-aware. The son is honest with himself and with his father. He’s penitent, repentant, and humble.

If the parable played out with an eye-for-an-eye ethic, the father could have punished the son, not with hiring him on as a field hand, which would have still been gracious, but by meeting him with a harsh consequential punishment. The father could have cast the son out of the family. You wanted to go on your own, then go. Don’t expect to be welcomed back.

But that’s not what happened.

When the kids were much smaller, I told them at night before they went to bed that I would never be far from them, that I was in their heart as much as they were in mine, with invisible heart strings connecting us. This comes to mind for me, as I imagine that even if the younger son wanted to go out on his own and turn away from his family, the heart string of the father never disconnected. As soon as the son was in proximity, that heart string was tugged, and the father reeled that son in as quickly and as closely as he could. He hadn’t lost hope, but things were looking bleak. Now the connection was restored, the bond made all the stronger by the reconciliation that took place, verbally and nonverbally. It’s a moment of grace, which is by its very nature unwarranted, undeserved.

And no matter how much we do to garner merit and increase our worthiness, we are no more nor less deserving of grace. When we’re living a righteous life, we swim in grace, be it grace we receive or grace we give–it’s just the air we breathe. But when we live a pious life for the sake of looking good, or do things so that we can increase our esteem in our eyes or in the eyes of another but not for the sake of goodness itself, we risk losing ourselves to greed or isolating ourselves from the fullness of living into relationship with others.

Our parable today gives us not only the illustration of one truly repentant and one full of compassion and grace but also of one who has yet to realize they are in need of repentance and are also worthy of compassion and grace.

We can get so caught up in doing what is right and good and expected that we do it out of obligation. We come to church on Sunday. We drive the speed limit. We pay our taxes. We follow the commandments and do good deeds. I’m convinced that obligation can breed resentment over time if we lose sight of why we do what we do, and that’s the pressure I see the elder son releasing when he goes off on his father. Think of how surprised we are when we thought someone was doing what they did because they enjoyed it, but they were just doing it to make us or someone else happy. For all the grief the younger son gets for squandering his inheritance, he fully expressed himself, his thoughts and intentions; he was honest. The older son, working like a slave, did what he did because he was supposed to. While the father still felt like the heart strings were attached, the older son had replaced the loving relationship into one of duty. Work without relationship is transactional. Work with relationship, however, is meaningful, rich, and fulfilling. It is hard, often focused on the greater good rather than personal gain, humbling in both our honesty and vulnerability inherent in authentic relationships, and surprising when the things we least expect happen. I never cease to be amazed at the true kindness and sincerity of people.

It is when I get those glimpses of sincerity, those moments of true compassion, that I feel like I get a glimpse of the presence of Christ manifest in the here and now. It can be in the compassion shown toward ourselves or the compassion shown toward another, but when those heartstrings are pulled close and reverberate with the electricity of being in relationship with one another, that’s when I think we find the frequency of Love, the pulse of God.

With this in mind, I invite you to go back and re-read Paul’s message to the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 5:16-2), where the ministry of reconciliation is one of the ministries we are all called to.

 

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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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