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.

 

Continue Reading

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.

 

Continue Reading

Trust & Lament

Genesis 15:1-12,17-18 | Psalm 27 | Philippians 3:17-4:1 | Luke 13:31-35

Maybe you, too, have an uncle or family member who has shared a similar thought: I vividly remember him telling me that the harder he tried to do good and actually did acts of kindness, the worse things got. This comes to mind in a week when I’ve invited us to reflect on gratitude this week as part of our Lenten journey. When we’ve made it through the wilderness, through times of trial, what is it we’re grateful for? What are we grateful for in this moment? Each week in our Prayers of the People, we offer thanksgivings for our blessings, and since there’s not enough time to name each one, we at least pause in a moment of thankfulness. Intensely focused on what is good, what is going well, we come to late Thursday evening or maybe Friday morning with the tragic news of the mass shootings in New Zealand. In mosques. In places of worship. An outright hate crime. 49 dead. At least 40 more wounded. What does that do to our sense of gratitude?

I suppose it depends on who we are and how we choose to react in situations of adversity, when it seems like the Adversary is making an outright attack. I made a quick decision not to click on any links to videos or manifestos so as not to feed more attention to the horrendous crimes that were intentionally set up to grab media attention and go viral. I let our Muslim community here know of our support and solidarity with them. I am genuinely thankful for them. I went to one of their Friday prayer services, where I listened to their prayers spoken and chanted in Arabic. They reminded me of the Ramadan calls to prayer I heard when I was in the holy land. I wore a scarf I bought in Israel, where tensions run high between Christian, Muslim, and Jew, yet they live side by side and have for millennia. I listened to the lecture from the leader who spoke about anger being a natural reaction but one the faithful are not inclined to embody, lest they sound like a braying donkey. I continue to be grateful for faith witnessing to peace.

What in my faith, as a Christian, led me to wear a scarf and go sit among our female Muslim neighbors and some of their children? Sincere love of neighbor. Compassion. Compassion sees suffering and shares in it. That suffering might be anger, grief, or deep sadness. With empathy, we can feel what one another feels. My faith response to trial and grief is to turn to prayer first, so in support and solidarity, I offer not only my own prayers and condolences, but I go and sit with those who are scared, angry, and/or sad.

And what of our prayers? Are they always “Lord, have mercy,” “thank you,” and “thy will be done”? They can be. That’s enough. But my experience is that life is more complicated than that. Our tradition shows us that prayers to God get challenging, but they are nothing that God can’t handle.

Take what we hear in our lesson from Genesis today. The word of the Lord comes to Abram in a vision. This is before Abram is Abraham, before he’s fathered a child, and that is the focus of this encounter. God has promised Abram that he will be the father of many descendants, but so far the only children in his household are those born to slaves, not his children (this is even before the birth of Isaac). Much time has passed since Abram first had this promise from God, so here in Chapter 15, God speaks to Abram not to be afraid because Abram is afraid that the promise isn’t going to come true. Abram fears that something isn’t right, that the promise won’t be fulfilled. Abram offers his lament to God, and God responds, renewing his promise, making a covenant with him–that’s what all that business with the animals is. The original promise is made and even more is promised, with the land being promised, too. God heard Abram’s lament and responded, not with the actual fulfillment yet but with promise for even more. And Abram believed. And the LORD reckoned it as righteousness. In faith, Abram trusted that God was remaining faithful, that the covenant made would be kept.

Most of us don’t have direct encounters with the word of God. For most of us, we have a more one-sided prayer that mirrors that of the psalmist’s, which again portrays great faith and trust in God yet is not without lament. The psalmist speaks of trouble and enemies, pleads for mercy and attention, and begs not to be forsaken and to be delivered. There is physical, emotional, and spiritual turmoil present for the psalmist, a holistic view of someone in distress, crying out to God in pain and suffering and yet with faith and trust that “the LORD is my light and my salvation,” “the strength of my life.”

