His Mercy Endures Forever

Numbers 21:4-9 | Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 | Ephesians 2:1-10 | John 3:14-21

Our Fourth Sunday in Lent finds us drawing nearer to the Passion of our Lord, when he will, inevitably, be lifted up on a cross. In our Gospel, Jesus foretells his end and purpose by recalling the familiar-to-the-Jews story of the Israelites in the wilderness who were struck by the snakes but saved by God through belief in God, demonstrated by their belief in the bronze serpent on the staff.

“Moses and the Brazen Serpent on a Pole” by Hoet (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

This might be confusing to us because we’re fairly certain God prohibited false images of God. Rest assured that the bronze image wasn’t of God but of a snake Moses cast at God’s command. God once again gave an instruction to the people, and those who heeded the words did something in particular–in this case, looked upon the staff–and were healed of their malady. Once again, it’s God’s word that’s at work here. Neither Moses nor the staff are doing the healing; it’s God who is doing the work. The people are given the opportunity to heed God’s word, given the opportunity to believe in God and thus remain in covenant with God. Now, in this case, their life is literally on the line. If they don’t look upon the staff, they’re going to die from their bites. One might say they’re not really given any option, but their decision carries a lot of weight, making it a powerful story of survival. When the Jews are recounting the journey through the wilderness, when Paul recounts it to his audience, the failure of the people at this point in the story remains one of those vivid moments when they failed in their obeisance to God. “There’s no food or water,” they complain, “along with “We detest this miserable food.” Ah, so there is food; you just don’t like it. (There’s a distinct shortage of short-order chef gods in the desert, apparently.) What did they expect? They’ve been delivered from slavery, released from their bondage under pharoah, and now they’re discovering deeper levels of their bondage, the many ways they can displease God. But all is not lost because they are given a way to be healed, to be saved from death.

Even when people anger God, as our psalmist proclaims, “His mercy endures forever.” Even when the Israelites have gone astray again, “He sent forth his word and healed them/and saved them from the grave.” Do we realize the profundity of the fact that God’s “mercy endures forever”? Mercy, dear folks, isn’t forgiving with a blind eye or foolish love. Mercy is seeing what the trespass is, naming it, seeing the suffering that both led to the trespass and resulted from it, and still recognizing the person as a beloved child of God, worthy of grace and redemption. We humans aren’t always good at it, but God’s mercy endures forever.

I say we humans are bad at it because there’s a small group of us who have been reading Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy during Lent. I’ve mentioned before that my faith in Christ is way up there, but my faith in humanity struggles to stay on the chart: this book reminds me why my view of humanity gets low. The discriminatory and sometimes outright illegal way certain folks get channeled into the prison system appalls me: pray for those who have various shades of brown skin and those who are poor. That we confine people behind walls and bars because we don’t know how to deal with them and then continue to punish them because they don’t understand or physically can’t follow the “rules” appalls me: pray for those who struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health illnesses. That we say we value the sanctity of life yet tear families apart, inadequately provide physical and mental healthcare, and execute people . . . that appalls me: pray for the human family.

That God knew the Word made flesh would walk among us and ultimately be crucified by us and for us . . . that amazes me. “His mercy endures forever.”

The Son of Man must “be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life, . . . that the world might be saved through him.”

God didn’t have to send serpents when Jesus walked the earth. We were already destroying ourselves. We needed a beacon of light bright enough to shed light upon the error of our ways and save us from our self-destruction, evil’s favorite way to work. Either set us up for self-destruction or set us up to think we’ve got it all under control and don’t need God: either way works to get us off track and turned away from God and on the path of sin. Forget about love of God, of neighbor, and true love of self. Let’s just focus on what we want to do and what works best for me, gives me power, makes me feel good. This kind of thinking led to Jesus getting mad enough to overturn the tables in the temple. This way of life affirmed to Jesus that his life would have to be lifted up on a cross to save us from our way of sin, our disobedience to God. The way of sin leads to death, and Jesus brought to us the way of life.

We know that Jesus triumphs over death and makes sure the way of reconciliation and redemption is open to all who believe in him. (Thank God!) In our tradition we have the cross alone and not the crucifix because we focus on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus: Jesus doesn’t stay on the cross forever. But we can’t ignore that part of the Paschal mystery. That Jesus died by crucifixion is part of our story. Without the Love and all its mercy and grace embodied in the death of Christ, we on our own would be swallowed in darkness. Left on our own, we’re not all that different from the Israelites in the wilderness, being attacked by all manner of toxicity, certain to die.

Last week, the collect said we have no power within ourselves to save ourselves. This week, it’s the belief in Jesus Christ that saves us, that feed us to give us life–his life in us and ours in him. I don’t know if you sense the urgency of the imperative we have to get out of our “me-first” thinking. Fifteen years ago it seemed almost new-agey, speaking of the ego and the True Self, and then even in terms of Christian spirituality it seems kind of mystical or elitist to think of being one with God or to embody the Christ-mind. But here’s where I’m at with this . . . and it’s not even monetary greed that I’m thinking of today, though it’s still at the back of my mind. I read an article in The New York Times (“Suicides, Drug Addiction and High School Football”). Please note that this contains material that is both violent and heart-wrenching.

In the article, it describes an idyllic town of about 12,000 on the National Historic Register with a lovely Main Street. Tourists come and go. But this journalist was approached by a waitress who heard him giving an interview.

She checked over her shoulder to see if anyone was listening. There was an urgency in her whisper as she said: “I lost my son last month. He hung himself from a tree in our yard and shot himself in the head. I cut him down myself, with my own hands. So many suicides.” She wiped away tears. “We need your help,” she said.

The shadow that’s coming to light is that this pretty little town is drowning in suicide, depression, drug abuse and addiction (remember, the opioid crisis has been declared a national emergency), and child neglect. Of course, all these are inter-related. Of course, no one really wants these things to come into full light. It might hurt tourism and businesses. And really, everything seems like it should be fine on the surface because people are working and employed (if they’re not in rehab or prison). They live in a nice place and have work. Kids are in school . . . but they’re killing themselves.

The article highlights that the football team, that hasn’t garnered a trophy in over 20 years, is an oasis for the players. The football team gives them a family when most of the time the parents are working one or two jobs (if they’re not in rehab or prison). It gives them something to focus on when they’re struggling with the grief of losing a sibling or friend to drugs or death. The coach of the team says it’s not the wins he’s focused on as much as it is staying a role model and a contact for the kids. The coach’s brother had been a heroin addict.

This is a sad, sad article. It’s a sad article because it portrays what is in Madison, Indiana. It’s sad because it reveals the suffering of our neighbors. It’s sad to me, mostly, because it ends without resolution. A light is shone on a crime scene, and all the death, evil, despair is in full view.

