Being Filled

1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14 | Psalm 111 | Ephesians 5:15-20 | John 6:51-58

One of my favorite stories that I remember reading about Zen Buddhism is the story of the student who finally gets the chance to go to the master teacher so he can “get” it. Whatever books he’s read or classes he’s taken or meditations he’s done, this is his chance to learn from the Master. So the teacher invites the student serve the tea, and he’ll tell him when to stop. As the student pours the tea, he slows as he nears the top of the cup, but he keeps pouring as he is an obedient student. As the tea overflows the cup and spills onto the table and floor, he can’t take it anymore. “Teacher, the cup overflows; it’s making a mess.” (I’m completely paraphrasing this story!) The teacher looks intently at the student. “How can you learn anything when your mind is so full? There is no room for anything else.” I imagine the teacher pouring the tea onto the floor, placing the empty cup on the table and saying something like: “Now, we begin.” This empty cup is like the “beginner’s mind” that you might have heard of before. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind is the title of Shunryu Suzuki’s book of collected talks (because Zen Buddhists don’t give sermons or homilies; they give dharma talks or just talks; this one is particularly about Buddhist practice). The beginner’s mind, like the empty cup, is ready to be filled.

I thought of this story in the midst of our “Bread of Life” section of the lectionary because it seems like Jesus is absolutely trying to fill us with the Good News that he is the Bread of Life. Each week, as we read a different section of the gospel, we’ve poured out our cup to be ready for a new lesson, but we’ve kept a little from the previous week, a rich flavorful bit.

But we don’t really have a beginner’s mind, even if we have forgotten all we heard last week. Like the Jews last week who thought they knew where and who Jesus was from and even the Jews this week who think they know what it means to eat flesh and drink blood, we, too, know a lot–or at least think we know a lot–about religion, life, and everything else. Our cups, our minds, are pretty full. Or, our minds can be full of figurative scar tissue or barricades, so damaged are they from bad theology or abuse. We could have been taught that we’re too far gone for redemption, not good enough, and/or that God’s love is conditional. The Bible, the “Word of God” could have been used to alienate or abuse us and others we care about. Even if we had room in our mind or our teacup, we wouldn’t want anything from the religion department to come anywhere close.

We might not have tea ceremonies in The Episcopal Church, but our worship follows the same structure–the same liturgy–week after week to provide stability, security, and predictability (at least in form) for us to settle in our place and let God abide in our midst. In A Hidden Wholeness, former educator and writer, a Quaker named Parker Palmer, writes about the soul of a person being like a wild animal in the woods. I picture a fox. For us to be able to get a glimpse of this animal, we have to be really still and patient, unobtrusive and gentle even in our presence. Even if we think we have them tamed in our certainty and knowledge or have them caged away in fear that they might be endangered, this soul still yearns to encounter God. In fact, studies have shown that while most people these days don’t identify as religious, they still have a sense of awe, experiences that kindle wonder, and a recent study shows that it’s not fancy coffee, shiny lights, or the perfect music program that bring people to church.

People come to church to encounter the presence of God.

I hope this is true or has been true for you here at our church.

Because an encounter with the presence of God strengthens faith and belief or maybe gives it to us for the first time. Venturing out in vulnerability, whether we’re a wild fox or proud student, we risk encountering the presence of Christ: maybe it’s with outstretched hands to receive the Body and Blood and not fully understanding how this feeds us but knowing that it does. Jesus asks us only to believe to be able to be fed by him. He fed the 5,000 physically. When I was dropping my son off for school the other day, I lamented that he hadn’t had breakfast. “It’s alright, mom,” he said. “We have Eucharist at 10:00, anyway. Isn’t that supposed to fill me up?” He’s a smart alec, but at least I get the idea that he’s paying attention to what’s said in church!

