Little Big Instructions

2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33 | Psalm 130 | Ephesians 4:25-5:2 | John 6:35, 41-51

Maybe because it’s back to school time, but I get a feeling from the letter to the Ephesians that this is an “All-I-really-need-to-know-I-learned-in-kindergarten” kind of lesson. There are, of course, posters of the kindergarten lessons that Robert Fulghum found particularly book-worthy, and you can look those up later, but we could also make a poster from Ephesians, I believe. We could call it a “How to Get Along” poster, and on it we’d put:

Speak the truth.

 

We’re in this together–all of us.

 

It’s okay to be angry–just don’t sin.

 

Keep your anger in the light.

 

Be so filled with good that there’s no room for evil.

 

Work honestly.

 

Share.

 

Build one another up.

 

Speak grace.

 

Be kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving.

Live in love.

Or maybe we’d call the poster “How to Live in Love.” Either way, these are as good for us as they were for the church in Ephesus.

We can see how this list pinpoints how David went awry, followed by his sons. For all that they did wrong themselves, even with forgiveness at play after the fact, there were dreadful consequences. We don’t read the in-between to get the backstory for Absalom’s death, and it’s certainly not kindergarten-appropriate. Suffice it to say that if you read Second Samuel between last week’s (Ch. 11) and this week’s readings (Ch. 18), including all the verses skipped in our lectionary, you’d read a sampling of the stories which often turn people away from the Bible. It’s like learning about those from whom you are descended but whom no one really likes to talk about–the parts of the family tree that are left to get overgrown and hopefully overshadowed by the healthier branches.

Basically, Absalom rose up to rebel against his father, even after he had been brought back into his father’s good favor, and we know from today’s reading it ended badly for Absalom. Ironically, it was Joab who facilitated the reconciliation between Absalom and David, and then it was Joab who dealt the first of many death blows Absalom received. Our history, even that of our religious family, is harsh and violent, full of hubris.

Most of us know this and realize this. It’s knowing our past, our history, and what we are capable of that prevents us from making the same mistakes, right? Until we truly learn from our mistakes, though, we get to repeat the reel. Until we truly know and understand, we’re likely to slip into familiar ruts and get stuck or commit grievous mistakes that wreak havoc in our relationships.

We may think we know, but really we haven’t a clue.

The self-confident knowing of those who heard Jesus claiming to be the bread of life did not serve them well. These people are described as Jews who knew Joseph and Mary, so they think they also know who Jesus is. These are most likely faithful Jews, like Mary and Joseph. They’ve seen each other at synagogue, said prayers with them, attended festivals, but now Jesus is off the rails, claiming a different father, hearkening to the Almighty. Jesus even claims–in his flesh–to be greater than the manna that rained from heaven to save their ancestors through the Exodus.

How dare he.

Jesus challenges what they believe at the very foundation, with something as simple as bread. The Almighty One had saved the Hebrews through the desert with a bread from heaven, and true enough they all died. Jesus is now saying that he is the Bread of Life, “the living bread that came down from heaven” so that “whoever eats of (him) will live forever.”

From where they’re standing, from all they understand and think they know, Jesus isn’t making any kind of sense–no more than telling a preschooler to share with everyone the brand new box of markers that their mama bought especially for them. Sometimes we can’t reasonably explain what is, whether it’s because we can’t comprehend given our personal limitations or whether it’s because we can’t fully comprehend the Mystery that’s at play.

Jesus is following all the guidelines for getting along with others; he’s already in the midst of the relationships. It’s on the side of others that things get tricky. The Jews to whom Jesus is speaking think they know who Jesus is. They also understand their lives centered in their Jewish faith, steeped in the stories of their people, their ancestors. When Jesus steps up to say again, “I am the bread of life,” they don’t understand his truthful speech; it doesn’t resonate with them but rather challenges them. Rather than seek to build one another up, the rest of the gospel according to John reveals how they seek to destroy this one who challenges what they have understood all their lives.

In our tradition, we trust that all unfolded as Scripture intended, and even the crucifixion of Jesus gave way to a life triumphant. “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh,” Jesus says. The Word of God made incarnate was not so much taken as offered in an act of divine, ultimate, self-sacrificial love, and each time we come to the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Great Thanksgiving, our Holy Eucharist, we partake again in the Presence of the one who gives us life, not only in body but also in Spirit. There’s nothing we can do to earn the grace and mercy already given to us, but if we believe, then the life lived in God through Christ is ours to be had.

