Extraordinary Glory & Grace

2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a  | Psalm 51:1-13 | Ephesians 4:1-16 | John 6:24-35

Reading to our children when they were younger reminded my husband and me about our favorite stories when we were early readers. Some of my favorites included a Disney story about Goofy breaking a curse, the Amelia Bedilia stories, and one of my favorite picture books Strega Nona by Tomie DePaola. “Strega Nona” means “grandma witch,” and in the story she’s the person everyone in the Italian village goes to see when they need healing or a cure, even the priests and nuns. In this fantasy story, she uses potions and spells to work her magic. She takes on an apprentice of sorts who ends up mis-using a spell he heard her say. He wanted to be praised like Strega Nona, but he missed a key ingredient.* Fortunately, Strega Nona arrives home just in time to save the day.

My husband’s favorite story is naturally much more realistic. You’ve probably heard the folktale “Stone Soup.” Three weary travelers come to a town, and the villagers predict that they’re going to be hungry and beg for food: so they hide. But these travelers are clever, and they make a big show of preparing their special soup, for which they proclaim there will be enough for everyone. Someone brings out a big pot and firewood. They boil water and—very dramatically—drop in the three special stones.

At each taste, the soup is delicious but could do with just a little more of something–from salt and pepper, to carrots, to potatoes, fish, and barley. Each time it’s another villager who is willing to come out of hiding to contribute to this obviously mouth-watering soup. By the time the last ingredients have been added, of course there’s more than enough for everyone. The whole village has contributed to the concoction, and the strangers share the feast with everyone before the night is done.

Whether we read the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 as a fantastic miracleor as a miracle that everyone shared what they had to make for an abundant feast for all, there’s no doubt that the gift revealed something about the grace and glory of God. And it gets us right in our gut.

We all need food. If we’re too hungry, we can’t focus. We need to be fed not only spiritually but physically. Last week, Jesus taught many things to the multitudes, and this week we revisit the scene and know that he also fed the people—in body and spirit.

But he doesn’t do it alone, even though he could. Like the clever travelers with their stone soup, Jesus knows what he will do from the beginning, but he includes his disciples in the wondering. “Where are we going to get food?” What is the cost calculation? How can we make do with what we have? Ah, look what that child has. The gift of God’s grace is so often in the unexpected, among the least of these. We get to think outside the box. Like our lesson last week, we really sometimes just need to step back and let God work in our midst, let God’s will be revealed. It is God’s will that there be enough for everyone, which there is, but everyone has to participate and cooperate for there to be enough to go around, yes?

Thank God for all the food banks, pantries, kitchens, trucks, and volunteers that work to feed the masses today, especially considering that about 19% of people are food insecure in Northwest Arkansas. One in four children are hungry or food insecure right here in our communities. One.in.four.

It was a boy that the apostle Andrew spotted who had loaves and fishes. Jesus looked to the child with the five barley loaves and two fish. Jesus took the loaves and gave thanks for them and distributed them. He did the same with the fish. He gave thanks, and he gave them to all who were seated. This pattern is familiar to us, this giving thanks, which the Greeks call eucharistia, and from which we derive our word “Eucharist,” our Great Thanksgiving.

What if that boy was one of our four children who is hungry? What if that boy had been gifted those treasures when he was hungry? What if that boy had hidden like the villagers at the beginning of the stone soup story?

Fortunately for all, the boy gave his gifts to Jesus, who then took the food and multiplied it for the masses. While it’s not the same, I get a similar feeling of such a miracle when I attend the Feast of Grace at Christ the King on the fourth Wednesday (like this last week when our loaves and fishes looked like hot dogs and buns), and I know it will feel that way when we go to HomeTowne Suites this Tuesday. We give thanks to God for the gifts that have been given and shared, and we feed those who are hungry, all to the glory of God. There’s enough.

Danger lurks wherever we hoard our gifts or dare to claim the glory for ourselves. If we hide our treasures, we hurt our neighbor who suffers in hunger. If we seek glory or manipulate circumstances for our benefit, we not only hurt others but also ourselves (such was the case for the young apprentice in Strega Nona, and it’s definitely the case with David and Uriah). When Jesus realized the people were going to force him into the role they wanted, expected, or even hoped for, he withdrew. He left to the mountain. The people wanted a worldly deliverer to save them from Rome; they wanted a messiah. But the people did not yet understand God’s glory and grace revealed to them, even if they had just experienced, very tangibly, a taste of it for themselves.