What’s important for us today is to know that through our belief in Jesus Christ, we are fed eternally, in a way that’s not to be replicated or substituted by anything. Like a mother’s milk for her baby, Christ nourishes our spirit with exactly what we need, individually, and strengthens us for whatever might threaten our wellbeing. Whatever we try to substitute for to fill our hunger for the spiritual food, we’ll soon realize we’re a bottomless pit, never satiated or satisfied. For Christians, Jesus truly is the Bread of Life–that which fills us and draws us nearer to the presence of God if we dare to believe such Good News.

Being nurtured and nourished in our belief, could we respond like Solomon if God appeared to us in a dream and asked us what we wanted God to give us? Solomon apparently gave God a good answer when he asked for a wise and discerning mind because God also goes ahead and gives him the health and riches that most everyone else would have wished for. But in the reading, we’re given insight into Solomon’s thought process. Before Solomon responds to God, he thinks about where he comes from: from King David, the mostly faithful, righteous, and upright servant of the LORD. Solomon has huge shoes to fill in following David. Solomon also ponders the reality of the situation, what is at the moment: God is, as ever, faithful in the covenant established with David and the chosen people. Then Solomon realizes who he is: a humble servant chosen for a daunting task, leading the multitudes of God’s chosen people. Does he really have the qualifications for this? What does he need for this impossible mission? An understanding and discerning mind. God agrees.

At the clergy wellness program Padre and I attended this week, one of the leaders was a Native American woman from Arizona. As she shared her stories, I imagined her going through a similar thought process as Solomon if God appeared to her. She’s actually a canon in her diocese for Native peoples. I believe she said there are 12 tribes represented in her diocese. She knows where she comes from. Arizona is her home; she belongs to one of the tribes; and she knows that her people and others like her have been severely under-represented in our religious tradition (as well as others). She told me that she is one of two such canons in the country since budget cuts have taken their toll, but she knows that the Native people need advocates, that awareness of their ways needs to spread before it is lost, and that there is much work of reconciliation yet to be done. She describes who she is with openness; she wears multiple hats, and even with all her work, she takes care of her 86-year-old mother whom she lives with. If God showed up to her in a dream and asked her what she asked of God, I’m sure there are many things that she could ask for, but it would not be a stretch to imagine her responding with a request for a wise and discerning mind, so that she could accomplish the mountain of responsibilities she carries.

What would we ask for if God appeared to us in a dream? If God asked what All Saints’ wanted from God? (If God appears to you and asks, please let me share a list!) Of course we know the correct answer: an understanding and discerning mind. But we can go through Solomon’s thought process to get there. Where do we come from? A twinkle in the Bishop’s eye? The effort of the community 11 years ago to pull All Saints’ together here in Bentonville? Even more than that, we come from the diocese, from the national church, from the Anglican Communion, from a rich tradition that bears all the hallmarks of triumphs and struggles of living faithfully in relationship with God. What is now? There are a plethora of opportunities and potentialities before us in regard to our ministries, our worship space, and our involvement in the community. Who are we? We are an open, welcoming community, willing to engage in difficult questions and to be good neighbors, loving as Jesus taught us to love. What do we ask for going forward as we strive to be the Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement in Bentonville? Even before we need millions of dollars, we need wisdom that comes from an understanding and discerning mind.

Even though God said there was no king before and no king after that had the wisdom of Solomon, we can be thankful that we’re given this clue for how to make wise decisions. Within the process, there’s a good dose of humility and honesty, which we all have the potential to embody. Whether we encounter God in a dream, in church, or in a teachable moment, I hope we all have that beginner’s mind that’s ready to be filled with the fullness of God, in all its glory and mystery.

 

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Encounters

2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27 | Psalm 130 | 2 Corinthians 8:7-15 | Mark 5:21-43

The scene from this week’s gospel reading lingers in my mind and replays as if there’s still more I have to learn, more to do.

It might have something to do with the fact that I just visited the site where this likely took place. Magdala, near the modern day Migdal, is on the coast of the Sea of Galilee. Currently they’re building a guest house (hotel), have built a beautiful church, and are excavating a first-century synagogue and marketplace. The sun burns hot and bright. From the pathways, one can tell that if there were many people, it would indeed be crowded and smell of warm bodies, fish, dirt, and hot stone.