Such a blessed life doesn’t mean that we’ll always live life in love. From the early decades following the resurrection, the apostles and Paul and those documenting events reveal how the faithful strive to navigate church politics and difficult relationships. Surely they fall back on the Ten Commandments and societal laws upholding the common good, and they outline these ethical codes to help guide the morale of the whole. Their intent is to keep the Body, with all its members, in unity and accord. Remember the call given to all and the plea to maintain the unity of the Spirit through the bonds of peace, as we heard last week in Ephesians (4:3). Consequences of not living into the life of love resemble the sorrow and heartbreak we hear from King David in Ps. 51 and today’s Ps. 130. But no matter how desperate we become or how horrible we’ve been, our belief holds us within God’s embrace, God’s presence. In our desperation, we, too, can wait for the LORD, “more than watchmenfor the morning.”

Click on the image for the artist Melanie Pyke’s explanation for her take on Ps. 130.

What might that look like? What do we wait for “more than watchmen for the morning”? What do we yearn for so much that we’d stay awake through the deepest darkness and wait in anticipation for the slightest ray of light? When it comes to our relationships with one another, as we start school and enter the midterm elections, what does it feel like or look like to let our soul wait for the LORD first, before we interject all we think we know into our relationships?

If we wait for the LORD first, before we make any sort of declaration or assumption, we more humbly take our next step. Maybe that’s closer to the person near to us, or maybe it’s taking a few more steps around the person who doesn’t want to engage in a loving relationship right now. God’s time so often isn’t set to the agenda we have or want. But God’s time is filled with grace and patience as we struggle to remember what it is that our teachers taught us in kindergarten and what it is that God’s already written on our hearts for how to live life fully, nourished by Jesus Christ.

 

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On the Edge of Knowing

 

Acts 7:55-60 | Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16 | 1 Peter 2:2-10 | John 14:1-14


That this Sunday is Mother’s Day here in the states and that we have chosen today to celebrate those graduating with their various accomplishments make me keenly aware both of my motherhood and of my firstborn graduating from high school. It probably doesn’t take much to imagine the vulnerability I feel in this place and time as a mother generally and as parent of a child who–at 18–is (we hope above all hopes!) prepared for the next stage of her adult life. This is a vulnerable place because it feels like being at the precipice of knowledge, on the edge of what is known and unknown, and like setting out on a journey with no idea what the traveling conditions or the final destination will be.

Marie Howe, former poet laureate of New York, said in an interview in 2013 that we often turn to metaphor when describing something that’s real because “to actually endure the thing itself, … hurts us for some reason.” We want to compare whatever “it” is to something else more readily known rather than take time to really see something as it is, endure it for all its worth until we realize that there is nothing more valuable or comparable than the thing itself. It’s easier to look away. She speaks with the authority of a writer/poet and professor who has her students start class by writing ten observations of the actual world. She said the students have such a hard time with this. If they can recall something–say toast, for example, they would rather say the toast is like sandpaper rather than describing it as dry, brown, and crumbly.

Howe theorizes our inability to make honest, aware observations comes from our constant distractions in the speed and chaos of life in the digital age. We spend more time gazing into the screen of our phones, computers, and televisions than into the eyes of one another. One could say we get accustomed to our hectic, over-filled, preoccupied lives, especially if we’re in the child-raising or career phase of life, and it easily just becomes the way it is, how life works. So even when we’re out of the “busy” phase, we perpetuate busy-ness in other stages of life. What we know is the perpetual busy-ness; we rely on our phones, calendars, and reminders. We get stuck in the roundabout of daily chaos. But if we keep doing the same thing, we’re relatively certain we’re going to get similar results. It’s called predictability, and most of us like the security of predictability. I’ll keep doing a good job, pay my bills on time, tuck the kids into bed with love, and wake to repeat the same things the next day. I know what to expect, and it gives me a sense of security. The same is true even if what I’m doing isn’t good by any standard. Perpetuating cycles of poverty, abuse, addiction, dysfunction–you name it–bring with it the same comfort of familiarity, even if it’s “the devil you know.” Our “roundabout” life doesn’t ever really take us anywhere, though . . . and certainly not to everlasting life.

After about four weeks of making concrete observations, Professor Howe says she has to put a cap on the amount of writing time the students have. She hears the scritch-scratching of their writing as they rush to get it all down, knowing their time is almost up. And when she changes the assignment, telling them to switch to using metaphors for their observations, they ask, “Why?