This psalm speaks to me deeply, to my great faith and to times of trauma in my life when it feels nearly like an out-of-body experience. Yes, my faith is strong, but, O God, this reality can be too much to bear. The worst thing imaginable in that moment is to be forsaken even by God when all that I know and have evidence of seems to have turned against or away from me. The trust of the psalmist is that the LORD will sustain us, won’t abandon us, will be our comfort, and is our salvation.

The mosaic on the altar in Jerusalem in the chapel where the Lord wept.

I would like to think that we wouldn’t have to have times of trial and despair to experience the tremendous love of God, but in the times when we feel most abandoned, when we hunger and thirst most for fulfillment, that is the feeling that I imagine gets closest to the yearning that God has for us, the desire to share that unconditional love, the desire that Jesus expressed as a longing to gather “children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” Why could Jesus not gather the children of Jerusalem together? Because they “were not willing.” They didn’t have the trust or desire to partake in the work of God that Jesus presented, yet Jesus is entirely about doing the will of God, not bending to the powers that be or even protecting his bodily interest.

As the letter to the Philippians emphasizes, our being Christian and following the way of the cross, the way of life through Christ, is not about self-preservation, self-fulfillment, personal glory, or materialism. Our Way of Love through Christ is bigger than any one of us, and, like Paul, we experience sadness when others suffer with despair, without recourse to a broader network of faith, hope, and love.

Like the image of the good shepherd seeking out even the one lost sheep, the image of the hen gathering all the chicks under her wing gives us a glimpse at an aspect of God we might not expect or might shy away from. The image of a hen protecting her chicks is not only intimate but also vulnerable, yet is it no less vulnerable than a man hanging on a cross, an image we might also rather shy away from, preferring instead the resurrected Jesus, full of Light and Glory?

God knows our trust and our fear, our faith and our doubt, our joy and our lament, and God does not shy away from them but stands all the stronger in the midst of them, especially in our weakness. How can I continue to breathe through my racing heart and shallow breath in times of great fear? How can I continue to live in the face of great tragedy, especially if it is someone I love so deeply? Because we are so loved. Because we have been so loved, so are we called to love others, regardless of what evils we face, what persecution we experience, what fears we have in this body and this life.

There is so much we don’t know, that we can’t see, that we can’t describe. Yet we have experienced an ineffable, unexplainable presence of God working in our lives that has changed us into people who live into our faith, not without trials or doubts or suffering, but with resolve to act in ways of love. Our belief in Jesus Christ as our Savior and the understanding of our relationship with Jesus and thus with God enable us to be incredible witnesses to the love of God. How we act day to day may evangelize more than anything else we say because we never know who is paying attention. We do what we do out of love, without expecting anything in return, because we already know that we are loved by God.

But when we return the gesture of love, isn’t there great joy? When we are the stranger at the mosque and are welcomed with a smile . . . when someone replies with gratitude for a kindness offered . . . for me that seems to get close to what it feels like willingly to be gathered into mutual love, to be enfolded in the embrace of sheltering arms or wings. We need not hesitate to live into our faith and trust. We don’t need to hold back when we want to rage or lament to God, even against God. God can take it. God won’t drown in our sorrows or tears or be tossed about by the tempest and chaos of our lives and actions. As the psalmist instructs the reader to wait patiently for the LORD, trusting that God fulfills promises faithfully in God’s time, God waits for us with infinite patience and perfect love.

Continue Reading

Unveiled

Exodus 34:29-35 | Psalm 99 |  2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2 | Luke 9:28-36-43a

When we think about talking with God, we usually mean through prayer, and we trust that by offering our words out loud or in our heart and mind, that God receives them and “hears” them, in whatever way works for God. Because we don’t know. Prayer is one of our constant actions done in faith, and it is one of the building blocks of our discipleship, how we live as faithful Christians. Especially in times of trial, the words of Paul to pray without ceasing come to mind, but I know I’m not the only one who finds the thoughts in my head on an average day filled with a one-sided conversation with the Almighty. Probably more often than I’d like to admit, it’s filled with me telling God how I think things should go. On better days, it’s filled with “Your will be done.” On truly hard days, it’s filled with surrender, acknowledgment that I need God’s help.

