Persist

Job 1:1; 2:1-10 | Psalm 26  | Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12 | Mark 10:2-16

Knowing Jesus’ perfection, maybe rather than asking ourselves “What would Jesus do?” we should ask ourselves “What would Job do?” We wouldn’t have to change the acronym or anything. WWJD still applies. Job, unlike Jesus, doesn’t have divinity in his being; Job is just–like us–fully human. Yet, in times that tried his soul to his very core, Job persisted as one whose actions mirrored his beliefs. Job remained blameless and upright, full of integrity and obedience to God.

If we aren’t careful, we might miss that while we start with the first verse of the Book of Job, we skip right on over to the second chapter. There’s this meeting of the heavenly beings like in the first chapter, and there’s Satan. Let’s check ourselves here, too, before we get carried away in our imaginations. “Satan” is better translated here as the “Adversary” or the “Accuser.” Notes in the Jewish Study Bible say that it’s more like a heavenly prosecutor, like a prosecuting attorney. That makes sense. Because in the Book of Job, one of the basic questions is: Would Job be so faithful even if he weren’t so blessed? Does he fear God, obey God, for nothing or only because he has something to gain? God grants the Adversary permission to try Job . . . but not take his life. All that’s in the first heavenly court meeting or pre-trial chambers.

The rest of Chapter One continues with the Adversary systematically removing Job’s wealth and possessions and even his children. Truly, it’s a horrific account, even with the lone witness coming to tell Job of his loss, the haunting refrain repeated four times: “I alone have escaped to tell you.” In response to these calamities, Job tore his robe, shaved his head, fell to the ground, and worshipped. He neither sinned nor charged God with wrongdoing. Job remains blameless and upright, even prostrate before the LORD in the midst of his devastation.

What we have in our lesson today, then, is the second heavenly council. God is pleased to confirm that Job still persists in his integrity, and I prefer the Jewish Study Bible translation that reads like God says the Adversary incited God against Job “to destroy him for no good reason.” We agree, don’t we? Job didn’t–doesn’t–deserve to suffer this way or in ways to come. Like the people of Job’s day, we tend to have a worldview where if you do good, you get rewarded: calamity befalls those who are bad. This worldview fuels the question of theodicy: why do bad things happen to good people? It doesn’t make sense. We can’t see the reason for it–at least, no good reason. As we encounter Job over the next few weeks, we’ll go along with him as he struggles to find order in his world, in the events happening to him, and like me, you may marvel at his ability to remain blameless and upright.

But Job isn’t perfect. Job isn’t Jesus. Job’s wife isn’t perfect, either.

Job’s wife, who–keep in mind–has also lost her children, is in despair and cannot believe Job’s faithfulness. She taunts him to curse or blaspheme God and die. We sense her desperation and longing to escape misery. Job’s response?

“You speak as any foolish woman would speak.”

That’s a hard line for me to hear this week, when the voices of many women have been minimized, mocked, ignored, or silence . . . as has been common for millenia. And our translation, again per the Jewish Study Bible, is actually more tame than the original Hebrew in just calling the woman “foolish,” losing the sexual promiscuity associated with the Hebrew word. Basically, Job is telling her–his wife–she speaks as any prostitute would speak.

“Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” Job goes on to say to his wife.

In all this, we’re told, Job said nothing sinful. Because Job is blameless and upright, embodying the righteous one before God.

I want to give Job credit for staying with his wife and not casting her aside. By Jewish law, Job could divorce his wife for any cause (Deut 24), releasing her. By Jewish law, she could not do the same. Marital relations in antiquity were no less stressful (and probably were more so) than they are today. But in the time of Jesus, as in some places in our world, women by and large were considered property of their fathers or husbands. Women, unquestionably, were inferior to their male counterparts in society.

So when Jesus defends the sanctity of marriage to the Pharisees and then goes on to use the same language for both the husband and wife in his further response to the disciples, he’s just being Jesus, transgressing those social norms, rocking their worldview.

Thanks to Jesus, we recognize that in a healthy marriage, there is strong emphasis on mutuality. A healthy marriage is one of mutual affection, respect, and joy. The marriage is life-giving for each partner and maybe even life-bearing if it works out that way, though that’s not always the case, nor does it have to be. The two are an embodiment of who God created us to be in God’s image, a harmonious union.