This is a sad article because I feel like it could have been written here. If we’re honest. With serpents of stress and anxiety nipping at everyone’s heels to perform their best, look their best, do their best “or else” be cast aside . . . or maybe there’s not even a chance of living up to expectations or getting out of the cycle of pain, so why not use whatever it is that numbs the pain this time and a little more next time . . . and if I’ve given up on myself, I can’t stand to think about the kids, so I’ll neglect them, too, and there’s not even a shred of evidence of God in my life, so why should I bother?

If you wake up with an inkling of purpose or joy or hope in your life, blessed one, give thanks and stay strong. And if you believe in Jesus Christ, then you better give God a wink of thanks and get to work not only shining the light in the darkness but sharing that which sustains you. Share the bread that feeds you. You come to this altar and are fed with the Bread of Life. You believe you have received grace upon grace, that God’s mercy endures forever, that the Holy Spirit has given you the power to share the love of God in this time and place. Some part of you believes that, or you wouldn’t be here. And a friend of mine said recently that we should be exhausted and panting as we race back to church on Sunday because we are so depleted from sharing Jesus with others that we can’t wait to be refilled and renewed, receiving more of the Word of God and the Bread of Life so that we can go back out and share some more. “If we’re not, then what are we doing?” she asked, almost sadly.

The critical point is this: the whole “me-first” thinking isn’t working for us; it didn’t for the Israelites, and it isn’t working for us now. As Christian monotheists, we put God first, and we believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior. As people who walk a way of Life, Light, and Love, we have the power to share that with others, not to abuse them with it but to shine the Light their way and see if and how Christ might work in the midst of those gathered in that moment. Look in your pew. Anyone missing? Maybe reach out to them, or let me know to reach out to them. Have you talked to your neighbor lately? Have you voted? Have you called your relative out of state? Are you praying for the nation and the world? You have Jesus in your life. We know the pain and suffering he endured for us, and it was no match for his mercy . . .

 . . . for his mercy endures forever.


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Words to Live By

Exodus 20:1-17 | Psalm 19 | 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 | John 2:13-22

Back when we had the Works of Light series in Epiphany during Christian Education, Cathy Luck came and spoke to us about a local program modeled after the Magdalene House (Oasis NWA), and Deacon John Reese spoke to us about efforts to get an Oxford House started. Both of these programs helps people who might otherwise be homeless. The Oxford Houses are specifically geared to be homes for those in recovery. They’re not halfway houses or transition homes: they’re an Oxford House, which brings with it nationwide credibility and accountability. Places like this are desperately needed not only because affordable housing is a critical need but also because addicts who are striving each day to stay in recovery are among a very vulnerable population. If ever a time we needed to step in and offer assistance, it’s now. I learned just this weekend that as far as mortality rates go, the mortality rate in working-age adults has actually risen, in large part due to the opioid crisis. We need homes like these to help people who are pushed to the margins, forgotten about, and sometimes even left to die. I’m reminded of the Collect for the Day: “we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.”

The Oxford House is a successful model in large part because they have a 43-year history of refining details that work to help. About 80% of their folks stay clean, and they never remove someone from a house unless they break one of the three rules. The basic rules are: 1) participate in the democratically-run house; 2) stay clean–zero tolerance for relapse; 3) share in chores and expenses. That’s it, and the houses are financially self-sustaining by the rent the residents pay per week. Now, they probably also have further charters or agreements particular to each house, depending on where they live, but the ground rules are set, rooted in the nine traditions of the Oxford House program. These rules and requirements create a safety net and an accountability network that helps people stay clean–in body and house (they really are particular about keeping a clean home!).

Likewise, in the Magdalene House model, the are 24 Principles that the women of the house follow, things like “cry with your Creator,” “find your place in the circle,” “forgive and feel freedom,” and “laugh at yourself.” These principles shape the sense of who each woman is in the house community but also helps form the important Circle with consistency and intention, deeply rooted in listening to self and other around a single candle.

So when I hear about Moses receiving the words of the Ten Commandments (and I have to try hard not to just picture Charlton Heston with his white beard and outstretched arms holding stone tablets!), I absolutely hear them as law coming to the people of Israel as a means of helping them survive so that they’ll make it to and through the Promised Land to live out their lives and that of their descendents as faithful chosen ones. These are their rules to live by, though they’re not the only ones. They begin with “I am the LORD your God.” God is making sure God’s people know that it is He who has delivered them from Egypt, and it is only God who will keep the covenants with them. God is the only God they’re to worship–not that there weren’t other gods to contend with in the polytheistic culture they lived in–but that this God is the only one for them. These Ten Commandments are basically broken down into the first four being about duty to God, in believing and trusting in God, and about duty to neighbors, in loving them as ourselves and doing to them as we would have them do to us. The Catechism in our Book of Common Prayer offers more of a present-day read on the Commandments, because it turns out that these laws remain valid in our Christian life. As the Jews did, we’ve done, too: we’ve added a lot of charters, agreements, and even unspoken rules and cultural norms.

But at the Interfaith workshop at Hendrix I went to yesterday (“Cultivating an Interfaith Mindset in Rural Arkansas”), Dr. Jay McDaniel pointed out that when we’re trying to understand people from different faith traditions, we don’t go up to them and ask them what their 10 guiding principles are; we don’t say, “What are your 10 Rules for being x?” If we do, we might get a sense of why the do/don’t do what they do, but we lose sight of who they are in relationship with others around them.

When Jesus entered the temple and fashioned a whip bound by his righteous anger, he cleared the place and overturned the tables. It was all wrong, apparently. Often we hear that Jesus was angry because people who come to make sacrifices have been taken advantage of, being forced to pay inflated prices for whatever it is they needed. (I liken it to having to pay for gas at the only gas station for 50 miles; convenience comes at a price.) But this year I read this as Jesus clearing it all out. All the material, all the consumerism, all the stuff that also includes the ridiculously complicated laws/rules/requirements for living and practicing a faithful Jewish life. I say this because Jesus clears the temple and then draws the attention to the true House of God in their midst, his own Body, the Temple that will be destroyed and risen again in three days. This doesn’t make sense to anyone, and they would rather have a miraculous sign now. But Jesus has given them a sign, told them what to look for. When they look back on this moment, the disciples remember his words. Jesus’s whole ministry has been about providing signs, working miracles, showing the incredible power in their midst–if only they had eyes to see and ears to hear, if only they weren’t so jaded in their self-perceived wisdom.

In the human body the Divine worked to break down the boundaries and barriers that all the laws and rules and regulations had created. Jesus supped with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus defended the accused, healed the leperous, spoke with the outcast even if it was the opposite sex, and never turns away anyone who recognized the Life and Love he offered. Jesus tells them and us what the most important commandment is: to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. We’re also to love our neighbors as ourselves. It really hasn’t changed, though everything changed with Christ. In Jesus Christ, God gives us our new covenant that knows no boundaries. In Jesus Christ, the new word that God gives God’s people is Love, Love revealed to us in the Word made flesh.

And how are we doing with that?