But in all of this praying, I don’t think about actually meeting God face to face. Maybe I don’t think about it because it just doesn’t happen. Sure, it happened for Moses, and, sure, it happened for the disciples with Jesus. But it doesn’t happen for us. Look what happened to Moses, anyway. His face had some divine perma-glow that terrified his people, even his brother Aaron. He wore a veil to help others feel more comfortable. Yet Moses continued to be an intermediary between God and the people. Moses went from seeing God in the burning bush, to seeing the backside of God from the cleft in the mountain, to talking with God face to face, so to speak. And Moses was a changed man. Not only was he a leader of the people, but he was one who had survived being in the presence of God. And he shone for it, even if it was off-putting to others. Intimidating, maybe? Moses was physically changed by his encounter with God.

We’re more comfortable with our way of praying, aren’t we? We’d rather whisper or think our prayers or say them together comfortably and predictably than experience what Moses went through because we understand Aaron’s and the other’s terror. What if that happens to us? We certainly don’t want to alienate ourselves. What would it mean for our lives?

It might mean that people know our relationship with God has changed our lives. It might mean that we share our stories because we can’t hide the fact that we have lived through encounters with God in our lives. It might mean that we’re like a friend of mine whom I met in Hot Springs. She was living in a tent at the time with her dog. She came to the church because she needed some more blankets. We talked a while, and she came back a time or two. Eventually she was able to lease a place, and we helped with furniture. Mostly when we talked, though, it was about her accomplishments, her determination, and her recovery. I would know when she wasn’t doing so well, when she’d smell of alcohol or when I met her in the detention center. She was both embarrassed and grateful to see me then. We struck up conversation, same as we would if we had seen each other in the church or out and about. “Will you be okay?” I’d ask. She had faith. She was praying. She was reading the Bible, finding verses that inspired her and kept her going. Even now I see her on Facebook, not just her pictures of her highlighted Bible verses but pictures of her face, a life-worn face that smiles through hardship and smiles with grace, shining in its own way for knowing the love of God, experiencing it in her life.

I know I keep harkening back to diocesan convention, but there was a statement Jerusalem made that I want to make sure we all hear again: We have to use our words to share the Good News of Christ. We can give all the tents, blankets, and food there is, but if we don’t share WHY we’re doing it, how will they know we’re not just part of a charitable or service organization? “Preach the Gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.” We typically attribute this quote to St. Francis. Jerusalem says that today, it’s necessary.

And Paul, he says that because of Christ, our veil is removed. We don’t need to hide from the light. It’s not terrifying . . . it’s glorious, and we’re meant to share it. Don’t get me wrong, to live in the Light is terrifying at times, uncomfortable to us and to others. Why? Because it threatens to change the way things are. If we are mirroring the image of God through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are bringing into this world evidence of God’s mercy, experiences of transformation. But if we practice over and over again, it becomes less scary, changing into glory can become our expectation, if not a norm.

But what do we practice?

People like my friend from Hot Springs know what it is to hit rock bottom and have little left to lose. But she found a thread of hope which was intimately linked to her dog, through her love of another, that empowered her to act with great boldness. And as she grew to understand more and more that the love of God was hers, that God wasn’t punishing her, she began to act more boldly for herself. And along this journey she was sharing that she had love of God, that God was working through her to live better, and maybe her witness could help others live better, too. She didn’t get to a place of sharing publicly overnight.

Like Peter, we might experience something truly marvelous and make a claim to capture it then and there, freeze it in time and place. In this action, we, too, might not know what we say or what we mean. In our belief, Jesus wasn’t just a man who lived and died in ancient Israel, doing really great things, many of which are accounted in the season of Epiphany that we conclude today. With his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ continued the story for us. The Transfiguration during his lifetime, when he was radiant as ever and in the presence of figures who had gone before him, gave us a glimpse that in our lives lived in God, amazing things can happen, surpassing human understanding. These experiences happen not just in one time and place but everywhere we go bringing with us the Light of Christ.