When Jesus arrives back on this side of the sea, Jairus seeks him quickly, desperate for Jesus to heal his 12-year-old daughter. We know he’s desperate because this is a leader of the synagogue, an important and powerful man (with a name), and what he’s doing is unorthodox (in more ways than one). Jairus tells Jesus what needs to be done, and without a word, Jesus follows him.

On their way, among the great crowd, another person seeks a miracle. While the crowd walks along en masse, we get the background of an unnamed woman. She’s been bleeding for 12 years. Maybe for the first few weeks, months, she thought it would pass, but as the months became years, she spent everything she had to find a cure. No physician had been able to help her, but she had heard about Jesus. Even though she was closed off from society in her constant state of uncleanness, word had reached her about this man who healed many; maybe he could heal her, too.

To seek Jesus would be a great risk for this woman. For 12 years, she stayed out of crowded situations, lest she contaminate someone with her impurity. Surely everyone knows about her, her family. It would be a shame upon her family to be seen or called out, recognized by someone–anyone. But what did she have to lose? She was cut off already from whatever life she had before. She had no money. Her condition was worsening. She wasn’t afraid to die; death was already a certainty.

“If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well,” she thinks in her familiar voice, with an unfamiliar hope.

She approaches Jesus from behind in the crowd and touches his cloak. One simple, light touch.

Immediately her hemorrhage stopped, and she felt in her body that she was healed, something she hadn’t felt for 12 long years.

In that same instant, Jesus, too, knew power had gone out from him, and he stopped. I like to imagine him closing his eyes and with a faint yet knowing smile that passes quickly, pausing before he turns to seek the one who touched his clothes.

The one he calls out is afraid. Jesus was on his way to heal the daughter of a powerful man. She is a nobody, an unclean woman who has not only contaminated everyone she’s touched in this shoulder-to-shoulder crowd but has also brought shame to Jesus and her family by touching a man whom she has no right to touch. She knows her humility and shows it to all by falling down before him. She unburdens her heart and woes to him and everyone listening. Maybe they’ll understand, maybe they won’t. Maybe they’ll be merciful, but it doesn’t change the fact that she knows she’s been healed. But she couldn’t just take it from him without him knowing how desperate she was.

“Daughter,” Jesus says, claiming her as family, “your faith has made you well. Go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

She has no need of shame, and she has not taken anything that hasn’t been given to her.

While we may want to marvel in this moment of grace and mercy, we’re reminded that Jairus’ daughter is also waiting for a miracle, yet we hear that she’s already died.

“Do not fear, only believe,” Jesus says even in the face of mortality.

Perhaps the crowd didn’t believe Jesus could help the little girl because she was already dead. Perhaps the crowd didn’t believe the hemorrhaging woman was healed because they couldn’t see it. They needed to see a healing for themselves, and it was all the more significant because this was the daughter of a prominent family, with so many people at hand (whom Jesus sent outside).

Yet Jesus tells them not to spread news of these miracles. The significance of these events isn’t to spread Jesus’ fame any more than it is to add to the drama of the narrative itself, though they do both. As we encounter the good news of these stories, we find that rich or poor, young or old, alone or accompanied, Jesus is who he is for all: God incarnate to save the world.

Today, does that mean that if we pray hard enough, we’ll be healed and cured or brought back to life? Not necessarily, and not as we understand it. It was important for the people of the time of Jesus to see him for who he was. For us, we realize who he is for us as the Risen Lord, one who brings health and life to all in spirit, which in turn affects our mind and body.

As many have been and are preparing for General Convention (#GC79), one of the questions I saw recently said:

“What do you seek?”

In light of the gospel today, I wonder if we only seek Jesus when we are desperate? As beautiful as it is, it can also be devastating if we don’t get the results we want or expect. Pulling from the Presiding Bishop’s theme of love, life, and liberation, we want these things for ourselves especially when we don’t have them.

