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.

 

Post-script: 

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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Life-changing Water

 

Exodus 17:1-7 | Psalm 95 | Romans 5:1-11 | John 4:5-42

We know this Jesus showing up at the well, exhausted and parched, completely willing to take a shortcut. This human Jesus has dusty feet, sand and sweat in his eyes, hair, and beard, and the weight of the world heavy on his heart. It had to be a relief for the disciples to offer to run into town to find some food. “No, you go ahead. I’ll just wait here for you.” Haven’t we all said that, hoping for a bit of rest?

The woman at the well- acrylic, mix media- David Bondt, 2016

We know this woman at the well. She’s outcast but proud. Eloquent and intelligent. She knows her place in the margins of society and has crafted her armor well to handle the torment . . . the persistent sexism, discrimination, and oppression.

And we know the expected social script. Then as now, the script would have them ignore one another, pass each other by without interaction or engagement and look the other way. Jesus would rest. She would get her water–transactions complete without complication.

But Jesus has a way of complicating things.

He’s always writing a new script. Before we even know why, Jesus knows that this woman’s heart has been broken and a fortress built around it to protect her vulnerability. Before we even know that there’s a harvest ripe and ready, Jesus knows that this woman has the potential to sound the call that now is the time for the world to be turned upside down, for the world as we know it to give way, for all we’ve ever hoped for to be manifest. He knows the potential in each of us, and the necessity for each and every one of us to experience His transformational love so that we, too, can turn the world upside down.

In his commentary on The Gospel of John, William Barclay says,

“There are two revelations in Christianity: the revelation of God and the revelation of ourselves. We never really see ourselves until we see ourselves in the presence of Christ; and then we are appalled at the sight.”

Maybe this is one reason we get this reading of the woman at the well in the midst of Lent. How long can we carry on with our defenses up? It’s not that hard to do if we play along with society’s script, maintaining propriety and expectations. The majority of our society isn’t observing a holy Lent. The majority isn’t turning away from self-sufficiency, giving intentional thought toward dependency upon God. But we’ve already taken that precarious step out of the rut. When we got our crosses on Ash Wednesday, we reoriented ourselves, opening our awareness to seek with our heart, mind, and soul where God is in our lives. It’s a heart- and gut-wrenching revelation when we see that God isn’t manifest fully in our lives because of who we are. We are “appalled” because the truth is that we inhibit God from being revealed by the choices we make, but it’s our next step after our self-revelation that makes all the difference.

Our woman at the well carries herself in the heat of day to draw water. She responds to Jesus when he speaks to her; she even banters with him, gets a little sarcastic. As soon as Jesus indicates he knows the pain beneath her facade, the exchange becomes serious. Whereas the woman acted as if she had nothing more to lose, Jesus seemingly peels back her armor and holds a mirror to show her the wounds left by five husbands. Maybe they had died; maybe they had beaten her; maybe they had used her and left her. Maybe the man she was with now was nothing more to her than shelter and protection. His eyes see her as the wounded woman she is, as only the two of them fully know. By seeing her as a wounded child of God, Jesus reminds her of her humanity, her value and worth, the shreds of which she had to box up and stow away because to hold it close to the surface served as a reminder of her constant pain and put on display her vulnerability, her need for care and love and healing. Under that blazing noonday sun and in the clear gaze of Jesus, the woman discovers herself as God sees her. She stays with Jesus long enough to let her heart and mind open to the Truth before her, the Truth that is as available as the water from the well but even more abundant, more pure, and available to all–no well or bucket required for the living water Christ offers.

Barclay also says that “Christianity begins with a sense of sin. It begins with the sudden realization that life as we are living it will not do. We awake to ourselves and we awake to our need of God.”

Our sense of sin, however we express it, is us living our lives turned away from God, in a sense, leaving a stone covering the well of living water. The longer we leave it covered, the longer it accumulates layers of debris and excuses and rationalizations. The longer we let ourselves go without tasting the fresh, living water, the more we normalize our thirst and allow ourselves to be falsely satisfied with stagnant substitutes. The longer we go without sharing the truths behind our hurts and fears, the longer we isolate ourselves from everyone else lest they, too, inflict more wounds. In our pain and fear, we pile more dirt over the mound that we’re fairly certain is a deep dark hole we should be afraid of . . . because we’ve forgotten what living water is, what life it gives, and from whence it comes. We must remember the importance of sharing our stories so we don’t forget what is True.