What brings about this switch? How do we move from not noticing our surroundings in all their value and sensuality to being at a place where we can’t imagine not noticing them and giving them full account?

Something happens to get us out of the roundabout: we can choose to set a different pace or to evaluate life more closely. We can retreat, quite literally backing away from the regular program. We can take the scenic route instead, maybe even bike or walk. One of my many fond Sewanee memories is riding my bike to school with the kids (even if Casey told me I looked like the Wicked Witch of the West in my black clothes and a basket on the back of my bike). Riding a bike lets us set the pace, especially if we’re with kids. We feel the wind in our face, note the smell of spring or rain. We notice even the slightest incline and rejoice in the euphoria of speeding downhill. We can also listen to and follow new directions, like when Professor Howe tells us to notice the smell of the air or the face of a stranger and then holds us accountable to recount the experience. We can pause or stop in illness or pain and listen anew to the demands of our body.

But what if I get a roadblock in my little roundabout life that I don’t choose or see coming, like a pink slip, a collect call from jail, or a diagnosis from the doctor? The flow stops abruptly. The unexpected has suddenly arrived, and my discomfort is off the charts. Rather than doing something destructive, at the end of the stressful day, I might think, “It’s been a while since I’ve prayed before going to sleep. Compline’s usually comforting (and predictable), so…I’ll give it a go.” When I get to page 129 in our Book of Common Prayer, I read the words of Psalm 31, the same words we said today, and I pray for our Lord to “be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe.” In this time of uncertainty, the prayers for God to see me through this night illuminate the unknown not only of the night to come but of my uncertain future and my eventual death. I realize that in the rush of my daily round, prayers have fallen to the wayside, church is just another thing to do, and only if it’s a good day do I have some sense that God is in the midst of it all. But how striking are the words “Into your hands I commend my spirit” when I stand at the edge of life as I know it and the unknown of life to come, whether it’s tomorrow or the hereafter.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says in John 14, which also happens to be one of the gospel readings often used in our burial rite. How meaningful to read this before our death. Jesus assures us that we are provided for, that he is the way, the truth, and the life, that through him, we know God the Father and everlasting life. In these simple words, there’s such peace and clarity. Jesus is the way, the path we follow. Jesus is the truth, everlasting and certain. Jesus is the life, vibrant and radiant. When I’m standing on the edge and feeling the world as I know it falling apart, Jesus reminds me that he has prepared a way and even has a place for me, for everyone. I honestly don’t imagine heaven as a bunch of houses, but I know that wherever Jesus is, there I will be also. When I question the validity of Jesus’ truth, he reminds me that my doubts are within the bounds of normal but are not necessary. Thank God for clueless apostles! Not only Thomas but Philip also needed a bit more proof for the outlandish claims Jesus made, and Jesus understood, knowing our hearts as he does. Jesus didn’t need signs or miracles to prove his divinity; those works were provided for you and me. And, when I fear change or death itself, Jesus reminds me of the triumph of life, the light overcoming the darkness, even if we have to go through the darkness first.

So often what is unknown is portrayed as darkness–shadowy, cloudy, or obscured. Jesus, let alone God, seem so far away. And yet, so often we say one’s future looks bright. We don’t know anything more, but looking into the faces of our graduates, it seems so easy to see the light and be sure of the presence of Christ with them, to see the Holy Spirit at work through their gifts and talents. Looking forward with faith brings a bit of light, which fuels our hope, making it even brighter. Add to that the joy of love, and we look into the face of uncertainty with a spirit of adventure. This is how we break open our hearts to love with all that we have. This is how we Christians walk the way of Christ, the way of love, to see our neighbors not as a statistic but as people doing their best with what they have. This is how we continue to learn and grow emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually, even though that knowledge will inevitably open us to more pain, responsibility, and greater awareness of the unknown.

It’s what we do know of goodness and love that bolsters our faith and strengthens our belief, even when it’s hard and hurts our hearts. When we’ve stopped to notice the smell of a newly bathed infant; when we’ve lost ourselves in uncontrollable laughter; when we’ve opened our arms as wide as we can to give and receive a hug from a beloved; when we’ve clenched our throats against a sob as we smiled and assured a love it was okay to go . . . at these times and so many more, we have, indeed, tasted that the Lord is good. And we know that the only way we have the strength to endure anything at all is because of God’s mercy and grace. With that blessed assurance, found mostly in those moments when time stands still as we stand on the edge, we love fiercely, lean into the unknown, and step toward eternal life through Christ.

 

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