But what if we seek first the kingdom of God? And its righteousness? (See Hymn 711.) What if even when things are good for us, we seek God’s will to be done in our thoughts, words, and deeds? What if we seek an encounter with Jesus? Even more, what if we seek to be that holy temple that others might encounter Jesus, the presence of God, through us?

The most beautiful thing I saw at Magdala was the mural behind the altar in the Encounter Chapel at Duc in Altum (which means “launch into the deep”).  Painted by Daniel Cariola, the mural captures that moment when the woman touches the hem of his garment (pulling more from the Matthew and Luke accounts). There’s a point of light there that illuminates what we know couldn’t be seen by the eyes alone, but it is so luminous in that chapel, amidst the feet and hand that are larger than life. As we gazed upon this mural, our feet rested upon floor that we’re told was from the first century, stones from pathways that would have been there at the time of Jesus, the disciples, Jairus, and this woman. In her outstretched hand, there’s such hope amidst her desperation. Jesus’ feet are set in a forward direction. Others are all around. It is a crowded scene.

But there’s this point of light.

When have I reached out to Jesus and been healed?

When have others reached out to me in their search for the presence of God?

That point of light, to me, is what we all seek, but we have to be clear about what and why we seek it. If we’re just looking for a thrill in the moment, personal glory, or a fulfillment of a personal agenda, we must tread carefully. This is especially important at General Convention, when what we decide affects the polity and liturgy of our church. Whose will is being done? Whose kingdom is being magnified?

There’s nothing more noble than seeking an encounter with the Light and Love of Christ, because in that moment, we get a glimpse, a taste, of the kingdom of heaven. Whether we’re the hand or the feet in that moment, we pray that God’s will be done and to God be the glory. This work never ends.

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Storms & Peace / Las Tormentas y la Paz

1 Samuel 17:57-18:5, 10-16 | Psalm 133 | 2 Corinthians 6:1-13 | Mark 4:35-41

After a long day of work, whether it is in the home with the family or outside the home at our job, most of the time we are ready to relax, be still, and rest a while. Maybe you are ready to go to a party every night, I don’t know, but for me, I need lots of quiet time. I hope you get some quiet time, too.

After a long day of being with the crowds, Jesus said it was time to go to the other side, to go across the sea. I imagine his disciples and companions breathing a sigh of relief and willingly boarding the boats to go across to rest even though it is evening time and they have not made preparations, going just as they are. These are good and faithful disciples. They are giving up everything to follow Jesus. They willingly go.

Though the Sea of Galilee is not huge–it is more like a lake, really–when you are in the middle of it, you are vulnerable. On my trip to the Holy Land, we took a boat ride onto the sea, in a boat thought to be somewhat similar to the ones the disciples would have had. It was a windy day. My friends had told me the last time they were there that a strong wind had blown up when they got out to the middle of the sea. Those in charge told them that just happens sometimes, particularly in that place. Fortunately for us, all I had to do was hold on to my hat. Those on the boat with Jesus were getting pounded by the waves, the water at risk of capsizing the boat. It was a great storm, and they were afraid. They were probably shouting at each other, and all the while, Jesus slept on his cushion at the stern.

When we are in the storms of life, when we are worried about finances or concerned for our children, when we fear that our livelihood is at risk or our safety is threatened, when we are really sick–physically or in our hearts–and don’t know if we’ll make it to another day, we might feel like God is not listening to our prayers. It might feel like Jesus is asleep in the middle of our stormy life and not listening to our cries.

But he does hear us. He never leaves us alone. He never leaves us without peace and comfort.

The storm rages until the disciples finally call upon him to wake him up, it seems. Maybe Jesus was waiting until they asked him for help. Maybe they thought they could handle this raging storm on their own. But they could not.