In Northwest Arkansas we have a child poverty rate of 27%. While homelessness in Arkansas statistically had dropped 10% since 2010, there are still just over 2,400 homeless in Arkansas, if the counts have collected everyone. The nation-wide Poor People’s Campaign–and we have the Arkansas Poor People’s Campaign in our state–there’s a call for a moral revival because the sins we’re living with now aren’t market extortion for sheep and cattle and doves but the sins of hunger, fear, and poverty. And if we look to the children, about one in three reflect that we’ve fallen behind in duty to our neighbor, and we’ve fallen behind on that because we’re obviously having a hard time with our duty to believe and trust in God. We’ve become pretty good at being self-sufficient at the surface level; most days the market’s going just fine. But the currents of fear that ripple through are eating away at our hearts. For all the measures of success, we’re having to turn a blind eye to more and more of the signs we have now that we’re forgetting our greatest Word: Love. We’re forgetting Jesus Christ.

Maybe we’re waiting for Jesus to come back with a great whip and clear the marketplace and make all things new in a great dramatic show. But in three weeks, we get to recount the Passion that Jesus underwent. If our heart, souls, and minds have been marked by Jesus Christ, when we experience the Passion, we don’t want anything like that to happen again. We certainly don’t want to be an advocate for it. Yet each fatal shooting, each overdose, each homeless, each hallowed face from hunger, each chronically ill and uninsured, each uneducated mind is a sign to us that we’ve put other gods before our God and that the Word God gave us in the Body of the Son, well, there are more important things that have to be done. That’s not the love Jesus brought to our awareness. That “take care of me first” kind of love actually reduces God’s place, and, again, we see signs of that at every corner, in every report about society and environment.

“We have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.” Thankfully God gives us the power through Christ and the Holy Spirit. But first we have to open our hearts and minds and souls to receive the Love that God gave and continues to give and have to courage to change everything because of that Word, that Love.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s hard to ask for help.

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

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

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

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

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Called Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But she didn’t.

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

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

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The Lord is With You

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16 | Romans 16:25-27 | Luke 1:26-38 | Canticle 15

Advent is all about preparation. “Prepare the way, O Zion,” we’ve sung, and theoretically, that’s what we’ve been doing, preparing the way for Jesus Christ to be fully present. These past three weeks have given us clues. As we lit the first candle with a word of peace and heard the Gospel tell us to “keep awake,” we focused on being present and aware. We lit the second candle in hope that we’d be a part of making a straight pathway through the desert, that the pathway of God’s peace might be realized. We lit the third candle with a word of joy and the vivid image of John the Baptist proclaiming, being that voice in the wilderness for the one who stood among them but was not yet known, the one greater than him who would baptize not with water but the Holy Spirit. And today, we light a candle with the word of love on our lips, and we remember the Annunciation of Mary, to whom the angel Gabriel said, “Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you.”

The Annunciation, Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1898

If you went home today or sat in your favorite chair reading or watching a movie tonight and Gabriel appeared to you, would your preparations find you in a place ready to engage God’s will? Because Mary was apparently ready, though I do like the poems and paintings that show her hesitance, reticence, youth, and vulnerability. It is not lost on me that after Gabriel has told her not to be afraid and that she’s chosen to bear the Son of the Most High, her most pressing question is about how that’s to be? How can she be pregnant? Forget the logistics of gestating, birthing, and mothering the Son of God: let’s start with the basics. And she’s told that the power of the Holy Spirit will overshadow her, with her consent. Mary shows us who she is in her devotion, in her strength.

I mentioned that there was one more thing I wanted to share from Brené Brown’s Braving the Wilderness.

“All too often our so-called strength comes from fear, not love; instead of having a strong back, many of us have a defended front shielding a weak spine. In other words, we walk around brittle and defensive, trying to conceal our lack of confidence. If we strengthen our backs, metaphorically speaking, and develop a spine that’s flexible but sturdy, then we can risk having a front that’s soft and open. . . .” (quote from Roshi Joan Halifax at the beginning of Ch. 7, p.147)

I mention this because while we all take for granted Mary’s strength, we often hear her spoken of as meek and mild. Of course she’s that, too. God knows who she is and favors her. Surely she is one who loves God with all her heart, all her soul, and all her mind. She’s awake and aware. She anticipates the Lord’s presence in her life. Her joy is harder for me to see, so tied up in her love and her surrender, that it must be complete in being so implicated in God’s will. That Mary is all of this in her youth speaks to a wisdom beyond her years, a strength of spirit that even Zechariah failed to show when Gabriel appeared to him. She heeds Gabriel’s message not to be afraid, and her love of God remains steadfast. Zechariah, a high priest and elderly man, powerful in many ways, serves as a contrast to this our Mary in Luke’s telling.

Young as she is, dependent upon her family and now her betrothed though between the two households, and about to be pregnant…could she be more vulnerable?

“Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you.”

God knew in Mary the strength of her spine, her strong back, not only to withstand the strain of childbirth but to endure the trials of raising a son who would have to go the way of the heavenly Father. He would break her heart in rejecting his earthly family. He would dismiss her when she called him out at the wedding feast, though she did not dismiss him. She would be close always to the news of him, as a mother does, and stand there even at his death. The song “Mary Did You Know” wrenches our hearts because we know that all this will come to pass, but how could she? God knows she’s strong of heart, and she has a strong back.

And she’s soft. Soft enough to swell with a child. Soft in her vulnerability, which means not only that she can be broken but also that she can break into newness of life. She’s not hardened to possibilities or unresponsive to that which is far greater than herself. Naive as it may be, she knows who she is and where she is in this world. She doesn’t have God’s approval like Zechariah and Elizabeth; she has God’s favor.

And the Lord is with her. Already. Before he was conceived. Before he was born.

“How can we give and accept care with strong-back, soft-front compassion, moving past fear into a place of genuine tenderness? I believe it comes about when we can be truly transparent, seeing the world clearly–and letting the world see into us.” (rest of Halifax’s quote on p. 147)

We see the Virgin Mary, in her youth and vulnerability, in her obedience and devotion, in her strength and love beyond her years. The Lord’s favor was with her, indeed, radiating to all through the generations, this most highly favored lady. But before all the generations called her blessed, she had to brave the wilderness of her wild-hearted response, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Mary’s “yes,” Mary’s consent to participate in the will of God took her further into vulnerability, the wilderness of walking a way alone. Like we said last week, though, when we take a light into the darkness of the wilderness, we tend to find others who have also ventured into a way that was right even if it wasn’t popular, a way that is true even if it’s uncomfortable. Mary makes it to Elizabeth’s house. Mary makes it to the birth with Joseph. The Lord is with her all the while.

We may not get Gabriel visiting us today or ever. Our calls are not as dramatic most of the time as we navigate our jobs and vocations, our lives and loves, but the decisions we make are often life-altering. When we approach a precipice having done the training in mindfulness and presence, with knowledge of our story and stories, and with a strong back and soft front and wild heart . . . what does our decision look like if we not only believe but know that the Lord is with us?

Beloved, the Lord is with you.