Our greatest revelation and discovery is that

Jesus is who He is for us all.

It is Jesus’ immeasurably powerful love that strips away the layers of guilt and shame until He sees the naked truth of the sinners we have been because we projected our selfish judgment onto God. We feel awful for what we’ve done, and rather than turn with penitent hearts to God, we run away, ashamed and afraid. Who but Jesus can seen us in our brokenness and say, “I know. Come to me. See for yourself that you are forgiven.” It’s that transformative experience of grace, of mercy, of forgiveness, of unconditional love that blasts away a lifetime of wrongdoing so that the living water can spring forth and rejuvenate our parched souls.

Jesus had to go through Samaria, and he sat by the well because he was tired. And everything he did was according to God’s will. Touching one life at a time was the way in which to reach thousands. Only when we’ve experienced God’s grace can we bear witness to God’s power. We don’t evangelize by shoving our experience of Christ’s salvation into another person’s heart or by pounding Bible verses into another person’s head. We reveal to them our personal transformation. The Samaritan woman who had gone out of her way not to encroach upon others in the town now goes running into their midst, proclaiming to all to “come and see!” the one who knew her heart, the one who very well could be the Messiah. What a vivid image of evangelism.

How are we like the woman at the well? Where were we when Jesus broke down our defenses, and we realized that we couldn’t do this thing called life on our own any more? Maybe it was a definitive moment in our life, and like a born-again Christian in prison, we can testify to giving everything to God in complete surrender. But maybe our life fully lived in Christ is a slowly dawning revelation. Maybe our life of faith has given way more and more to the realization of the grandeur of God in all of Creation, and each day takes us deeper into our existing relationships, where it’s more about God’s will than our will.

Because it is more about God’s will than our will.

As Christians, we sign up to proclaim the transformative love of Christ for all the world. We sign up to stay woke, and when we fall asleep or fall into ignorance or complacency, we get back up again however many times it takes. It’s uncomfortable when our world gets turned upside down, when revelations give us new or renewed responsibilities, and when we are to be the Body of Christ in the world. It’s okay to be uncomfortable or tired. Sit. Have a rest. Drink up that living water, and then go tell the story about how it changed your life.

 

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What is True at Christmas

Isaiah 9:2-4, 6-7 | Titus 2:11-14 | Luke 2:1-14

Around the ages of 6 to 10, each of my children in turn have been keen to point out to me in polite whispers that people obviously dressed up as Santa aren’t the real Santa. I meet their earnest eyes with a smile and a wink and mouth, “I know.” They, too, smile in their assurance of finding something true, but I remind them that that person dressed as Santa embodies a symbol of the Spirit of Christmas–the joy we have in sharing gifts with one another, given as tokens of our love. The season of Advent has ideally prepared us to share our intangible gifts of faith and love with one another joyfully and especially prepared us to rejoice in the gift that is Christ our Saviour.

Earlier this week in prayer, a line from Psalm 62 called out a reminder:

“For God alone my soul in silence waits;

from him comes my salvation.”

I had to read it again.

“For God alone my soul in silence waits;

from him comes my salvation.”

Whatever the past four weeks have held for us, in this moment we breathe in sacred stillness and let our bodies, minds, and spirits quiet, leaving outside the door all that would distract us.

Fully present here and now, as the gathered faithful, we have come to adore the blessed babe, come to heed the angel’s declaration, come to witness that God is indeed with us. We’ve come to hear the story of the true spirit of Christmas and to welcome our salvation in the form of the infant Christ.

Our story is set with a backdrop of people of all sorts, some righteous but not all. The world has become thick with social, political, and religious constructs, which further constricts one’s freedom. In a time of expectation, an angel, a messenger of God, visits a young woman, asking if she’s willing to serve God’s will. In Matthew’s gospel, Joseph is guided by an angel in a dream to cooperate with God. And shepherds minding their flocks are interrupted by yet another angel to tell them the “good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Lk 2:10-11). Mary births a baby boy, attended by we know not whom, but God is fully present. The angels are rejoicing and singing, and shepherds come to see if all this is true, for the “child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger” has changed everything.