In our baptism, each of us is given power of the Holy Spirit to do great things in our lives. Each of us has been created to fulfill God’s will in this place, in this world. We are perfectly loved by God so that we might share that love with everyone we encounter. But we do not do it on our own.

David, as a young man, did not defeat Goliath on his own. Without God he would not have won. He grows into a great king and does amazing things, having God’s blessing with him. But when he follows his own will, he gets into troubled waters and has to repent and return to the LORD. We might not be kings, but we also know when we go wrong, when we have to correct our ways, and we do so thanks to the grace and mercy of God.

Paul also lists some of the characteristics of what we face as servants of God. The church in Corinth is going through hard times. Paul reminds them that following Jesus is not always easy. They may have to endure affliction, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger. My heart is heavy as I read this list because we know that there are faithful souls who are enduring this even today–not just in Syria or Sudan but also at our border. We have to show endurance, and we–as they–endure with purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God. In God, these are eternal. They are as bright and new today as they were at Creation, as they were at the Transfiguration and the Resurrection. We have hope through the storms because we are not defenseless. Our greatest weapons are righteousness, honor, goodness, truth, life, joy, abundance, and eternal life.

When the waves are crashing in, and we fear for our lives, we are at risk of closing in upon ourselves. Fear has a way of shrinking us and sinking us into darkness.

But what does Paul tell the Corinthians to do? He speaks to them as if to children and tells them to

“open wide your hearts also.”

Do not be afraid. Open wide your heart in love of God. Open wide your heart in love of Jesus, and be not afraid to call upon him for help in the middle of the storms. With your heart open wide for love of God, it is easier to open wide your heart to love of neighbor, even those for whom it is not so easy to like; we can love them, too, with God’s help. God’s love knows no boundaries. It is especially when we are about to cross over the boundaries that storms may rise. When we cross over those boundaries and troubles arise, we especially need the presence of God in our midst, and we need the calm and peace that only Jesus Christ can give.

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Después de un largo día de trabajo, ya sea en el hogar con la familia o fuera del hogar  en nuestro trabajo, la mayoría del tiempo estamos listos para relajarnos, estar quietos y descansar un rato. Tal vez estés listo para ir a una fiesta todas las noches, no sé, pero para mí, necesito mucho tiempo tranquila o en silencio. Espero que tengas un tiempo tranquilo o silencioso, también.

Después de un largo día de estar con la multitud, Jesús dijo que era hora de ir al otro lado, cruzar el mar. Me imagino a sus discípulos y compañeros dando un suspiro de alivio y abordando con gusto los botes para ir a descansar a pesar de que ya era tarde y no se habían preparado, ellos se van así como están. Estos son buenos y fieles discípulos.  Están abandonando todo para seguir a Jesús. Ellos van voluntariamente.

Aunque  el Mar de  Galilea no es enorme,  en realidad se parece más  a un lago, cuando estás en  medio de él, eres vulnerable. En  mi viaje a Tierra Santa, tomamos un paseo en bote hacia el mar, en un bote que se pensaba que era similar a los que tendrían los discípulos. Fue un día de mucho  viento. Mis amigos me dijeron la última vez que estuvieron allí que hubo un fuerte viento sobre ellos cuando fueron en medio del mar. Los que están a cargo les dijeron  que eso sucede a veces, particularmente en ese lugar. Afortunadamente para nosotros, todo lo que tenía que hacer era sostener mi sombrero. Los que estaban en el bote con Jesús eran golpeados por las olas, el agua que corría era un  riesgo que podía volcar el bote. Fue una gran tormenta, y tenían miedo. Probablemente se estaban gritando el uno al otro, y todo el tiempo, Jesús dormía sobre su almohada en la parte d atrás del Bote.

Cuando  estamos en  medio de las tormentas de la vida, cuando nos preocupan las  finanzas o nos preocupamos por nuestros hijos, cuando tememos  que nuestro sustento esté en peligro o nuestra seguridad se vea amenazada,  cuando estamos realmente enfermos, físicamente o en  nuestros corazones, y no sabemos si llegaremos a otro día, podríamos sentir que Dios  no está escuchando nuestras oraciones. Podríamos sentir que Jesús está dormido en  medio de nuestra vida tormentosa y no escucha nuestros gritos.