How do our decisions make space for the presence of the Lord to grow in our lives? Are we responding out of fear? Are we putting up a shield to defend ourselves from what is uncomfortable, terrifying, or different? Or are we showing our soft front, our wild, open hearts? Can we take that step into the wilderness even if it’s dark and unknown but we feel it to be true?

With this kind of walk in faith, the Light grows, and we make way for the Incarnation.

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What are we looking for?

Exodus 33:12-23 | Psalm 99 | 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 | Matthew 22:15-22

I imagine it’s safe to say that we’re all looking for something. Maybe it’s job stability, good retirement benefits, better health, or healthy friends. Maybe more existentially we’re looking for meaning and purpose, happiness and quality. This question of considering what we’re looking for is worth exploring, in Scripture and in our lives.

What was Moses looking for when he spoke to God? He knew it was important and set up his Tent of Meeting, and everyone in the camp noticed when the pillar of cloud appeared, signifying that Holy Speak was going on. From the reading today, we hear that Moses needs certainty in the presence of the LORD, an Advocate. Moses wants to see God. The LORD assures him but also reminds Moses that the terms are set by God. God will be gracious and merciful as God sees fit (though Moses already knows that intercession doesn’t hurt). God tells Moses that no one can see the face of the LORD and live, so instead the glory of God passes over Moses, with the hand of God covering him in the cleft of the mountain. We’re told Moses could see the back but not the face of the LORD. Amazing. Could Moses even imagine in his seeking God that he would so intimately experience the presence or the Glory of God? Or be told so blatantly that to see the face of God would be fatal to his mortal body? In all the encounters with God, Moses himself was too much for the people, eventually having to wear a veil over his face (Ex 34:29-35). Moses was transformed by his encounters with God.

What is Paul seeking in his correspondence with the Thessalonians, when he repeats, “You do not need to have anything written to you” but still sends the letter and asks that it be read to all the brothers and sisters. In the letter–since he can’t be there in person–Paul conveys his affection, encouragement, and instruction. In times of persecution, he’s telling them to be strong and keep doing the holy, blessed, and good work they are doing as believers. He’s seeking to support this small, marginal community as devoutly as if he were supporting a mega church. Paul’s sincerity of writing matches his tenderness. Always, it seems, Paul seeks to grow the Church, encouraging all to believe in Jesus Christ, holding himself forward as an example.

What about the Pharisees? What are they seeking, and why? They again show determination to destroy Jesus. They continue in their effort because they know Jesus is not going to let things continue as they are. The holy men can’t do this alone; they need the help of the Romans, from now through crucifixion. Catching Jesus in heresy or in treason, the Pharisees don’t seem to care so long as he is removed from the scene entirely. With Jesus gone, they can return to normalcy, their power unchallenged, the Law as they understand it enforced.

And what is Jesus looking for? I don’t ask this as a trick question or a trap. As I pondered the question, I realize that Jesus isn’t looking for anything. Jesus, the Son of God, Word incarnate, is perfectly present and  whole. If Jesus is “looking” for anything, it’s him looking to manifest the will of God on earth, to bring the presence of God to earth in a way we can encounter and not die from. Jesus looks to give his life that all might proclaim his name and live. Jesus looks to show us the Way of Life and Love so we can die to sin and live in glory. Jesus looks to teach us that while we will be tempted, tested, tried, and maybe even tormented for our faith, that is our cross to bear, that even those are things of which we are not to be afraid because for those who call upon the Name of the LORD, the LORD answers them . . . maybe not as we’d like but with a peace that passes all understanding.

Consider now what we are looking for. We, a people gathered here in this pocket of the Church, in this little corner of Arkansas. In this country. In a time not unlike that of Paul, Matthew, Jesus, or Moses. In a time when we are, as ever, people divided, especially by race, gender, and class.

In two-thirds of her new book Braving the Wilderness, Brené Brown looks “at how we can reclaim human connection and true belonging in the midst of sorting and withdrawal” (p. 59). Because what we are looking for, her research affirms, is true belonging, but we let our fears divide and isolate us from one another. We’re afraid others won’t believe us or follow us (like Moses). We’re afraid our community will crumble if it’s not strong or persevering enough (like the Thessalonians). We’re afraid our power will be tested and get overthrown (like the Pharisees). Perhaps we’re even afraid that Jesus isn’t enough to help us make it in this world. In all the stories, Jesus never sought to do anything but the will of His Father. Jesus wasn’t phased by politics, economics, or social norms, just as today Jesus Christ isn’t partial to any one race, gender, or class. Jesus Christ is all about true belonging.

Brown offers a working definition of true belonging I find useful:

“True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.” (p. 40)

And we are people created in the image of God. We are the coin of God, just as much as the denarius is the coin of Caesar. Jesus knew this fully, in every moment, whether he was in the midst or the head of the crowds, in the wilderness facing Satan, or on trial informally or formally.

What can we do to believe and belong to ourselves so deeply that we tap into the child of God we are, that we find a way to unleash the Light of Christ that shines in wisdom and knowledge that we know we are known to God, beloved of God, belonging in God, abiding in love?

Maybe you heard the phrase “me, too” this week. #Metoo was people braving the wilderness, facing vulnerability and perhaps fear by declaring that we, too, were victims of sexual assault and/or harassment. With all the women and men who said “metoo,” did you consider that we were finding belonging in our pain, in our being devalued, considered less than someone else? But it is in the belonging, in the collective, in the standing together to hear and listen to one another, to risk feeling together (even the pain) that love grows. Where love grows, fear has a harder time finding its way into our fault lines of division and isolation. Making the choice to stand out is braving the wilderness, being vulnerable even to temptation or evil itself, Satan we call it to personify it. Equally evil are the violations themselves and the shame that silences the voices and hardens the hearts, both breaking the connection of belonging as a beloved, whole child of God and as a person in beloved community. This is one example of how gender is abused. Internalized racism blinds a white person to their privilege and whispers in the mind of a person of color that they don’t know any better, that they can’t or shouldn’t speak out, up, or against. Classism, our social stratification, traps people in worldly systems, making their “worth” only as great as their social standing. These belong to God about as much as Caesar’s coin–part of creation because humans created it. They are in God’s power to change because it’s up to us to say where the power and authority lie. It’s up to us to call out violations of true belonging, to pay attention when our brothers and sisters aren’t being valued as children of God. In the name of Christ we stand against the status quo and stand up for love one genuine contact at a time so that the life and love of Christ flourish.

A life lived having seen the face of God is one reborn having known Glory. This was Jesus’ every breath, but we are so defended that we protect ourselves even from God. We see a sunrise and pause in its beauty. Our soul stirs at those liminal moments, those thin places where we feel the hand of God on our backs, but then we quickly forget or return to life as if we hadn’t been touched by God. Brown says what God knows to be true:

“Mercifully, it will take only a critical mass of people who believe in finding love and connection across difference to change everything” (p. 58).