And in case we miss what Jesus was doing there regarding elevating the role of the woman, he reaches out to the very least of those in his society, the children. He gathers them in his arms, lays hands upon them, and blesses them, for they have what it takes to receive the blessing, to receive the kingdom of God.

What does a child have?

Until it’s been taught, children have an unobstructed worldview. They exist, and they need. Children are completely dependent upon their care provider(s). Whether that provider does everything perfectly or not, the child is attached to their source of nourishment, of life.

In times of trial, heaven forbid it ever be like Job’s, we are vulnerable–as vulnerable as a child. We might, like Job’s wife, rather die than endure endless suffering. But that we could be like Job, who maybe in his prostration was curled into the fetal position–as we often are in times of distress–returning to a most child-like state, vulnerable and dependent on the mercy and grace of God, yet persisting in our righteousness and obedience.

So when we hear or read a psalm like Psalm 26, which is a prayer for divine justice, we read it not solely with the voice of David or Job in our head. We read it with the voice of the mistreated wife, the mother in despair, the son not living up to society expectations, the child kicked out of their home. We read it with our own voice as we struggle to make sense of our world. Even if we know we’ve sinned and faltered, we’ve returned to God as a faithful child who delights in the glory of God and stands on level ground–blameless and upright. We, too, bless the LORD, persisting in what is good and true.

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“Running to Obtain Your Promises”

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22 | Psalm 124  | James 5:13-20 | Mark 9:38-50

What I love about longer road trips, be it to Little Rock or even farther to Sewanee, is the ability to ponder for greater lengths of time in relative silence. For these trips it’s often the Scripture that provides fuel for thought. First thoughts for this Sunday hovered around a question inspired by our Collect. “Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure.” “Running to obtain your promises.” Well, what “promises” are we running toward? I don’t argue that most of us are “running.” We’re always running somewhere, and more often than I like, I’m often running late. But am I running toward God’s promises?

Am I running toward eternal life and salvation in Christ? Are you? What does that even look like?

I spent time Wednesday and Thursday in the seminary setting for the annual DuBose lectures and alumni gathering. In Sewanee, the skies were characteristically gray, accompanied by rain that went from drizzle to downpour to flash flood warnings (alerting us to those who hadn’t silenced their phones). Dr. Charles Marsh’s lectures began a three-year focus on racial reconciliation for the lecture series. I confess that I marveled that I hadn’t heard of him before, though the work that he does hits all the marks of someone striving for social justice, particularly in the field of race relations and theology. After the final lecture Thursday, I didn’t really know what to ask or say to him, but I felt compelled at least to say hello and to introduce myself. I told him we have a Continuing the Conversation group that meets once a month to talk about racism and white supremacy. He wants to know more and gave me his email address so we can be in touch. I realized I wanted him to know that there are those of us outside academic settings who are doing the field work he enjoys and deems necessary as we heal and build relationships across divides.

While he spoke about Nazi Germany in the time of Dietrich Bonhoeffer or White Southern Christians in the time of Martin Luther King, Jr., I had the story from Esther in the back of my mind. The query of the king, Esther’s petition, Harbona’s advocacy, and the hanging of Haman on the gallows intended for Mordecai, all unfold around a story of a people oppressed and justice sought and served. Mordecai spreads the news, the need for remembrance and celebration. The psalm reiterates the gratitude of a chosen people helped by their God, “maker of heaven and earth.”

The story and the psalm support an us-them dichotomy. The us-them mentality fuels prejudice, oppression, racism. We’re the good ones, the chosen ones, the right ones, and THEY are outsiders. They are wrong, different, bad, unknown, and outside our understanding. Whichever side we’re coming from, we want God on our side. Surely God’s anger is abated like the king’s when the guilty party hangs on the gallows, right? Surely, justice is served. Or is it?

In our gospel lesson today, John righteously tells Jesus that he was standing up for him when there’s this “other” exorcist casting out demons in the name of Jesus. “We told him to stop,” for this “other” person isn’t one of us, a part of the disciple crowd we’re familiar with. Jesus’ response isn’t a question of “why did you do that?” Jesus simply tells him and the others not to do that, not to stop someone who is actually healing in his name. Doing good in the name of Jesus Christ bears its own reward, and that goodness can’t be reversed or gone against. Let it be.