In our baptism we are given a candle as a symbol of that light of Christ, that it would go with us into the world. It’s a symbol of the light within because I don’t know anyone who carries that candle with them everywhere. It’s a physical thing that doesn’t have enough wax to last out the day. But that light of Christ, which comes from the glory of God, that’s eternal and everlasting.

So what, exactly do we do? Start small, which is really starting big because we have to train our way of thinking. Do we want to do good? Are we already doing good work? Why? Because we’re supposed to? Because we don’t want to be hard-hearted? We do good because we love. We love because we are loved, and if we believe that, the rest stems from there.

What in our lives has been hard but we lived through? What kept us going? We don’t always or even often start with love of God. Maybe, like me, you had a loving family and lived a pretty sheltered life and have continued to live a good life, given a few trials and tribulations but nothing insurmountable. But we don’t take that for granted. Great religious figures of the past, even when surrounded in comfort and/of luxury, went among the suffering and had empathy, had compassion for them, and it changed their worldview, guiding others to shape their perspective, too.

One time of doing something does not make a practice. My kids wouldn’t be great swimmers or musicians if they just jumped in and swam a lap or picked up an instrument every once in a blue moon. We have to practice our skills, and that includes living a life in Christ without fear. Fear to me is embodied in that unclean spirit from the gospel lesson today. Fear with thrash about and throw us to our knees rather than go boldly into the light of God. But with God’s help through Jesus Christ, we can be healed of our fears, return to the Way of Love, and astound others with the greatness of God, rather than scare them.

This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, and I will share a practice every week that will encourage you to find words to share your story as a child of God. You wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t experienced God either knowingly or because you seek God in your life. Maybe all we need to do is remove the veil to see clearly that God is already at work.

 

Continue Reading

Superpower

Genesis 45:3-11, 15 | 1 Corinthians 15:35-38,42-50 | Luke 6:27-38 | Psalm 37:1-12, 41-42

I can’t help but wonder if, when the lectionary committee was deciding which Old Testament reading to put with today’s gospel, they had to draw straws as to which story was the most gut-wrenching story of forgiving one’s enemy. Because there are loads of stories about people doing wrong by their neighbor but mostly doing wrong by their family, and not every story gives us an illustration of forgiveness, either.

Recall that Joseph, beloved son of Jacob, was thrown into a well and then sold to traders by his brothers, was accused of raping an officer’s wife (because he wouldn’t have an affair with her) and imprisoned, and then because he interpreted Pharaoh’s dream, was released and rose to power, second only to the Pharaoh himself. It was Joseph’s planning through the seven years of plenty that prepared Egypt for the seven years of famine, that not only made Egypt the breadbasket of the world but also saved the people from starvation, including the very brothers who had cast him away, good as dead.

You’ll have to go back read Genesis 42-44 to get the full story of how the brothers go to Egypt for their stores, experience the dramatic irony of the brothers not realizing that it is their Joseph who is their lord, their saving grace. The recognition between the brothers does not start with our lesson today. Chapter 45 begins:

“Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, ‘Send everyone away from me.’ So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it.” (vv. 1-2)

And then we begin with today’s reading, when Joseph addresses his brothers, re-introducing himself and inquiring about his father. Is he still alive? But the brothers can’t answer him, “dismayed” at his presence. Dismayed? The Jewish Study Bible contains a more accurate description, I think: “…his brothers could not answer him, so dumbfounded were they on account of him.”

After all he has been through and all that he has done for them, Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers, and he breaks down. Breaking down doesn’t give Joseph credit, though, and perpetuates the stereotype that to show emotion is a weakness. This man who is second to the Pharaoh sobs before his brothers so loudly that everyone in the vicinity can hear him. The floodgates of emotion–of grief, loneliness, heartbreak, anger, worry, fear, anxiety–all of that and more, I’m sure, are finally released. Of course the brothers are dumbfounded. They tried to kill Joseph, and when they finally meet him again, he’s a great man of power, sobbing, and inquiring about his father’s well-being. They don’t know what to do.

They don’t recognize him. Do you think that’s because if he really was their brother, this isn’t how they expect him to react? Maybe Joseph realizes this might be the case, too, so what does he ask them to do?