Former Archbishop Rowan Williams said in a recent lecture that God doesn’t rend the heavens open to shower upon us the gift of our salvation; rather, God overflows into the world God created and fills from within, like a spring bubbling up from the earth. God changes things in the world in the world’s own terms, in its own life, within human relationship. In fact, he suggests that God “redefines human nature from within by defenseless love.”

“Redefines human nature” because we are shown our full, previously untapped capacity to be in relationship with others and especially with God. We are not so distinctly separate; God has been within us and remains among us. God redefines human nature because it would soon come to pass that no longer are we bound to this world in fear of death. Jesus lay wrapped in cloths as a babe as he would years later in a tomb, but at no point is he bound by this world. God redefines human nature because the least valued are given the greatest responsibility. Mary in her humility and silence bears her strength as she bore the Son of Man, and the shepherds, well, we can only imagine that the flock came with them. The shepherds who are both obedient to the will of God and able to care for and protect their flocks fill a role that resonates deeply with our Lord.

God doesn’t make a command at this moment in creation. God doesn’t say, “Realize today is the day to love me and do my will!” God offers us God’s self, the greatest gift we never thought to ask for.

Williams says that “God values our humanity beyond all imagining” and that “no risk or gift is too great for any one person.” For God it was never doubted that “humanity is supremely worthwhile.” God in infinite wisdom saw a new way to be among us so that we might once again know freedom and perfect love because on our own, we keep moving farther and farther away. Apparently the only way we could know such love was to experience it in the flesh, in flesh like ours. For that to happen, we had to show a mutual interest, a mutual willingness. We had to listen to what God had to say through the ages and trust that God still speaks in the present, yearning to share light and life with us.

The Christ child was and is the gift. God is the giver of God’s self, our greatest gift. The extraordinary was brought to the ordinary not in diminished form but as light from light. This gift born of Love shows us that the true spirit of Christmas is selfless, gracious Love. It is not forced. As much as God could have forcefully burst open the heavens and commanded obedience and loyalty through great power, God waited for the offer, the invitation to be accepted by an unassuming young woman.

The Spirit of Christmas is about receiving God’s in-breaking Love. Being aware of my own humanity and weaknesses, I realize that I needed Jesus to be born into this world those many years ago. I needed Jesus to be born into this world, to live and breathe among friends and foes, to die as one blameless yet crucified. I needed God to show me that I am beloved, that I am worth everything even if I don’t always believe it myself. And because God showed just how creatively love can be shared, just how beautifully life can grow from relationships, I know that God overflows into our world in immeasurable ways.

We try at Christmas to share our love for others in giving of our abundance. It’s what we do, and most of us enjoy the thoughtful preparation of choosing gifts and delight in the giving. We try to imitate God’s giving and do what we can to share. But the true spirit of Christmas comes from God’s giving and depends upon our receiving. Receiving the good news. Receiving God’s love. Opening our whole life to receive God and thereby receive our salvation, which is our perfect freedom and wholeness. Through this Christ child, we see how God breaks through the chaos, the darkness, and shows us that all shall be well. That there is hope.

We have to be able to recognize what is true, what is real. We have to remember the miracle of Jesus’s birth–that it happened at all–and open our lives to receive God fully, not because we’ve earned it or deserve it but just for the sake of receiving God’s unconditional love. We move about in this world not separate from God. There is no glass nor wall nor space between us. When we smile at a stranger, when we kiss a loved one, when we great one another in peace, we have every reason to overflow with joy at the presence of God in our world, in the face of everyone we meet. This night, we not only marvel and rejoice in the birth of Christ but also humbly bow before the babe at the manger and let our Light be ignited by the one true Light. We can imagine looking over to Mary and saying in excited yet hushed tones, “This, this is real.” And her smiling back at us and saying softly, “I know.”