Then our gospel lesson continues with Jesus going on to talk about when things are bad. This is one of those times when I kind of wish I had skipped reading the footnotes so I wouldn’t be reminded of what the meaning is thought to be. I want to skip it because talking about sexual morality tends to make people uncomfortable, but our study Bible calls this section “temptations to sin.” Jesus admonishes sexual misconduct against children specifically and sexual transgressions generally. There were Jewish laws familiar to his contemporaries. Jesus warns them, lest they continue in sin and go to hell, “where your worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.”

Dr. Marsh also spoke about sin, of course, in his talk about race relations. He shared one description of sin that was something like “inappropriate relationship with another for personal gain, self-fulfillment, and/or self-satisfaction.” Putting oneself first and foremost, violating the first commandment, is basically the root of sin from this perspective, which aligns with how I usually define sin (along with the way MLK, Jr., and many others do): our separation from God. If our sin is harmful to others and separates us from God and God’s will, then the description of hell being a place where your worm never dies and where the fire is never quenched, makes perfect sense. A “worm” is something that eats away at you, destroying your life, and “fire” . . . well . . .  

Like Dr. Marsh, I grew up hearing sermons of fire and brimstone describing hell. An eternally burning fire as an image of hell is likely seared into the minds of many of us. BUT, “everyone is salted with fire,” Jesus says, and “salt is good.” What do you mean, Jesus?

Salt is good. Salt preserves food and adds flavor. We actually need salt to live. But fire? Fire cooks food and can add flavor. Does fire preserve life? Actually, it does. We need the fire of the sun, the energy it provides. We need heat in the cold and heat to clarify impurities. I dare say that we need the burns from our sins to remind us of our need for God, too. Maybe that’s the salt we get from the fire. Our wounds remind us of where our failings are, what our weaknesses are, but we’re given saltiness to keep us aware of the presence of God in our lives and of our dependence upon God’s mercy to obtain any reward that is life-giving, let alone our salvation.

And when we lose our saltiness? Maybe that’s when we’ve become numb to the burn. Maybe we’ve relied on ourselves for so long that we lose our sense of taste for what is truly good. We let our selfish desires eat away at us unceasingly, and our selfish yearnings burn unquenchably because we’ve turned away from the one relationship that actually gives us life and fulfillment. Is there no hope if this is where we find ourselves? Of course not.

“Have salt in yourself,” Jesus says. Recognize our own sins and shortcoming. We’ve all got them, some of us more than others, perhaps. In the reconciliation work being done to try to build up the kingdom of God, we have to be self-aware and do our own healing before we can build relationships or reconcile relationships with others. Only when we’ve been healed by the mercy and grace of God can we then have peace with one another because then we’ll realize that there is no “other.” We can have peace. Period.

Like James reads, if you’re suffering, pray; if you’re happy, sing; if you’re sick, call for healing and prayer; and if you’ve sinned, confess.

How many times are our wrongdoings swept under the rug to fester in the subconscious or in the shadows of our mind? Consider the harm that does to us who do wrong, carrying the weight of the carnage left by the worm that eats away at our authenticity, our Christ-light and life. Consider the victims of those to whom a wrong or injustice has been done. It’s something outside the victim’s realm of control. Most of the time it’s also nearly inconceivable or so “inappropriate” that they don’t want to risk shame, accusation, disbelief, or social ostracization. The victim, too, might suppress the trauma–be it physical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual. The victim might be left to wonder why this happened, and if left all alone might fall into despair, forgetting that God is there–the right relationships waiting to be restored. Dr. Marsh described this as the question of the spectator, asking where God is in times of trial, and the request of the believer, the desire for God to show the way forward.

Maybe that’s what we’re running toward: the life of grace and mercy. We may be running toward life in eternity, but we have our relationships here on this side of the Kingdom tagging along. Lord knows we need grace and mercy, and God can pity us. We’ve created a mess for ourselves. We don’t trust one another to have our best interest at heart because we know we put ourselves first, too. If we truly put God first, we would already be living out the reality of the beloved community, the kingdom of heaven. We don’t need the news to tell us how far from the kingdom we are, but I look forward to a time when the news reflects a people united actually running toward God’s promises, when the news reflects us upholding and protecting those who have been victimized and traumatized, when the news reflects a people who value integrity, when the news–no matter what channel you’re on–shares a vision of a common goal we all share. Call it “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness;” call it “beloved community;” call it “God’s dream for us” or the “kingdom of heaven”; but call it and name it as one goal for us all to unite in so we can run this race together and practice outdoing one another in goodness, giving everything we have to restore one another and all of creation into wholeness to God through Christ.