“Come closer to me.”

Come closer to him so that they can see into his eyes, recognize the familiarities that persist through time. Listen to him as he says he knows they’re the ones who sold him into slavery. Listen to him as he says that he sees God’s hand at work because in all of this, it is Joseph’s presence in Egypt that has saved them. In fact, he says that it was God who sent him there, ultimately to serve as lord and ruler of the whole land of Egypt. He tells them what to do, essentially to go get their father and all their things and come live in Goshen near him, and he kisses them all, weeping with them, and only then are they able to speak with him, covered in his tears and affection.

This story takes any story we have of sibling rivalry to a whole other level, doesn’t it? And it says something about Joseph’s sense of presence, character, and faith. He could have easily recognized his brothers and had them imprisoned, as he nearly did to a different end. The Pharaoh would have his back, as he did on recognizing the brothers and assisting their move. It could have gone the other way very easily. Some decisions are like that, balanced as they are on the edge of life and death.

In our gospel lesson today, we have a mighty checklist of do’s and don’ts for disciples. Jesus tells us to love our enemies. “Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Don’t strike back, give generously, and don’t expect things to be returned. “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Be merciful. Don’t judge or condemn, and forgive.

Are these things that only the ancient Joseph, ultimately mighty in power and favored by God, could do? No. They happen every day. Only God knows the extent to which the Golden Rule helps preserve humanity itself, let alone the goodness conveyed in our true love, mercy, generosity, and forgiveness. And only God knows the strength that these actions have in moving us closer to the kingdom of God.

If you listened to Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s nearly hour-long sermon from the Yes to Jesus Revival that I posted a couple of weeks ago, you heard him share the story from the documentary about Jackie Robinson called 42. Baseball had been divided into all these different leagues to keep it segregated, but there was one man named Branch Rickey who loved baseball so much that he wanted the best of the best to play together. Now, you’ll have to watch the documentary or listen to the sermon for more details, but essentially, when Rickey, the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers made the proposition to Robinson, he acknowledged that there were going to be people who would say and maybe even do ugly things because he was a black man and that’s the way the country was in the 40’s. The man also said that he wanted Robinson not to retaliate. At this, Robinson said, “Oh you want a negro who’s afraid to fight back,” and the man said, “No, I want a great ball player who has the courage not to fight back just like our Savior Jesus Christ.” Rickey pulls from his desk a book of sayings of Jesus and reads to Robinson words that include our words from Luke today. When he put the book down, Robinson shook Rickey’s hands, and as Curry summarized, they went on to change baseball and America because they followed the Way of Jesus, the Way of Love. At our best, we have the power to change the world because of our love, because of Jesus’s love, God’s love.

You might still be thinking that all this is fine and good, but these are extraordinary circumstances with heroes from our past. I’m sorry. I’m sorry that we don’t hear more about our everyday courageous warriors who fight with love. I’m sorry that our news is filled with anger, division, fear, and violence. I’m sorry because for all the time focused on the evil of the world, there are countless others upholding the Golden Rule, doing right by their neighbors, strangers, and kin, and practicing the Way of Love, even if that’s not what they call it.

And I bet there are times in your life when that’s just your m.o., and I also bet that there’s a time in your life when you felt it more poignantly. When these words of Jesus, that have revealed themselves to be written in your heart, revealed your belief of them in your actions and proved yourself to be a warrior for love, too.

Someone I love dearly was in an abusive relationship, and she had escaped–not her first time to try to get out, but this time it was sticking. (It typically takes 7 times before a woman leaves her abuser.) I received a call from the abuser late one night. He was looking for her. He was saying things, telling me what I thought of him. And I don’t know if you’ve ever had an encounter where you felt like you were facing demons, something truly evil, but my heart was racing. I felt stunned, but I stayed on the phone, words coming out of my mouth that came from a place I didn’t know I had. At one point, I said, “No, I don’t hate you. I love the good person you can be, that you are at your core, but I do not like what you’ve done. And I won’t tell you where she is or help you get in touch with her.” There are other times in my life when I realize how much I love people, especially people I don’t like, and there’s a sadness that washes over me, a lament at the loss of what could be.