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What Mary Knew

Of the four children smacking their cocoa-sweet lips and held captive by The Polar Express, one has a birthday this week, two days before Christmas.  Ten years ago I was 40 weeks pregnant, great with child.  But it wasn’t my first.  I had my support in place.  Preparations had been made.  I knew what to expect, more or less.

In this fourth week of Advent, I love that we light a pink candle to honor Mary.  I love remembering that she surrendered to something greater than herself, that she humbled herself to be a servant.  She didn’t know . . . she couldn’t know what was in store.

Every time I picture Mary or try to work with any kind of visualization or exercise of lectio divina, I have a sense of what Mary might have known.

Surrender.

What was happening was beyond her control.  It wasn’t just about Mary the innocent young woman suddenly expecting child.  As with every mother bearing child, from the moment the baby is conceived and grows, the mother can only do her best to keep healthy.  The formation of the child is left to genetics and the miracle of life.  A mother-to-be can seek the wisdom and comfort of other women to learn all that she can, but when it comes time to birth, there is no bringing forth of life without letting go of one’s identity.  Virgin Mary to Holy Mother of Jesus.  Can you imagine what Mary experienced alone in that stable?  Do you think she found in herself the capacity to pity poor Joseph standing helplessly by?  Could there have been a woman from the Inn who had mercy?  Such details are left unaccounted.

Next thing we know is that there’s a baby in a manger.  Mary has a child, a dependent.  This child’s existence depends upon her care and attention.  She knows this.  With her surrender, though, she knows this child she cares for is not hers alone.  She cares for this precious child not only as her own but as one of God’s . . . as God.  Did she know this?

Could she truly sense this from the beginning?  Could she know the heartache that would come?

From the very beginning, this would be beyond her comprehension.  She might never fully understand.  She could only do her best to do what was required of her in every moment.  She would live fully into each moment, keeping her heart as open as possible to live into the will of God.  This would be the best she could do.  It’s the best any of us can do.

Oh, that I have the humility to live into every moment with awareness and true surrender.  May I raise my children so that they will grow into the beings they are meant to be, not what or how I want them to be.  May I have the strength to be a mother of strength, love, and acceptance.

My children are blessings to me.  I am surrounded by abundance, and I understand this mother role . . . more or less.

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“All Will Be Thrown Down”

-Mark 13:1-8

This past Sunday evening, I realized I hadn’t fully listened to the Gospel during the morning church service.  My lapse in memory baffled me.  Others were talking about how unpleasant a reading it was, but I had no recollection, no point of reference.  Could it have been that bad?

Ah, end of times talk.  All the buildings will fall.  Earthquakes.  Famines.  My husband saw the title of this post and asked me if it was about aikido.  No, not that.

But what if it’s not mainstream apocalyptic thought.  Jesus mentions that all this earth-shattering, darkness, foundational collapse “is but the beginning of the birthpangs.”  Now birth I can relate to, and I was listening during the service.  What I hadn’t heard was a negative message, one of destruction.  I heard about a fundamental shift, a promise of a new paradigm, a re-birth.  I heard what had to happen for God’s dream to be realized.

As an active participant in the Servant Leadership School, I’m familiar with the talk about how our authority-driven model is not sustainable, is grounded in fear.  To live into God’s will, God’s dream, would be to assume the servant role, to serve one’s self and others with unconditional love, compassion, to participate in communion.  The servant is in the receptive posture, vulnerable yet open to receive divine guidance, to channel God’s love.  It’s one thing to know this and quite another to practice it.

To live one’s life open to the Divine requires a new way of thinking, of being.  Throw down the walls that bind.  There is no ground upon which to stand.  The fruit of your labors might not be in sight and the path narrow and difficult.  The only sustenance you have is your Faith and a Love that surpasses all understanding.  This living is the active birthing.

The child to be born is God’s dream.  The light at the end of the tunnel is no other than the Light that illumines all.  Jesus knew this.  He lived it.  He was It.  And we, in our sheltered, self-centered lives are still rooted in fear and have yet to take the leap of faith into Faith.  If we could but live rooted in Love, we could get a glimpse of our lives as God sees them.  We could tap into the infinite potential written into our souls.

We just have to let all our illusions fall away, surrender to Love, and live what is real, what is here.  Now.  This is our practice.

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