It will take a critical mass of people looking for Christ here and now to change the world. It is taking a critical mass of people uniting together to build beloved communities across differences, whatever they may be. In the complicated moments we find ourselves in, we have to pause–especially in our fear–and breathe in the breath of God to inspire us, to remind us of our belonging and our belovedness. And then we set out looking for ways to affirm that we bear the image of God and seeking the reflection of the light and love of Christ in others. When we start looking, we’ll see that Light has been with us all along.

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Can You Imagine: Forgiveness & Judgment

Exodus 14:19-31 | Psalm 114 | Romans 14:1-12 | Matthew 18:21-35

We’re going to save Moses and the parting of the sea for another day. It warrants a sermon of its own, given all the implications of the miracle at the beginning of the Exodus, especially that of a God that not only sanctioned the death of the firstborns but now also wiped out the pursuing Egyptian army. Today we’ll address our Gospel and Epistle topics of judgment and forgiveness. At the Continuing the Conversation on Wednesday, where 18 folks gathered to talk about racism– representing at least 5 different Christian denominations–one of the women said that given the need for dialogue and discussion, she didn’t feel like she had the tools to engage with people, the language to use in regards to having conversations regarding privilege and race. How could she give voice to where she’s coming from while respecting whomever she’s in conversation with? If we are filled with an understanding of judgment and well-stocked in forgiveness, aren’t these significant components pertaining to full reconciliation? I believe they are.

We want guidance and instruction, right? Peter asks Jesus: How many times am I to forgive? Is seven enough? (Because surely that’s more than generous.) Like us, Peter wants to make sure he’s doing the right thing and that it’s quantifiable, a transaction. Someone does you a wrong, you forgive them. The parable set forth shows a master who forgives his slave, yet the slave doesn’t show the same forgiveness to another. We can keep track of the forgivings and the withholding of forgiveness. This is what I call human economy: we can keep track of what’s going on, who owes who, and where we stand in relation to what’s expected. But Jesus . . . in response to Peter, Jesus says we’re to forgive 77 times, not that we’re going to actually count that many (if we could even keep track) but because

we’re not supposed to be counting in the first place.

Jesus sees our humanity and knocks it out of the park into God’s economy, where we try to comprehend terms like grace, mercy, unconditional, and infinite. We’re not supposed to keep track; we’re just supposed to keep sharing God’s grace.

But this storyline of the master and slave we have, it’s familiar to us. I can’t help but think of Beauty and the Beast–the Disney versions, of course, how at the end after Gaston has led the charge into the castle and tangled with the beast on the rooftop: the beast is given the opportunity to kill Gaston. He shows an act of mercy, telling Gaston just to go. What is he thinking?!? We’re proud and amazed at the compassion shown by the beast, and when Gaston pulls a gun on him (in the newer version — whole scene around minute 5:00), we see the injustice of it all flare and aren’t exactly disappointed when Gaston falls from the castle roof on his own. We breathe a sigh of relief at the happily ever after. When it comes down to it, it’s hard for us to comprehend forgiving someone who has wronged us. We are the master in the parable when it comes to withholding forgiveness or even taking it back. We make our human judgment calls on who is worthy or not of our forgiveness, forgetting what Jesus tells us and what Paul elaborates on: that it’s not our place to judge.

We joke about judging one another: I’ll ask you not to judge the cleanliness of my house when you come for dinner or my car if I give you a ride. We’ll more seriously ask not to be judged on the basis of our family system, our sexuality, our ethnicity. We’re not to cast judgment, but we make judgments all the time, discerning what to do or say in the next moment. Our decisions reflect the judgments we make. But what Paul tells us is basically: don’t sweat the small stuff and leave ultimate judgment to God. It’s our job to show God’s grace and mercy to others by staying in relationship with them, to the extent that we can. God isn’t telling us to stay in dangerous situations. God certainly isn’t telling us to forget. Forgiving someone does not mean we forget. We learn from our mistakes and know the burden of our sins. The knowledge we glean and the relief we experience are worth the scars we bear, and we can’t forget the stories of why we are better for what we’ve overcome. Even if we can’t stay in relationship with those who have done us wrong, we can stay in relationship with God as we work to let go of what was wrong and move toward life and love.

There’s a song in the Hamilton soundtrack about forgiveness. (Yes, I told you I love the soundtrack!) At the Garland County Jail, in the program I did with the folks there,  I wanted to play this song so we could talk about all the levels of forgiveness. But I realized they wouldn’t have any context if they didn’t know all the stories involved, all the references made. Did they know what Alexander was going through, the significance of this proud man using his wife’s words? Did they know Eliza’s grief of finding out about her husband’s past affair and then shortly thereafter losing her son when he died in a duel? Did they know how trusting and kind Eliza was? How deep the betrayal and how true her love? So, we had to listen to the whole thing. 😉  And when it came to the song about the unimaginable and forgiveness, there was stillness in the room, both times with the men and the women. In this song called “It’s Quiet Uptown,” the relationship unfolds in this confession, of not being afraid to admit what was wrong, and this willingness to be in relationship, to return to relationship. All the while, the company sings the chorus as witness to this beautiful thing unfolding with the words: “Can you imagine? . . . Forgiveness . . . Can you imagine?”

It’s hard for us to imagine forgiveness in the face of the horrible. Such swift judgment affords us the death penalty, just cause, self defense. We are absolutely amazed and in awe when not just in movies but in real life, people show true forgiveness and leave judgment to God. A prime example can be found in the survivors of the families who were killed at the AME church in Charlston in 2015, like the families of the children killed at the Amish school shooting in Lancaster in 2006–people who chose to relinquish the burden of judgment, giving that to God. Whatever their reasonings for doing so, I know that their decisions enable them to  move forward in their grief with a foundation of love. And it is hard to imagine, because it’s not the way of our world.

In the face of another acquittal for a police officer who shot and killed a black man, people in and around St. Louis demonstrate–literally–how difficult it is to stay in relationship with one another. On the way to church this morning, I heard a St. Louis alderman speaking on NPR about the peaceful demonstrations that are happening and the pockets of violence that erupted. His voice portrayed his fatigue, along with his words that said he was extremely frustrated by the same pattern repeating itself and not for the first or second time. What he sees reflected in the outcomes is a reinforcement of the message that black lives don’t matter, that they are not valuable. But he did seem encouraged at the unification of many in the area who were showing their solidarity and support for black lives. Maybe not all hope was lost.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean we sit idly by while injustice continues, whether it’s race relations, domestic violence, or any other of our societal maladies. Giving judgment to God doesn’t mean we abandon all responsibility. WE are the hands and feet here on earth sharing the presence of Christ. We don’t have to judge others, but we do have to discern what is right and wrong and choose how to best convey the presence of Jesus to the world around us.