Pero él lo hace. Él nunca nos deja solos.  Él nunca nos deja sin paz y sin comodidad.

La  tormenta  arrecia hasta  que los discípulos finalmente lo llaman para que se despierte, al parecer. Tal vez Jesús estaba esperando hasta que le pidieran ayuda. Tal vez  pensaron que podrían manejar esta tormenta furiosa por su cuenta. Pero no pudieron.

En  nuestro  bautismo,  cada uno de nosotros recibe el poder del Espíritu Santo para hacer grandes cosas en nuestras vidas. Cada uno de nosotros ha sido creado para cumplir la voluntad de Dios en este lugar, en   este mundo. Dios nos ama perfectamente para que podamos compartir ese  amor con todos los que nos encontramos.  Pero no lo podemos  hacer solo con nuestra propia fuerza.

David,  como un  hombre joven,  no derrotó a Goliat  con sus propias fuerzas. Sin Dios, no hubiera ganado. Se convierte en  un gran rey y hace cosas increíbles, teniendo la bendición de Dios con él. Pero cuando David sigue su propia voluntad, se mete  en aguas turbulentas y tiene que arrepentirse y volver al SEÑOR. Puede que no seamos reyes, pero también sabemos cuándo nos equivocamos, cuando tenemos que  corregir nuestros caminos, y lo hacemos gracias a la gracia y la misericordia de Dios.

Pablo  también  enumera algunas  de las características  de lo que enfrentamos como  servidores  de Dios. La  iglesia en Corinto está pasando por tiempos difíciles. Pablo les  recuerda que seguir a Jesús no siempre es fácil. Es posible que tengan que soportar aflicciones, dificultades, calamidades, palizas, encarcelamientos, disturbios, trabajos,  noches sin dormir y hambre. Mi corazón está pesado al leer esta lista porque sabemos que hay almas fieles que están soportando esto incluso hoy, no solo  en Siria o Sudán, sino también en nuestra frontera. Tenemos que mostrar resistencia, y nosotros, como ellos, soportamos con pureza, conocimiento, paciencia,  bondad, santidad de espíritu, amor genuino, palabras veraces y el poder de Dios. En Dios, estos son eternos. Son tan brillantes y nuevos hoy como lo fueron en la Creación, como  lo fueron en la Transfiguración y la Resurrección. Tenemos esperanza a través de las tormentas porque no estamos indefensos. Nuestras mejores armas son la justicia, el honor,  la bondad, la verdad, la vida, la alegría, la abundancia y la vida eterna.

Cuando  las olas  se estrellan  en nosotros y  tememos por nuestras  vidas, corremos el riesgo  de encerrarnos en nosotros mismos. El miedo tiene una forma de encogernos y hundirnos en la oscuridad.

Pero qué les dice Pablo a los corintios que hagan? Él les habla a ellos como a niños y les dice que

“abran también sus corazones”.

No tengas miedo. Abra de par en par su corazón en  amor de Dios. Abra de par en par su corazón en amor por Jesús, y no tenga miedo de pedirle ayuda en medio de las tormentas. Con el corazón abierto para el amor de Dios, es más fácil abrir de par en  par su corazón al amor al prójimo, incluso a aquellos a quienes no es fácil amar, también podemos amarlos con la ayuda de Dios. El amor de Dios no conoce fronteras. Es especialmente cuando estamos a punto de cruzar los límites es cuando las tormentas   pueden aparecer. Cuando cruzamos esos límites y surgen problemas, es cuando especialmente necesitamos la presencia de Dios en medio de nosotros, y necesitamos la calma y la paz que solo Jesucristo puede dar.

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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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Healing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s hard to ask for help.

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

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

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

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

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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.”

http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/104384.html
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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