You Are Called . . . Take Heart

Job 42:1-6, 10-17 | Psalm 34:1-8 | Hebrews 7:23-28 | Mark 10:46-52

If thinking about the suffering of Job these past weeks has you feeling more anxious than normal, you can take a deep breath as we conclude his suffering and see his trial over and his fortune restored. Rather than feeling anxious, I find myself more aware of how often I allude to the suffering of Job when I encounter someone with what seems like rotten luck, someone who can’t seem to catch a break. God’s man Job triumphs, remaining blameless and upright, but while we get this lavish description of all that is restored to him–double what he had before in some cases, including his lifetime–we aren’t told–and I don’t see–Job standing triumphant on a pedestal.

Job encountered God in the whirlwind last week and received God’s voice as God described the cosmos and all creation as God created it to be. This wasn’t a divine knockdown; this was God stating what is, revealing creation as seen from God’s perspective. In today’s lesson we hear Job’s response and hopefully can sympathize with him as he realizes that he had spoken without understanding. Now . . . now that he has heard the voice of God with his ears, he has a direct knowledge of God. Now his eyes “see” God as God has been revealed to him, and his new understanding leads him not to “despise himself” as it’s translated or even to “repent,” but to “recant and relent” being but dust and ashes. Job, as blameless and upright as he is, is humbled before God. All that he had said prior to his new understanding of God, he recants: he no longer holds onto his old beliefs. His whole worldview has changed as he relents, giving way to God and accepting his mortality and feeble understanding of the world. For all the riches and extended lifetime he receives, the true beauty of this story is not only Job’s faithfulness to God but also God’s faithfulness to those who believe.

Job’s faithfulness seemed to come easy for him, but we’ve seen in the past weeks that that’s not the case for everyone. The rich man, remember, wanted eternal life and asked Jesus how he could obtain it. When Jesus told him, he balked and turned away. Even the disciples, James and John in particular, said they wanted the best seats in glory, but they were speaking without understanding and knew not what they were asking. Bartimaeus, on the other hand, is a different story.

A blind beggar on the roadside isn’t hard for us to imagine. I can picture the flat, dusty road in Jericho with mountains in the distance, and I can also see in my mind’s eye the crowd surrounding Jesus making their way out of town, heading back toward Jerusalem. The poor, blind man of course heard the approaching crowd and caught the name of Jesus, and he knew him. At least, he knew stories of him, enough to call him out as the Son of David. He had heard of all that Jesus had been doing, and that recognition couldn’t be contained. From his position at the side of the road, “he began to shout and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’”

In typical fashion, those in a more favorable position suppressed the voice from the margin. “Many sternly ordered him to be quiet,” and it’s quite possible that those who didn’t say anything that the man could hear were probably casting him disdainful looks or ignoring him altogether, as was their custom. But the man persisted, crying “out even more loudly” for Jesus’s mercy.

We don’t get a whirlwind here. Jesus stands still, and then he turns the tables when he says, “Call him here.” Notice that? Jesus involves those who are keeping the blind man at bay. You want to follow me? You’re going to do what I say? Practice.

And they do! Maybe with a grimace, maybe a little embarrassed, maybe with a fake smile they say to Bartimaeus, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” Jesus has a way of helping us see one another on a level field. Just as the disciples have been called, so now is Jesus calling Bartimaeus. Whether they’re telling Bartimaeus to take heart or reminding themselves, I see the phrase as one reminding them all to be courageous. Those come-to-Jesus moments take courage, do they not?

Bartimaeus throws off his cloak and springs up to come to Jesus. I’m not exaggerating; this is what it says! He’s excited and doesn’t take a moment to hesitate. When Jesus asks Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus replied, “My teacher, let me see again.” And Jesus tells him his faith has made him well. Immediately Bartimaeus regains sight and follows Jesus on the way.