And it often involves taking yet another long look in the mirror and making sure we forgive ourselves. However easy it may be for us to forgive others, sometimes we bear the hubris of not seeing ourselves as worthy of the generosity we extend to others. I’ll be infinitely patient with you and forgive you a million times over, but I don’t cut myself any slack. I have to be very intentional with myself, reminding myself how worthy I am of the love and compassion that others need just as much as I do. I have to remind myself that my relationship to God is only as healthy as I let God’s grace flow through me and others. Can you imagine what our town, our world would look like if we turned to one another with understanding of all our heartaches, all the sufferings, and let ourselves move toward forgiveness, toward reconciliation in safety and love? I can imagine it because I believe in Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, which have already accomplished the unimaginable.

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Choosing Community

Genesis 45:1-15 | Psalm 133 | Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32 | Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

(These are the main points from Sunday’s sermon, which was very much a homiletical moment born of prayer and preparation . . . but not a script.)

Many times this past week in particular, I’ve heard people say with a weary, heavy heart, that we’re living in dark times, that they haven’t seen or heard things they’ve been seeing or hearing since the ‘50’s, ‘60’s, and ‘70’s. I don’t know how many of you watched Presiding Bishop Curry’s video that was circulating through Facebook. In it, he says that in times of crisis, we have a decision to make. (Times of crisis can be receiving a medical diagnosis, facing a death of a beloved, famine, war, or anything that disrupts our sense of things being as they “should.”) Right now, Bp. Curry points out that we are in a time of crisis, and our decision ultimately determines where we go from here: chaos? or beloved community?

As Christians, as followers of Christ, we better be moving toward beloved community. I think this is where Bp. Curry sees the Jesus Movement taking us, and simply by being here in this place, taking time out of our lives for worship, prayer, and fellowship, we demonstrate that being present at church is part of it. But how do we do it daily, moment to moment?

I remember reading about a story attributed to Cherokee legend, and I told myself I’d never use it in a sermon because it was seemingly too simple, too trite. (I should know better than to say “I’ll never do ….” because I think it just gives the Holy Spirit good ideas for keeping me humble!) But the story bears truth, and I imagine my own Cherokee grandparent telling me the story.

The grandfather tells his grandson a lesson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he tells the boy. “It is a terrible fight between two wolves. One is evil; he is anger, fear, hatred, vitriol, violence, false pride, ego. The other is good; he is joy, peace, love, kindness, compassion, generosity, humility, empathy.

“The same fight is going on inside you–and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson looks intently at his grandfather. “Which wolf wins?” he asks.

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

Choosing beloved community, I believe, is feeding the good wolf. It is choosing to show love and compassion to our neighbors and ourselves for love of God. It does not mean that it is being meek and mild all the time. I’m sure wolves, like mama bears, demonstrate a fierce love with which few would interfere.  In feeding the Good, we show our true strength within, what is truly in our hearts. We show with our actions and our words that we know Christ and follow his Way, choosing what is right and good.

This choice is a conscious decision. Joseph didn’t have to forgive his brothers. He had the power to let them starve, to let them die as they had left him in the pit to die before selling him as a slave. But he chose the high road instead of meeting violence with violence. He was overcome in being with them, of the hope of seeing his father again, and he sought reconciliation with them. After doing the hard work of being with them, dialogue took place.

And what better example do we have of our human condition of treating others than Jesus’ exchange with the Canaanite woman? He called her a “dog.” Whatever racial slur we can imagine, Jesus used it here, as was custom of the time. Yet the woman’s faith persisted. Most likely Jesus knew that his company at the time and we had to see him correct his way of interacting with others so that we’d know how to do it ourselves. Because Jesus already knew the faith of the woman and that her daughter’s wholeness would be restored.

Clearly recent events show us that we don’t always follow in the footsteps of Christ. My heart has been heavy not only with the newsfeeds following Charlottesville but also with the scheduled protest in Hot Springs. White supremacists, KKK, whatever they booked the protest under, were to meet downtown. The Jewish synagogue was advised by the police not to meet for their own safety. A peaceful gathering was advised not to meet at St. Luke’s. Thankfully, the events were well-controlled and well-patrolled. People gathered. It was nonviolent, though words were exchanged, I’m sure. But my heart . . . before I knew for sure that the situation hadn’t combusted into chaos, I was scared for my friends, neighbors, and vulnerable. What we’ve seen in videos and heard in the news is proof that the evil wolf has grown strong in the hearts of many, that disregard of neighbor is a symptom of a deeper sickness.

Katie Couric was in Charlottesville during the rally, and she describes well the cold, bitter anger that runs through the crowd as they shout angrily, standing up for what they believe to be “right.” But in the face of fear, she says she has never been more assured of hope. Because when a huge commotion erupted not far from the cafe where they were, they ran out to a scene where others were already running toward the site where a crowd had been run over by a car. These strangers weren’t necessarily trained professionals, but they were people dominated by the choice to help, to do whatever they could to help those in danger, even though they couldn’t save the life of Heather Heyer. Heather’s father said that his daughter had way more courage than he ever had. She was an advocate for the marginalized. Hope continues to spring up around these events promoting hatred. Maybe it’s because Good has gotten so strong that Evil has to fight louder. Rather than feed the evil, we have to choose to unite around what is good. Never more so than now am I aware that history, again, has its eyes on us, watching what we are doing. (I’m a big Hamilton fan, so don’t be surprised when I use lyrics. I’m only surprised I haven’t done it more often!) People skeptical about religion to begin with are paying attention to how religious leaders and laity alike are standing up or being silent. In a question of Good and Evil, let us be very clear about which side we are on as Christians. Are we following in the footsteps of Jesus all the way to cross, or are we part of the crowd standing in silence? Or are we part of the mob shouting, “Crucify Him!” We have a choice to make.

Being a part of the beloved community, thankfully, means that we don’t do this alone. Yes, we have to make individual choices and make our way through our personal struggles, but even then, we are in community. We go through this life together, with God’s help. Together, we affirm hope. Together, we show love for ourselves, neighbors, and God. And we can do hard things.

I can’t help but think of the family that was rescued in Florida a few weeks ago. Remember? A family got caught in the undertow, and even rescuers were having a hard time getting to them. They were waving their hands in the air, calling for help, and strangers decided to join hands, to make a human chain, in effort to save those who were at risk of drowning. It was scary for them. Those in the current and those along the chain were all at risk. But they did it. Together.

When we link hands in prayer, be it at home or as a line of defense, I imagine us linking hands all the way to Jesus. We have to be the hands and feet of Good here and now. We have to proclaim the Good News in thought, word, and deed, so that others know that hope is alive and well, and that the beloved community will stand up for what is truly right and good.

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We Are Saved

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 | Psalm 105, 1-6, 16-22, 45b | Romans 10:5-15 | Matthew 14:22-33

(Asking for a show of hands) How many of you have ever been asked or heard the question asked: “Are you saved?” This isn’t a judgment of you, just a poll to see if its prevalence is what I think it is, especially here in Arkansas. Now, without raising your hand, did you feel like you could respond to this question? Do you feel like you can respond to this question now? Chances are, if you’re a lifelong Episcopalian, you’re a little iffy on this. If you were raised Baptist or something more evangelical, chances are you remember the moment you were saved and maybe more than once when you were baptized. Just so no one gets a nervous sweat going, I’ll offer you a major spoiler: you’re already saved. I know you’re saved because Jesus Christ lived, died, and rose again for us all. But do you know that? Where are you in your life of faith, your understanding of salvation?