We don’t have to go anywhere to figure out what it looks like to run toward God’s promises. We recognize our own sins, realize our need for God, and turn to our neighbor in peace. The kingdom of heaven can be here and now, but we’ve still got a long way to go.

 

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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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Kingdoms & Seeds

1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 | Psalm 20 | 2 Corinthians 5:6-10,[11-13],14-17 | Mark 4:26-34

Last week I spent some time talking about Saul, and this week we hear again the story of David’s anointing. We witness again the obedience of Samuel, and we hear the not-so-common phrase that the LORD was sorry that he had chosen Saul as king. We’re also reminded that God doesn’t see as humans see, that God knows our heart. This and so many other stories in our Old Testament reveal something to us of the nature of God. These stories show us how we as people relate to the Almighty, how we are in relationship with God and how God expects us to be in relationship. It’s interesting to me to read the stories paying attention to such revelation and see how it applies or how it’s changed in our current time.

In the New Testament, particularly in our gospels, it’s likewise interesting to me to learn about what God reveals to us about the kingdom of heaven. We have the person of Jesus–God incarnate–showing us in word, example, and in his very being. In particular, the Word lingers for us in these parables that reveal to us the kingdom of heaven if we have eyes to see and ears to hear.

Today, the kingdom of heaven has something to do with the seed that’s fallen to the ground and sprouts from the earth–we know not how. It grows and bears fruit, and we are there to harvest it. It’s true: we don’t exactly understand the miracle of life, but we witness it. We know when someone is living into their gift, thriving as the child of God they’re created to be. It’s not without work, germination, discernment, and time, but it’s also the most natural thing in the world.

And the kingdom of heaven is like the mustard seed, growing from the smallest of seeds to the greatest of shrubs, bearing branches that give refuge for the birds of the air to make their nests in its shade. This is a beautiful image, one of the most concise parables we get of the kingdom (and the shortest lesson in Godly Play!). The mustard seed is tiny, about ¼ of the size of a poppy seed. While in Jerusalem, walking along the sidewalk, our guide said, “Ah, here’s a mustard tree. Who is it that wanted to see a mustard tree?” “Me!” I shouted, my hand waving in the air. It was flowering with its bright yellow flowers and looked to be relatively young, though it was taller than me, and some of the flowers had died, leaving the dried seed pods behind. I plucked one off and asked my friend to hold out his hand so I could break it open; when I did, I sprinkled the tiny black seeds into his palm.

These tiny seeds grow into the greatest of shrubs, providing a refuge, a sanctuary, for birds of the air. These birds can be looking for a new home, a safer place, better living conditions, protection from other creatures that might do them harm. They seek asylum. They find this in the kingdom of heaven.

We were told recently–in defense of the practice of separating families at the border–that the laws of government should be obeyed because they are ordained by God to fulfill God’s purpose (siting Romans 13:1). Let’s be perfectly clear here: we’re given witness of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in the gospels, and the rest of the New Testament canon is showing us how we live into our commission to go forth into the world, proclaiming the Good News, baptizing and making new disciples for Christ, being the Church. Paul gives testimony to how hard this was and continues to be. Our Scripture recognizes laws that govern. Jews lived by Torah law and had to navigate within Roman rule as well. Jesus was pretty clear in rebuking both when they trespassed God’s will, when God ceased to be first and foremost and when the people failed to love their neighbors. As Stephen Colbert was quick to point out, Romans 13:10: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” The law of the land in the kingdom is what we expect: to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Are we extending our branches as sanctuary and refuge? Are we revealing the kingdom of heaven here and now?