I’m reminded of the hemorrhaging woman who had nothing to lose and works her way through the crowd to touch the fringe Jesus’s garment. I’m reminded of the Syrophoenician woman with a possessed daughter who also asked the Son of David for mercy and persisted until she got it. These women, like Bartimaeus, knew where society placed them, how it devalued them, yet in their humility, they were persistent and were healed by their faith. But Bartimaeus asked for sight and is the one who is healed and goes on to follow Jesus on the way. He doesn’t look back. He doesn’t even go back to get his cloak, probably one of the few possessions he had. With his new sight, he sees the way forward through Jesus, even if he doesn’t know for certain where that leads. He probably had no idea he was following Jesus and the crowd toward Jerusalem and toward the Passion. Like Job, he has vision revealed through God, which gives insight that exceeds our human understanding.

Does this kind of revelation or restoration still happen today? Of course. It’s why we read the Bible, why we pray, why we gather in community. Because this doesn’t just happen on its own. There has to be intentional effort to give way to this kind of transformation.

Anne Lamott shares a bit of her journey and struggle in a recent Facebook post. She says she often thinks about writing a book called All The People I Still Hate: A Christian Perspective. She hasn’t written it yet, mind you, and in this post she shares why. Anne speaks from her experience in recovery quite openly–recovery from drugs, alcohol, eating disorders, and I think also codependency. She was reminded of her friends who talk about Step Zero, the step before the 12 Steps, the step when you realize “this s*** has GOT to stop.” She realized that since the election she had let herself go into rage mode and be angry until she was reaching a level of toxicity that was bordering on explosive. Focusing on her self-care, she asked herself about her mortality. If she only had one year left, is this the way she’d want to live? No, she’d want to be a “Love bug,” she says, and “if you want to have loving feelings, you have to do loving things.” A huge part of being a loving person is realizing that everyone, even the person you think you despise the most, is a precious child of God.

So she thinks she’s ruined her chances of writing a book about all the people she hates because her whole perspective, her worldview has changed. Taking wisdom from 8-year olds, she’s okay with leaning into the 80% that believes God is there and is good and is within us all the time. Except she flips it to give herself 20% of that goodness, which she thinks is a miracle. The lens through which she views the world has changed; she has new insight, new vision. Like Job and Bartimaeus, she has been restored in a way that only Love can make happen.

And we need that kind of restoration and transformation happening today. When the news is full of two innocent African American people shot and killed in Kroger by a white supremacist, yet another bomb mailed to critics of the president, and a place of worship becoming a scene of terror, cutting short the lives of 11 faithful Jewish people. A CNN story came across my phone this morning: 72 hours in America: Three hate-filled crimes. Three hate-filled suspects. I’ve heard all these stories, and they’re like background music to our lives these days.

This has got to stop. Step Zero.

We can call out for Jesus to have mercy on us, and he already has. It’s up to us to open our eyes, hearts, and minds to see clearly what is happening and follow Jesus on the way of love–a love that doesn’t make peace with injustice and is greater than hate, fear, and even death, if we have eyes to see.

 

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One Thing

Job 23:1-9, 16-17 | Psalm 22:1-15 | Hebrews 4:12-16 | Mark 10:17-31

This week we continue with the story of Job, a man who is blameless and upright, the epitome of righteousness, and who suffers the unimaginable. The main question posed by Satan, the Adversary in the heavenly court, was “Would Job be so faithful if he had nothing?” Is Job’s faith just because he’s such a richly blessed man? As Job is tested, he remains faithful, neither cursing nor sinning against God. Even this week when we find Job amidst his bitter complaint, he struggles mightily in his depths of suffering, but he remains faithful. Like Dr. Marsh said, the prayer of the believer in times of trouble is a request for the way through, the way forward. Job is sure that if only God would hear his prayer, God would rescue him. Job isn’t giving up. Job knows who he is and whose he is. Even when his friends are offering their unhelpful advice and commentary, Job doesn’t falter, even though we must admit he sounds awfully miserable.

Curiously enough, we encounter a different rich man in today’s gospel lesson. This blessed man runs up to kneel before Jesus in a righteous quest, asking our Lord: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus’s response is quick and to the point, reminding the man that no one is good save God alone, and he also tells the man that he knows the commandments. In case he’s forgotten them, Jesus gives him an abbreviated version. The man is probably nodding along, saying “yeah, yeah” until he’s finally saying, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth!” He’s been doing what he’s been taught his whole life, but what does Jesus say he needs to do to inherit eternal life?