The Way of Love, following the Way of Jesus, does not make us passive doormats. It doesn’t mean that we will always be protected from danger, nor does it mean that we see everything as sunshine and roses or always see the silver lining. What it does mean is that we know that love is a powerful thing, that God’s love is our superpower when we find ourselves tapped into it.

God’s love enables us to be wholly in relationship with others, even if that person is so other that we can’t see eye to eye. God’s love enables us to act in ways of justice and mercy, to heal and seek reconciliation rather than bury ourselves in grief or anger or grudges. Most importantly, God’s love transforms us, turning us into Christian superheroes capable of amazing feats that most often won’t make the headlines but make all the difference in someone’s life. I hope this week or even today that you get the chance to share a moment when you tapped into that superpower, when you did something you didn’t think you could do but were keenly aware–if not in the moment then at least in retrospect–that it was God working through you, living through you, loving through you.

Come closer, and recognize the power of God’s love in our lives.

 

Continue Reading

Good News in Level Places

Jeremiah 17:5-10 | Psalm 1 1 Corinthians 15:12-20 |Luke 6:17-26

Isaiah’s call to lift valleys and lower mountains, to make the rough land level and the rugged plain so that all might see the glory of God (Isa 40:4-5) to me is about making sure everyone has equal opportunity to experience that glory, maybe even bask in it. That kind of terrain provides a level playing field. We want everyone to have equal access to God, and Isaiah gives us a vivid visual.

So when I hear in today’s gospel lesson that Jesus and his disciples go down to a level place to be with the multitude of people from all over the region, I’m not surprised. Of course Jesus is going to give everyone a fair chance. He’s here to fulfill scripture, and there’s no time to waste.

But there are a few things to notice.

  1. A level place means more than geography.

The connotations for what a “level” place means, doesn’t necessarily refer to the lay of the land physically. It might well be an even place, but what it could have meant at the time was that it was an unclean place, a place for corpses. A “level place” is for the suffering, the disgraced, the mourning, misery, and hunger. The place where idols were located were often in a plain, a “level place.”

This is where Jesus goes, into the midst of the suffering, according to the Gospel of Luke, unlike that of Matthew where he goes to the mount. It is in this level place that the people come to Jesus, bringing their suffering, seeking his healing power. Jesus goes into a place where one might least expect God to be.

2. The people who were in this level place probably haven’t come from the mountaintop.

Whether the people who were coming to Jesus in this level place were probably already there or felt they had nothing to lose in being there, chances are these weren’t people of privilege who had other options. The people coming to this place likely didn’t have strict codes of conduct telling them not to be seen in certain places, not to risk their reputation, their purity, and/or their honor and dignity–not just theirs but also their family’s.

Yet this is where Jesus chooses to go and take a stand, and there’s a multitude of people who come to him.

3. Jesus looks UP at his disciples and speaks to them, probably with everyone looking on these beatitudes.

Jesus stood on a level place and still looks up at his disciples. Geographically, this isn’t a level place. He went down. He’s looking up. Maybe he’s kneeling in the middle of the crowd. Maybe he’s so far into the crowd, the disciples can’t quite bring themselves to go into the thick of it. Still, there Jesus is.

Not that we blame the disciples. Ever since I was pregnant with my first child, my nose has taken on some kind of supernatural maternal sense of smell. My husband makes me smell the milk or food and watches my face for my instant reaction. Imagining first century Israel, given its hygiene practices of the time, given the sickness of all those seeking Jesus, I almost get one of those instant reactions: that place isn’t going to smell like someplace I’d want to go. Don’t we often hear the adage, “follow your nose”?