The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival believes that as a people united across the spectrum, we can find true center and manifest in our communities something that looks more like the kingdom of heaven and less like societies built with walls, clearly marking the haves and have-nots. The kingdom of heaven grows we know not how but has a great Love at the center of its power, and that love knows no bounds. Last week at the campaign, we rallied to the theme that “Everybody’s Got a Right to Live!” Everybody’s got a right to education, affordable housing, living wage jobs, and income. Everybody has a right to a quality of life worth living. In 30 states, folks rallied, and in Arkansas, we gathered at the steps of the capital, having been denied permission inside because of previous guideline violations. After the rally was over, there was a conscious decision made by some to stand at the capital and chant and sing, to take the message into the people’s house. We knew this wouldn’t happen. We knew that after the third warning we would likely be arrested. Ironically, it was after we were arrested that we were actually able to go into the capital and sing a song: “Somebody’s hurtin’ my brother, and it’s gone on far too long . . . and we won’t be silent any more.”

“What good does this do?” people have asked me. What point did you make? Major news media outlets weren’t there. If you aren’t on Facebook or don’t get the online newspaper articles, chances are you didn’t even know about it (unless you read our newsletter on Wednesday). For me, as a person of power and privilege in society, it’s my call out to say that I’m paying attention, to say that I’m willing to put myself out there for the least of these, to disrupt the typical order of things to point out that something isn’t right. “They’re arresting clergy now?” a friend asked me. Since the first week of the campaign; I’m not alone in this.

Still, this isn’t the way for some. At the Continuing the Conversation on Wednesday, I got the same response, similar questions, but I also shared this story I read about on Blavity:

This was one woman’s response in a situation that could have gone entirely different. Further in her feed and comments, she said she looked at the security guard who was watching them, and she shook her head as if to say: “Not today. You don’t get them today.” Instead of letting them get caught or turning them in, sending them right on down the pipeline, she spoke to them. She asked them questions. They are 13 and 14 years old. They needed the deodorant for practice but didn’t want to burden their fixed-income grandmother, who is their guardian since their mother died. They hugged Nanasia and cried. She gave them her name and phone number in case they ever needed a Big Sis or Auntie again.

This is an example of a different kind of direct action, an act of kindness made at a very personal, intimate level. You still don’t know what the long-term effects are: maybe one of those kids will grow up to be president or a Big Brother. Maybe when he’s older he’ll see a kid in distress and give him a hand up.

We’re always scattering seeds. We can’t know exactly how they’ll grow. We won’t all be mustard trees, thankfully. Creation shows us great diversity that provides sanctuary in all kinds of ways. But we’re all given gifts, talents, treasures, and choice. How we use them makes all the difference. If you’re struggling to know whether you’re on the right track, set your mind on the kingdom of heaven, and in prayer, ask yourself if it rings true of love of God and love of neighbor.

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On Hope

Acts 3:12-19 | Psalm 4 | 1 John 3:1-7 | Luke 24:36b-48

Have you ever noticed how long it takes you to really ingest the meaning of something? At home, we’re super fond of The Series of Unfortunate Events, and the author Lemony Snickett, narrates throughout the story, and is prone to providing not only definitions of more sophisticated words but also the meanings of idioms like being in “the belly of the beast.” Snickett always forewarns how horrible the story is and how we should really look away rather than watch the tragedy unfold, and in the last episode of the second season, he says that the phrase “the belly of the beast” will be repeated three times, which it is.

On a far different note, what I’ve heard distinctly at least three times here of late, has to do with hope. I know, it’s Easter, the season of Resurrection: of course I’ve heard about hope.

But listen with me.

When I was at the Cultivating an Interfaith Mindset in Rural Arkansas gathering in Conway, Teri Daily, the priest now at All Saints’ in Russellville, shared again the story of how St. Peter’s in Conway got involved in a project in Syria, supporting a school there through The Wisdom House Project primarily under the leadership of Mouaz Moustafa. Through his contacts in Syria, he was able to get supplies to the teachers and thus the students, and they were actually able to video conference so they could communicate as directly as possible with the donors here in Arkansas. It’s amazing, really, and Teri shared how meaningful it was and is that they were able to do something so directly impactful on a horrible situation that we know has only gotten worse. In fact, the school the group supported had to close in its previous location due to bombing, yet they regrouped, meeting in various smaller locations and homes, very much an underground system. In all of this, what stands out to me most is this: Teri said that the Syrians were most grateful to know that someone in the West cared. She said they repeatedly said, “Thank you. Thank you.” They so emphatically thanked them because they had been told by the regime that no one cared, that they were forgotten by those on the outside, by the Western world (a hub of civilization and affluence). The regime was attempting to extinguish their hope, going as far as dropping flyers that told them as much. If the people fell into despair, they would lose all hope, and they would stop trying to resist. But … if they had signs that someone cared, tokens of recognition, then there was still hope, still a chance that things could be different, that they might survive the present horror.