“…go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

The man is shocked and goes away grieving, for he has many possessions. We understand his disappointment. There are few of us who would willingly give up everything we have to follow Christ, especially if it meant putting ourselves in way of danger or in especially vulnerable circumstances. But Jesus doesn’t seem terribly surprised or shocked at the man’s response.

Did you catch what Jesus does and says before he gives the man instructions? He looks at him and loved him, and then he tells him that he lacks “one thing.” Only he doesn’t say, as far as I can tell, what that “one thing” is.

If we were to ask the rich man before his encounter with Jesus what he lacks, what might his response have been? He’s rich? He lacks nothing, except maybe the finest wine press, crown jewels, or the latest breed of camel?

But Jesus–in looking at the man and loving him–can easily identify the one thing he lacks.

  • Could it be that he lacks the ability to detach from his possessions? He doesn’t want to let go of his accumulated wealth.
  • Could it be that he doesn’t was to distribute his wealth to the poor, who haven’t worked as hard as he has for his status? Does he lack compassion for their plight?
  • Could it be that he lacks the ability to let go of the security, stability, and sense of control in his life that his wealth and position afford him? I think with this last one we’re getting closer to the heart of the matter.

If we consider the two wealthy men of today–Job and the unnamed rich man–Job represents an ideal, but Job wasn’t given a choice of giving up everything in his life. Everything Job knew and loved were taken from him, and still he remained faithful and righteous. The rich man in our reading today comes seeking–he thinks–to follow Jesus to eternal life, yet when Jesus tells him what’s required, the man turns away, unwilling to do what Jesus says must be done. If only the man had that one thing.

Maybe three years from now when we encounter this lesson again in the lectionary I might have a different inclination, but today I see that what the rich man lacks is belief. The man keeps the law, is obedient, successful, and just knows that there is something to this man Jesus that draws him to him. In the gaze of Jesus, our hearts are known, our strengths and our weaknesses.

Did you notice the commandments that Jesus recites for the rich man? All the ones he mentioned have to do with our duty to our neighbors. As our children who are familiar with the “Ten Best Ways” lesson in Godly Play and our folks who are going to be learning more about The Episcopal Church in our newcomers and confirmation class will soon recall, we can break down the ten commandments into two sections: 1) our duty to God and 2) our duty to our neighbor.

What if in the rich man’s life of comfort, his obeisance to religion had become perfunctory? He was doing all he had to do on the surface, but as he accumulated wealth and possessions, his duty to God might have fallen to the edge as the duty to maintain his wealth, position, and power depended more and more on him accomplishing his worldly tasks. When we become masters of our personal agendas, we are extremely prone to becoming functioning atheists because we know how things need to be done and don’t need any help, thank you very much. Maybe the man’s self-reliance had obscured the need for God in his life and relationships.

Given the choice, maybe Job, too, would have laughed at the option of giving up everything to follow God–we don’t know. But having lost everything, Job doesn’t question God’s existence–God’s whereabouts maybe, but not God’s existence. Job’s belief is steadfast, his faith secure, and we know and will be reminded soon that his faith is rewarded. Peter and the disciples who believe Jesus even if they don’t completely understand him, are reminded that yes, Jesus knows they’ve already given up everything, and they, too, will be rewarded. But the rich man of today lacks that belief in God that in turn fuels the faith, trust, and love of God that would see him through any loss of worldly status.

It’s hard to take that risk, though. As much as we might say, “Awwww, if only he had taken Jesus up on that offer, he would have known the joy of eternal life!” Would we have done differently? Do we know the rewards Jesus has in store for us? Are we certain of the glory of the kingdom of God and what that looks like?

A woman in Conway yesterday spoke to the ECW about a ministry she and her husband helped found called Harbor Home, which is very similar to the Magdalene program. When they were just getting started she said they spoke to a small rural church with about 13 members, all 70 years old or older, to share their ministry with them. It wasn’t very long after she spoke with them that they called her and told her that they wanted to donate their church to the ministry, to be a home for the women seeking safe harbor. Now, she said, a place that saw 13 folks on Wednesday night and Sundays is teeming with life seven days a week, full of kids on the weekend when the little ones come to see their mothers, and there’s still church on Wednesday and Sunday. The original church members, save the one who has since died, have become the grandparents to these women who may have never had such caring, nurturing people in their lives.