In case we, too, miss the revelation of God in the feeding of the 5,000, we get another sign of the presence of God when Jesus walks on water. Is the miracle solely that he walks on water, about four miles worth? The disciples in the boat are afraid as the storm rages around them. Jesus pronounces: “It is I; do not be afraid,” recalling to mind the words of God to Moses: “I am.” Jesus declares His presence, and immediately they arrive at their destination, safely. Again, the grace and glory of God has been revealed on God’s terms and in a very tangible way. These are signs of God in the midst of the people. These are signs that Jesus is God incarnate, Word made flesh. This is Jesus living into his mission: to make God known.

These next few weeks in our lectionary, the Gospel lessons will focus on Jesus being the Bread of life. We’ll see how many ways we depend upon Jesus Christ as our source of life. But this week, we get to delight in the memorable stories of Jesus doing amazing things with grace and in glory for no other reason than for revealing God to the people who are seeking something. The beauty of these stories is that they still happen today, when we gather around a table, when we feast together, giving thanks to God. Certainly we, too, are carried through the storms in our life in ways that in hindsight we have no idea how we made it through but for the grace of God revealed to us in the kindness and help of others and strength and perseverance we didn’t know we were capable of; God is, and God is with us.

It may be easier to believe that Jesus performed miracles at a particular place and time and that they just can’t happen today; the miracles are just really great stories for us to remember Jesus in his glory. But I think that mindset severs us from divine imagination and limits our hope and possibilities. Let us not forget Paul’s prayer to the Ephesians, a prayer equally suited for us:

“I pray that . . . Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.  . . . I pray that you may . . . know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God,” for truly it is God’s “work within us (that) is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.”

Amen.

 

*The missing ingredient from Strega Nona is the three kisses the grandma blows over her clay pot to end her work.

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More than business as usual

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26  | Psalm 1 | 1 John 5:9-13 | John 17:6-19

Our religious tradition provides us with much I love–namely stability, form, and structure. We have the framework to understand our roles and responsibilities, at least generally. We have our annual meeting at the local level, our diocesan convention at the diocesan level, and General Convention every triennium so we can account for what we’ve done in the past, work we need to do now, and where we’re going in the future. As with your place of work, there are just some things that have to be done, and hopefully these are daily tasks we get to do rather than a daily grind that wears us down. One might say these are the hallmarks of a “job.”

Our lessons and psalm today reinforce the work we do as Christians. In Acts there’s a vacancy among the apostles, so they dutifully and prayerfully cast lots to fulfill that role. (And I’m rather glad they went with the simple election of Matthias so we don’t have to keep up with which name to use!) They took a chance and trust that it will be good. In psalms, we have a traditional song contrasting the wicked and the righteous, and of course we want the rewards of righteousness; it’s like a reminder why we do what we do. Our epistle, the first letter of John reiterates our belief in the Son of God, our key to eternal life. The whole brief first letter emphasizes the unity among believers and insists upon following the command to love one another, for God is love (1Jn 4:8). Even going about our daily business, there can be discord and differing views; the letter aims to restore alignment and unity.

So, carry on, brothers and sisters! We could move right on to recite the words of our neat and tidy faith in the words of the Nicene Creed . . . , but we’re also given our gospel lesson this day. And God bless the gospel according to John, where often words twist and turn like a circular stage, spiraling through different levels of meaning and challenging us in our understanding.

What is Jesus really trying to say here? How does it affect my life today?

If we return to the place and time of the reading, we’ll remember that John 17 is still part of Jesus’s last meal with the disciples, those whom he loves, and he knew it was his last meal with them from the beginning. This is the meal that begins in Chapter 13, where we’re told they gather before the festival of Passover, and Jesus washes their feet, as we continue to do on Maundy Thursday. In this meal, Jesus foretells his betrayal with a beloved disciple reclining against his chest, Judas betrays him, and Jesus gives a new commandment to love one another. Jesus tells Peter he’ll be denied, and though Jesus again and again says he’ll be leaving them, he promises to send an Advocate, the Holy Spirit. Jesus says he’s the true vine and speaks of the world’s hatred and persecution, and the disciples wrestle with what all this means, Jesus’s words about leaving them. Jesus speaks of being one with the Father and gives the disciples his peace . . . and then he prays for them, as we heard a portion today.