Because we can be young in our faith, naive even. We can take for granted the faith and beliefs that we are born into, that are spoon-fed or indoctrinated into us. We can take everything at face value and ask no questions because everything is just fine as it is. We can be like Joseph, confident, self-assured, and gifted. We can have the favor of our father (and/or mother) and just do what we think is right because it’s what we’re told to do or say, even if to others it looks like tattling. We can wear our beautiful garments because they are lovely, unaware of the jealousy we might be inciting in others. We can show up when we are summoned and go where we are sent because obedience comes naturally in our innocence and untested faith. Surely others are as good as we are; surely everyone else means well; surely no one would do anything out of ill will or out of line from God’s will. If someone asked Joseph if he was saved in his youth, prior to his 17th year when his life took a drastic turn, I can imagine him saying, “Saved from what? I am safe. I am part of a Chosen people. I am protected by God.” Would he really have a concept of being “saved”?

About nine years ago, and for a few years thereafter, I would go over to a friend’s house in the afternoons for coffee and conversation, and we would let the kids play. The summer months were especially great because they could play in the pool and would come home exhausted. One afternoon while we were at the kitchen counter right by the backyard door, my friend raced around and ran out the open door, coming back in just a moment later completely soaked and carrying an equally wet Autumn on her hip. Autumn seemed fine. My friend was wide-eyed. “What just happened?” I asked. What happened was that Autumn had just walked down the steps into the pool. My friend noticed her missing from the fray and ran out to find her standing, open-eyed, underwater at the bottom of the pool, right there in the shallow end. She wasn’t afraid. Was she saved? Yes. Did she think she needed to be saved? She had no concept of what she needed saving from.

As we experience more of life, we learn more about consequences of our own decisions and of the decisions of others. We learn more about what might be “out there” that might do us harm. Joseph learned a thing or two about his brothers and how politics work. My daughter has learned a lot about the importance of water safety. We grow and mature in our understanding of life, just as we grow and mature in our life of faith.

Peter and the disciples were learning and growing with Jesus when the five thousand were fed, which precedes our gospel today. The disciples were sent ahead in a boat while Jesus took some time apart. When he was ready, Jesus returned to the boat, walking on the water as he did on the land. This disturbed and terrified the disciples until Jesus assured them, and then, of course, Peter offers a little test of Jesus, who calls him on it.

“Come,” Jesus says to Peter. Come out of your boat to walk across the sea. Come out of your shelter and into the wild. Come away from your fear and toward your hope. Come. Peter sets out, and things were great. Peter got caught up in the moment like Peter does, and he didn’t think things through, like Peter does. He soon notices the wind and gets scared.

We understand this, right? We’re not perfectly aware all the time. We get excited and caught up, and no matter how mature in our faith we are, we can take things for granted. No matter how focused on doing right we are, how devoutly we have our sights set on following Jesus, the winds can blow, pricking our ears toward our fears, reminding us of all the what-ifs. Jesus, as divine as he was human, could walk on water. Our faith so set upon him, what couldn’t we do? But our doubt binds us to our physical confines, the confines of physics in our material world.

To the one standing on water, Peter cries out, “Save me!” and the witness of Jesus saving Peter stirs the hearts of the disciples to worship him as the Son of God. (Out of one person’s experience, eleven other lives were touched.)

Why was Peter sinking? His fear crept in with the wind. The risk of it all. It didn’t make sense to be doing it. He wasn’t prepared for a swim; if he sank into the water, he was going to drown. He was going to die. And he was afraid.

His hand holding mine

Waist-deep in the stormy sea

Faith and doubt collide.

Was Peter saved? Yes. Did he know what he was saved from? Yes, from drowning in the sea. Is that all? Could Jesus have been measuring Peter’s faith in a discernible way? Do we doubt the extent to which Jesus is our savior? Do we doubt God or ourselves? Jesus trusted Peter to come and to make it, but Peter had a choice to make. Jesus knew whatever Peter chose, he was safe. Jesus wasn’t going anywhere.

When we ask someone if they are saved, aren’t we really asking if they are safe? Mind, body, and spirit, do you know you are a beloved child of God?

When we are sheltered like Joseph and Autumn, we are safe. We abide in love. We’re entrusted to our elders, steeped in faith and tradition. Yet we can be unaware of the dangers lurking outside our door or in the hearts of our neighbors. This puts us especially at risk, this vulnerability of innocence.

We’ve seen enough of the world to know what is good and bad, especially what is good for us or not in relationship to God. And we know what we love and cherish. Truth be told, we love and cherish our material world quite a bit. We find it hard to let go of things and people. We get attached. Maybe these others just make us feel good, or maybe we do send a deeper, truer Love that gives us a glimpse of Christ.

When we know we are saved, when we believe in our hearts and confess with our lips, we are saying we know what dangers lurk about us and that we know we are safe. We know that the greatest hell there is to live a life separate from God, for a life lived in sin is a life lived apart from God, outside of God’s will for us. We don’t have to fear an eternity of hell; there are plenty of “hells” this side of eternity–just ask someone living in dire poverty, struggling with addiction, living in war-torn communities, living in fear fueled by ignorance. Whatever storm threatens us, there is a constant that God is in our midst with an understanding of everything that surpasses anything we could even imagine understanding. There is a love we are called to live in that’s easy when when we’re not tested but that is deeper and richer when we know what is at stake.

We are saved. Let that belief be strengthened in your heart so that others don’t need to ask you–they just know in your being. If they don’t just know then may we all have the courage to say that we know a love that passes all understanding through Jesus Christ. This salvation kindles a hope in me for the world. A hope that assures me that love triumphs fear and that we do have good news to share, that we must share not only with our neighbors but with the world.

With blessed feet may we go proclaim the Good News. We are saved.



Believing in our hearts that we are saved, what do we confess with our whole lives, not just the words of our mouth? The violence in Charlottesville–not just the outright fights but also the rally promoting a people divided against “other”–begs the question of who is paying attention? Who is awake? Who will stand up for a way of love of neighbor, truly showing a love for God and self? Let us not sit idly by or take a seat of complacency. Let us discern our way forward together, not fueling a path of fear and violence but growing the way of Love with a fierce dedication to what is truly right and good.


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All the Treasure

Genesis 29:15-28 | Psalm 105:1-11, 45b | Romans 8:26-39 | Matthew 13:31-33,44-52

Two weeks ago when we were beginning our lectionary tango with the parables in Matthew, I approached the parable of the sower gently, opening the treasured parable like we do in Godly Play, like a precious gift to be discovered. And last week we waded into the field of the good seeds and bad weeds, still being very intentional about what Jesus is trying to reveal to us about the kingdom of heaven. But this week, y’all, Jesus is pulling an Oprah, and he’s all: “You get a parable, and you get a parable, and you get a parable. Everyone gets a parable!” It’s like he’s dumping out the whole treasure chest of parables before us in rapid succession with not an explanation given…except for what he mentioned in verses we left out today, verse 35, that says he’s fulfilling what Isaiah had said, that he would “open (his) mouth to speak in parables;/ … (to) proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.” Apparently he was just getting warmed up, and now he’s revealing even more of the kingdom.