Don’t you know it was a huge risk for a church to give up what it’s always been, to take a risk on a new ministry that didn’t even originate in their church, and to even do something different when they’re at a stage of life that is typically resistant to change? Take such a risk, such a leap of faith, illustrates how we can put God first in our lives and trust that whatever outcome arises, God will be there, too.

Certainty isn’t ours to have, and any time we make a choice, we might be taking a risk. But we do know that God alone is good and that the Paschal Mystery–the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ–is ours to ponder and to believe in. Let us do maintain our confession–our belief in God and of God’s son Jesus Christ–so that when we are told to “go,” to follow the way of Christ, it’s not because we lack anything but because we have one thing to gain: eternal life in God.

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Unconventional

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 | Psalm 125 | James 2:1-10, [11-13], 14-17 | Mark 7:24-37

As much as we know it to be true that we aren’t perfect, that we can’t do everything or know everything, there’s something in our society that has conditioned us to believe that we can be those things. Our working norm is that we just need x, y, z to get to that better, bigger, happier place.

Think about a baby shower. A whole list of items promises the parent(s)-to-be that everything will be bright, new, and perfect. Those of us who have been through the phase a time or two or four know that really there are just a few essentials you need. Everything else you need is intangible, but you won’t typically find those items on the registry: items like babysitting while you shower/nap, meals and snacks for the family, phone-a-friend permission at 3am when you’re pretty sure your baby is going to starve to death because you can’t tell if they’re nursing properly, a list of resources for a counselor, lactation consultant, mommy groups . . . you get the idea. In fact, if these are the kinds of things you brought to the Pinterest-perfect baby shower, you’d be getting all the strange looks because your gifts were unconventional at best.

Speaking of “unconventional,” the realtor and I were swapping homeopathic remedies the other day, and I told her of a time when we lived in Fayetteville and were having a pizza party, thanks to my husband’s wood-fired oven in the back yard. The rock patio in front of it wasn’t finished yet, so we had a lot of rocks sort of positioned and scattered around, and there were some places in the flagstone that were sheeting off, leaving some very sharp rocks exposed. Along with our hedgeapple tree in the back, the ground was a landmine of dangers for the barefoot kids inevitably running around, no matter how much we told them to wear their shoes.

My oldest refers to this time in our lives as our “hippy” phase. At best we were pretty granola, but I was surrounded by folks inclined to a more natural lifestyle, which suited me just fine. Of course one of my kids cut his foot on one of the rocks, across the bottom of his foot like a crescent. I fretted over whether to take him to the hospital, wondering if they’d really be able to do anything, worried we couldn’t afford the co-pay. One of the lovely, earthy ladies at the party assured me not to worry, that it didn’t look that bad. She asked if I had any onions and clay. (Fortunately my husband was too busy making pizza when this was all suggested!) But in my gut I trusted her, and after cleaning it as best we could, we used the onion skin and clay to make a pack over the wound, wrapping it with plastic wrap to hold it in place. I could check it in the morning.

When morning came, and I wondered if I had lost my mind, I checked the cut and decided we’d take him to the walk-in clinic. You can imagine the look on the doctor’s face when I told her what we’d done. After she wrote a prescription for an antibiotic, she looked at me incredulously. “If I give you this prescription, you will give it to him, right?” “Of course I will,” I told her; I meant it and followed through. And he’s still doing okay, as far as I can tell, and he says he remembers that night. Taking a little unconventional advice saved me a lot of worry and money (which would have been worth it had he been in danger). I still keep clay on hand for spider bites.

When we cross over from the conventional to unconventional, the whole environment feels precarious, doesn’t it? Do we risk ridicule? What will others think? Will it even work? Am we even right? There’s a lot of uncertainty in unconventionality, and above all things, we fear what we don’t know.

These examples, though, aren’t too far outside the realm of normal or acceptability. What we read about in the Gospel according to Mark takes us to a whole other level.