There’s not an “Our Father” in the gospel according to John, but there is this prayer that holds all the context of the meal with the disciples and Jesus’s love for them as he prays. Jesus prays for the disciples and all whom he loves, and it’s terribly hard to imagine the magnitude of this prayer. But we can imagine this: a Christian mother’s prayer for her child/godchild, one who knows her duty and fulfills her mission with faithful obedience.

Imagine this nurturing, life-giving, beloved mother offering her prayer–either silently or aloud–in the presence of her charge. In her prayer, she’s almost reminding God that she has done her work; she’s made God’s name known to the children given to her care. She knows all are from God and the magnitude of her responsibility.

She knows the children have kept the word of God because as it’s been given to and received by her, the children have witnessed the genuineness and authenticity of her belief, her trust, and they receive it for themselves so much that it becomes their own belief and trust.

A mother would rarely wish to be separated from her child, but if circumstances require it, we know that this mother would do all she could to protect and bless those in her care. She will make petition to God, emphasizing again that all that she is has been made possible only through God, and as if to make sure it’s understood, she clearly names the children as truly God’s. What’s yours is mine, and what’s mine is yours. There’s little more precious and beautiful than that.

If she has to be away–even to be united with God–she’s going to ask, nearly beg, for God to protect her children, lest all her work to protect and guide and guard them have been in vain.

She has a sense of the joy and anticipation of being united with God, but the pain of humanity, of attachments and persecutions in the world, are all very real. How many times does a mother pray for protection over her children? Let alone when she’s separated from them?

Ultimately, a mother blesses her children with her love. Her prayer to “sanctify” them is to make them holy and also to set them apart. Sanctify can also mean to purify or redeem. This mother wants only the best for those given to her care. Giving the truth, the Word, is the most loving thing she can do to keep them in the company of the divine, even when she’s not there.

This is how I’ve tried to understand Jesus’ words and prayer: through the person of a mother. But maybe every mother’s prayer is really a taste of Jesus’s prayer for all whom he loves, for everyone and everything that thirsts for love and communion with God?

In all our business–or busy-ness–we mustn’t forget this intimacy and yearning that is at the very foundation of who we are as a church and who we are at the very core of our being as children of God. Maybe the “Our Father” is easier to memorize and pray, but every line of that prayer contains all the glory, love, and tenderness of this prayer for the disciples. On this day, may we also hear it as Jesus’s prayer for us as we return to our work and strive to glorify God.

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In the beginning was the Word . . .

Isaiah 61:10-62:3 | Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7 | Psalm 147:13-21 | John 1:1-18

The gospel reading we have today is the same one from Christmas Day (maybe just in case you missed your Christmas observance that busy day). After the Christmas Eve emphasis on all the people at the manger-side, the Fourth Gospel brings to us a cosmic-level view, quite literally expanding our horizons if not blowing our minds, emphasizing both the eternal and the temporal spheres. In the Prologue of John, we are distinctly taken out of our carefully imagined, precious nativity scene following the long search for an inn . . . all the labor pains, sweat and tears, and animal scents and sounds . . . and brought to “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Like a high-speed, rewound montage of one’s life flashed before our eyes, we’re instantly time-warped back to before Creation. These words ignite a memory of similar words that are hopefully as familiar to us as they were to our Jewish ancestors. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth” . . . or “When God began to create,” there was a wind of God or “spirit of God” that “swept over the face of the waters.” And then what did God say? “Let there be light.” And there was light, and it was good. (Gen 1:1-3)

Through the Word, light manifests, revealed of God, from God’s self. Ever-present, luminous, inspiring, yet intangible. And the Word of God throughout the Old Testament establishes God’s relationship with the people in covenantal relationship, intertwining word and deed. God’s promise endures faithfully, even as the people’s thoughts, words, and deeds fail again and again. It is the Word of God that sustains the people of Israel, keeping them in relationship with God, their strength and their refuge, their creator and defender, their assurance that they are the chosen ones. Eternal and Almighty God in heaven above maintains a covenant with the obedient, chosen people below. That’s the way it was.