But I remember one of those powerful moments when I was in the deep water of my discernment, trying to decipher if I would really enter into the process of discerning if I was called to ordination, Suzanne from St. Paul’s was listening and talking with me, the wonderful mentor that she is. I don’t know if she said it and I visualized it, or if something she said prompted me to see it. But in my mind’s eye, I was keenly aware of the putrescence of humanity, a cesspool of manure, so to speak, and there were people in it, going to and from it, though nobody wants to go there because it’s so awful. With tears in my eyes and speaking through my sobs, I managed to say that I feel called to go there, that I have the stomach for it–which makes no sense because I don’t think I have the nose for it! But it was a visual that I believe the Holy Spirit gave me because in that near waking dream, I saw myself being present in a way not many can or will. When I go to stand up for controversial matters or sit with someone in a hard place or hear or experience things that I don’t think anyone should have to bear witness to, I know that I am not alone, that there’s no place I can go that Christ hasn’t already been. Jesus didn’t avoid the level places, and his presence goes with us when we go there, too.

Where are our level places here in our community? Where have you been or seen that was a place of suffering? The ER? The walk-in clinic? The DMV? Walmart or the Dollar General when you meet the gaze of the person or the child with the sad eyes? The street corners not far from the Salvation Army? The cafeterias where kids are surrounded but alone, insecure? The jail, the bus depot, the camps in the woods? The gym with everyone plugged in and trying to sweat away their worries and fears? The nursing home or rehab?

If we start thinking about it too much, we might begin to think that we don’t live in such a well-off community after all, that we’re really surrounded by suffering and disease. We might be tempted to cloister ourselves in our nice little bubbles of blessedness. We might rather stay on our mountain tops.

But Jesus looked up at his disciples and proclaimed blessedness upon the poor, the hungry, the sad, and the defamed. Jesus cautioned woe to those who were already fulfilled and self-sufficient, those more likely to trust in the flesh and material world than trust in God. Jesus not only had the power to heal the sick and the diseased, but he also knew that there was more to this life, more to the story, that the suffering and death that everyone feared and knew was coming was not the end. There was hope. Hope in the kingdom of God. Hope in the fullness of time. Hope in the joy of the Lord our God. Hope in the glory of heaven. The kind of hope of believing that Christ was resurrected on the third day–beyond all our reason or comprehension but that there is Truth in that Resurrection–speaks to the triumph of life over death, of love over fear and hatred. God loved us so much that God gave the only begotten son to walk among us, to live among us, to be present in all the suffering and also the joys . . . and to die only to rise again. This is our Good News: that we are loved. That the love we know gives us life and liberation, and this blessedness is ours to share, even and especially among the suffering.

Evangelism was the focus of our diocesan convention keynote addresses. Jerusalem Greer asked us,

“Who stays up all night waiting to hear the Good News?”

We got the socio-demographic data of our area in a handout at our table, and we began looking at the map and the numbers, but we didn’t have enough time to get at the heart of the question. We didn’t go quickly to seek out the level places in our midst or brainstorm ways we are particularly suited to meet the suffering and share our Good News with them. And that’s okay. A handful of us from All Saints’ aren’t going to figure out exactly how we evangelize to our community in 15-20 minutes.

But if you love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and you have an experience of knowing where the story of Jesus intersects with your life at least on one occasion (and hopefully time and time again), then you have something to share with your friend and neighbor, something to share even with a stranger, if they look like they’re hungry for some good news, especially if they look like they’re alone and are hungry for the kind of love that only God gives.

We might not want to follow Jesus into the “level places,” but what does Jesus often remind us? “Do not be afraid.” If we love the Lord with all our being, we are also invited to trust in the Lord. Rather than imagining cesspools of suffering, we start imagining pictures of trees planted by rolling streams. Trees strong in their roots, nourished by the life-giving water. Trees green with leaves, not anxious, not fearful, continually bearing fruit. Trees extending a branch to those in need, offering good news in their level place, showing the way of love.

 

Continue Reading

Whose We Are

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


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

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

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

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

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

But there’s even more to the story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue Reading

Prepare the Way of Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

> Get close to those who are marginalized,

> Change false narratives that are out there,

> Stay hopeful, and

> Do things that are uncomfortable and inconvenient.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Continue Reading

Thoughts for the Journey – Advent 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

And where are we going with all this journeying?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue Reading

On Being Provocative

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

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

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

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

“And her countenance was sad no longer.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Continue Reading