And those poor disciples. Jesus says, “Y’all are getting this, right?” I’m certain the disciples are saying, “Yes,” with quavering voices and heads shaking no. And because Jesus has greater faith than we do, he sends the disciples out to do the work anyway. If they understood, and Jesus knew they really did with God’s help, they would spread the word of what was old and what was new and what was revealing the kingdom of heaven in their midst. And that’s what they did.

So here we go, disciples. Jesus is giving it all to us today, just as he did those disciples. We get to sort out the old and the new and what’s relevant to life today.

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, small yet bound to be great. I’m thinking of David, the youngest and least likely of the brothers to be chosen by God but nonetheless a great king of the nation. It was when he was small that he most proved his might in being chosen by God to defeat Goliath. That example is from our Old Testament. What about the New Covenant? What about the small band of disciples that grew from a few being called to a Way that spread across nations, from East to West and North to South? We get Christianity–our Jesus Movement–from meager beginnings and tell the stories that unfold our tradition across the centuries. Just like David, our stories aren’t always perfect, but from our beginning, we are from God. With God and through God we have the potential to give honor and glory to God. It’s just when we get in our own way that we obstruct the path to the kingdom.

And that kingdom is also like yeast that a woman puts into the flour until the measures are leavened, giving the flour just what it needs to rise, uplifted and transformed. Don’t you know when Moses encountered God he was changed? As soon as he was rescued from the river, we knew his story would be told for generations. He was chosen to lead a people out of bondage, humbled as he was by his actions and his voice. But think of Moses after his encounter with the Glory of God on Mt. Sinai. He returned to his people with a whole new understanding, even more so, it seems, than after all his attempts to persuade Pharaoh, mediating between God and the ruler of the land. Moses had been transformed by God. In our story I think of Mary, too, the mother of Jesus; she was one who encountered the Holy and was transformed from an ordinary girl into the Mother of God Incarnate. I don’t know if you can get more transformed than that.

Of course that’s not all.

This kingdom that’s like a seed of great potential and like yeast that transforms the ordinary…this kingdom itself is a treasure, a treasure worth risking all that one has, we are told. Sometimes it’s a treasure so joyfully fulfilling that one is content in just finding it and tending it, loving it dearly and intimately like the beloved in Song of Solomon. Sometimes it’s worth giving away everything just to lay claim to it. I think of Ruth in her devotion to her mother-in-law, her willingness to stay in a foreign land and find a new way forward, leaving behind what was familiar. These stories are in our ancient past, but in our history, too, are stories of people healed and told to keep quiet, though they weren’t very good at that. Lepers healed, restored to health, and one out of ten turning back to Jesus in gratitude. For while he had nothing to give nor lose, Jesus gave him everything, restored life itself for one who thought himself unworthy. If only the healed man could talk to the rich man who just couldn’t sell everything, not even for the kingdom. If only he could give him a glimpse of how valuable a life lived in gratitude to God is. It’s worth so much more than this world has to offer.

And, yes, the kingdom of heaven is a net thrown out to catch every kind of fish. Yes, our Old Covenant says only the chosen people of Israel, but our New Covenant says all and means all. God’s faithfulness throughout time has remained constant, the Word ever-present. There’s no one unfit for service in the kingdom from God’s perspective, but how well are we serving the kingdom ourselves? How well do we reveal the kingdom in our lives? How are we loving God? How are we loving our neighbors? How are we loving ourselves? Are we loving in a way that reveals that we’ve discovered a thing or two about the kingdom and share our treasure with the world near and far?

Jesus gave us everything then as now because he knew what a hot mess we were then and are today. We have a hard time caring for our neighbors. Poverty is complicated. Health care is complicated. Cultural literacy takes time and compassion. Jacob’s trick to garner Esau’s birthright eventually gets met by Laban’s trickery in giving his daughters, and we just can’t believe that people would do that . . . only we really can because we’re human, and we see neighbors betraying neighbors day in and out.

Jesus has emptied all the treasure before us, given us a glimpse of the kingdom in a way we can try to understand, and sends us into the world with what is new and of God to build up the kingdom of heaven. And he hasn’t told just a few of us anointed ones; the Word is here for everyone to read and hear and study and digest. The Word is here to germinate within and transform us, to uncover the treasure we are in the midst of the field and the priceless gifts we are and have to contribute to the kingdom, reminding us also that we have power to choose what is for the kingdom or against it. So, as disciples, as scribes trained for the kingdom of heaven, what is the Word we share with the world? What is the treasure we bring out of the house? What is old? What is new? Our treasure trove is great.

Are we caught like the disciples, saying we understand when Jesus knows we really haven’t a clue? Thank God we have the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whose very sighs usher us toward the will of God, shifting us into alignment. We’re not always going to make the right judgment calls. We’re rarely going to know what to say in difficult situations. Jesus knew, as God knows, that we are perfectly imperfect on our own. As believers, we know this, too, and we know our need for intercession by the Divine.

We’ve been given keys to the kingdom and all the treasure we could ever need, but it comes with the burden of responsibility to share the treasure with others, to break open the kingdom of heaven–God’s dream for us–into our present reality. The parables in relation to the Old Covenant highlighted a relationship with the LORD based upon obedience, steadfast devotion, and fear . . . especially fear. This same LORD our God of the Old Covenant revealed something more of God’s self in the person of Jesus. The parables in relation to our New Covenant with God through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit reveals the transformational and unconditional love of God that forms the ground of being of the kingdom of heaven, of our Church, of our lives.

Why can’t we live our lives, mighty and transformed, joyful and priceless, caught up in God to build up God’s kingdom? What are we afraid of? Of having to take the keys to the kingdom and show someone else the way? Of explaining the mysteries to which we don’t fully have the answers? Of sitting beside someone in agony while the Holy Spirit isn’t sighing quickly enough?

Being a disciple is hard work. Those to whom much is given, much is required, right? Jesus showers us with treasure, gives us everything we never knew we needed until we woke up and realized we can’t do it by ourselves. We run into our imperfection, our weakness, but we catch glimpses of the shiny treasures around us, and we hear the still small voice that whispers, “Remember the wonderful works God has done. Share the goodness. Seek God’s presence continually.” Remember. Share. Seek.

Remember all the ways we and our people are transformed and treasured by God. Share God’s Love. Seek God’s Love flowing not only between us and God but through others, too, everywhere. As we find ourselves more and more surrounded in the reality of the treasures of the parables, maybe we’ll discover that the kingdom of heaven has been here all along, waiting for us to find our way home.


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