But what if the story changes. It’s the same but new, familiar yet different.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He–word/logos, masculine in Greek, different from the feminine Spirit/pneuma in Greek or the breath/wind/ruach of Hebrew–He, the Word, was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being; all of creation is in unity through the Word. What has come into being through and in him is life, and the life is the light of all people. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” And it was good, very good, I want to add, because my mind’s eye is set on Creation and God’s proclamation of the goodness of it all. God is. The Word is. The breath of God carries the Word over all that is to be in creation, filling all things through the divine inspiration, bringing Light and Life. And it is good, eternal, holy, divine, and beyond any concept I have of time and history.

Then the Prologue pulls us to a very real, earthly, temporal time and place in the person of John. Not known here as John the Baptist but rather John the witness. Twice we’re told John’s purpose is to testify to the light. John is not the light, but he’s a witness to it, to the divine light, the same light that we’ve heard was present at the beginning, that was coming into the world, to humanity and its domain, so that all who received this true light, who believed in his name, had power to become children of God, to be born of God, not of flesh but of Spirit (as Nicodemus would help clarify for us later in his exchange with Jesus).

I mentioned on Christmas Day the St. John’s Bible, illustrated beautifully, truly illuminated. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us” takes the gilded words and suggests they form the ethereal haloed figure who seems to be walking forward, toward the reader, full of grace, though with such an indistinct figure. How they’ve conveyed such grace, I cannot know but just perceive. And it is through the person of Jesus Christ that we receive grace upon grace, grace and truth. It is through Christ that we are revealed the heart of the Father, the heart of God.

Our story has changed from one of a chosen few to all of Creation imbued with this Light of the Word that has been made flesh in Jesus. As it was in the beginning is now present in all that lives. And if we choose to live a life in the Light that overcomes the darkness, we, too, are children of God, not just in this sphere but in the eternal as well. Our story becomes not just one of deliverance and promise–though it is that, too–but ours is mainly a story of love, good and true. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). It’s not just a love story written in the stars but a love that was bold enough to become flesh. The Word, the Light and Life, was strong enough to become weak and vulnerable. The Word, the Love, need only to be named and known to be restored in its fullness.

And you know that fullness of love, right, when your heart feels like it will explode with love for another, be it family, friend, or lover? It feels all-consuming it its goodness, its joy, its truth. That kind of love exists for our souls, yearns to be acknowledged, recognized, and loved in return. The beauty of this love is that it’s not contained just for ourselves but naturally spreads to those around us because in its fullness, it enlightens the life of the Word in others, the Christ-light, the Life of all, whatever we choose to call it.

This is all that is, if we believe. The Light overcomes the darkness, but it does not mean that the darkness isn’t there, too, that there will be trials, tribulations, obstacles, barriers, fortresses that attempt to persuade us that the Light is a wish-dream we only thought was real. Our hope is folly, weak, and vulnerable, the darkness would have us believe. Remember, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” and I believe with all my heart and soul and strength that that Word brought Love into our lives in a way only God knew would fulfill us and restore us to the fulness of the image we were created to be in God, a reflection of the Light and Life of Christ.

God came to our world through the Word in the person of Jesus. As we enter a new year, what word will you carry with you that might remind you of the Light you bear, thanks be to Jesus Christ? What might unlock the barriers of your love and joy in life that most connect you to God? To your brothers and sisters in Christ? What word will motivate you in your spiritual gifts and talents to be a defender of the faith and the poor, the widowed, the orphaned, and the stranger? What word might empower you to be the Christian this community needs, an ambassador for the love of Christ?

A friend of mine these past few years has herself chosen a word for the year, and the artist that she is, she decorated the word and hung it on her fridge or mirror or wherever she would encounter it often. The last couple of years at least, she took tiny canvases and using paint and paper and stamps and pen, decorated the canvas, emblazoned with a word, chosen by the one who commissioned her artistry . . . not only her art but also her prayers. Since she introduced me to the practice, I was reminded how years ago, a dear friend of mine and I set intentions for the new year, writing them on slips of paper, putting them in a special box. These special words have a way of addressing the truth of who we are, what we truly need. I don’t mean to sound flippant when I say, “All we need is love,” but in a way, all we need is the love of God to be manifest in our lives, fully and completely. What word do you need to help you reveal the light? My word is courage this next year, to be strong of heart. Because when the Word became flesh, our world broke open to the reality of a fierce love available to all, and it takes all of us to keep the life-light emblazoned not only for ourselves but for others. I need courage. Like John, we are called to testify to the Light, the Light that brought heaven to earth in a story of enduring love. And Love itself is a powerful Word.

 

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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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