That was during Lent that I heard the story again. Then comes Holy Week and Easter.

All the hope of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, that Jesus was the one that would completely turn the tables of oppression, was crucified with Jesus on the cross. “Here’s your king,” the sign above Jesus mocked to those who had been “foolish” enough to follow him, to hope for the kingdom of which he spoke. Throughout Jesus’ life, he met people where they were, in their pain and suffering, their oppression or ostracization, and he saw them and ignited that spark of hope that there could be another way, a way that empowered them, too, with a role in manifesting a society, a world, where they mattered, where they were valued. In this scriptural raising the valleys and lowering mountains, it also meant that those in power were also called out on their hypocrisy and complicity. It stung those in power when Jesus addressed them, and we get a sense of the discomfort again in Peter’s words to those who advocated for Jesus’s crucifixion. But that’s not the end of the story, even for those who shouted “Crucify him!” There’s hope because death was not the end of Jesus Christ. There truly is a way to life everlasting. The images Jesus painted of the kingdom of heaven reveal for us–in a way we can understand it–of God’s dream for humanity. And the powers that be in this world are not strong enough to annihilate that dream for us.

And then there’s the lecture at Crystal Bridges, where Patrisse Kahn-Cullors, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, addresses a full audience. I went because Black lives do matter. I went because I’m so increasingly aware of the inequity in our society. I went because I see so many Episcopalians there, even ones who may not be here at services. Her 45 minutes went too quickly. She spoke briefly about being an artist. She spoke mostly about working with others to make viral and public what was happening to black-skinned folks at the hands of the people who are supposed to protect and serve them or what’s happening to them once they’re within the not-so-seemingly just justice system. She spoke again about art and imagination. And she said that if you want to annihilate a people, if you want to dehumanize a person, you kill their imagination . . . because without imagination they have no hope. They see no other way. The way things are become the way things are, and the stop and frisk and shouting and yelling and drug war and violence and innocent murders and invisibility are normalized.

As if this wouldn’t have been enough of a moving presentation, I bought her book on impulse and have been engrossed in it, in her life. The book’s called When They Call You a Terrorist. As I read and remember and think on the way things are, I realize that most people would understand if Patrisse had lost hope, if she were numb or immobilized. But thank God for her persistent imagination, her persistent faith, her dedication to love. Her hope endures, and because she can imagine a different future, she has goals that give her actions. In Ethics of Hope Jürgen Moltmann says, “If we hope for an alternative future, we shall already change things now as far as possible in accord with that.” Patrisse, who has studied not only art but also theology and community organizing, knows this. She knows it in her very being.

And so do we, as Easter people. We know there will be times or powers that be that try our souls, but we have hope. Sometimes it’s harder to sustain, but it’s in our very being. It’s ignited when we’re in the presence of that which reminds us of the presence of Christ. Like when the disciples realized that their hearts burned within them as the risen yet unrecognized Jesus opened the Scripture to them as they walked toward Emmaus. Like when we stand in the midst of our friends and neighbors, united in a common cause for a greater good–be that a march or rally or at a bedside in the hospital. Hope is a part of the very air we breathe as I think of Jesus giving the breath of the Holy Spirit to the disciples as described in the Gospel according to John. Jesus brought forth a new Way and gives us the power to carry on to fulfill God’s dream for us.

Even if we find ourselves in “the belly of the beast,” we have our Christian hope–the same today as it was for the martyrs of old. While we–I pray–don’t have to worry about the threat of the horrors of the arena, we are at risk of being consumed by injustice, lethargy, and apathy, the things that may very well be direct opposites of faith, hope, and love. But our Christian hope, grounded in our bond and affection with and for the divine imagination, yearns for beloved community in which all abide in love, where righteousness and peace kiss each other, and where love meets our fears, anxieties, and worries, and with full faith says, “Peace be with you,” the same words Jesus greets the disciples with and still speaks in our hearts and minds today.

 

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All the Treasure

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course that’s not all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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