Not only is an unaccompanied woman approaching Jesus and the disciples at table, but she is a Gentile unaccompanied woman. The only thing I could think of similar in our time would be if I entered the men’s worship space of the Bentonville Islamic Center during their Friday prayers and went straight to the Imam to ask for help. “Unconventional” would be a mild word to describe such an action. I couldn’t imagine doing it unless it were a dire emergency, and for this mother, it is. There wasn’t an ER to which she could take her possessed child. In their time and place, the Jewish people, God’s chosen, are the “children,” and everyone else, the Gentiles, are the “dogs.” I don’t think I need to give examples of the racial slurs used today, for even by mentioning their existence, you already are thinking of them. Could you imagine our neighbor the Imam dismissing me in a time of crisis with demeaning words? Could you imagine if we were getting ready for worship when someone came up for help or assistance, and I cast them away, referring to them with a slur of our time while in the same breath referring to our blessedness?

Why is it okay for Jesus to do it? Is it okay?

We want to jump to the end result: the woman stood her ground, and her daughter is healed. Everything worked out okay.

But we can’t skip over the hard realities, and we know there are many ways we can view what is. There’s a reason why we have several news channels, why we even have four gospels. We all interpret our present moment through our particular lenses. Those lenses, in turn, affect how we judge other people’s actions and reactions.

A woman finds Jesus when he’s trying to go unnoticed. She begs for healing for her daughter, but Jesus points out that the children are fed first, that it’s not fair to throw their food to the dogs. But she points out that even the dogs eat the children’s crumbs, and Jesus says that her daughter is healed, cleansed of the demon that had possessed her. The woman returned home and found the demon gone from her child.

As unconventional and unacceptable as it was for the woman to approach Jesus, so, too, was his offering healing to the Gentile woman, someone from the outside. She was an “other” in every sense of the word, yet Jesus extended his healing grace to her and her daughter. When I read this, I acknowledge that Jesus is using unfavorable images and language, but I see him making a statement of their reality, calling out the dissension in the community. He’s calling it out, and even as she recognizes the duality, the conflict, the woman also recognizes her need and the presence of that which will nourish her and her family. It reminds me of the hemorrhaging woman who had nothing else to lose and just needed to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment. They have faith. They believe. They respond wholeheartedly and vulnerably in the presence of Christ, and they are healed.

Jesus had to state what was the contemporary norm, what was considered conventional and acceptable. To us it seems very un-Jesus-like because Jesus is all about standing up for the poor, the sick, and the needy. He is! Yet he was also in the midst of his faithful followers, who were probably shaking their head in agreement with him even as they looked upon the woman with disdain, if they regarded her at all.

But Jesus crosses over into the unconventional when he listens to the distressed woman, engages with her in conversation, and then heals her daughter as she requested. Because no matter what the social norms were or are, Jesus is about doing the will of God, and God is for everyone, even if our society can’t see that or live into it, evidenced in our ongoing disdain and massacre of one another.

Our gospel continues with what seems like another general healing story, a little more graphic than we’re used to, with Jesus plugging a man’s ears and spitting and touching tongues and all, but a healing to be celebrated for sure. Jesus heals the deaf and mute, giving them ears to hear and mouths to speak. He healed them with curious actions–one might say they’re unconventional–and a word unfamiliar to us: “Ephphatha” or “effata,” meaning “Be opened.”

Open ears and open mouths. Jesus is also known to open eyes, too. Those with eyes to see and ears to hear know something about the way of Jesus. Those with open mouths apparently couldn’t keep them closed as they zealously proclaimed the marvelous deeds of Jesus.

Is it another healing story? Yes. Is it more? I believe so.

Even today, we need to know–however we can–what is going on around us, and we need the courage to see it for what it is, even if we have to call it out. Abuse, harassment, fraud, racism, discrimination, bullying–we could be and probably are witness to any of these things on any given day. Unfortunately, it’s been the norm, the convention, not to ruffle any feathers, to pretend we didn’t notice, or to let it go. Whatever we see is the demon in the child, and we are the mother. Do we bind ourselves to conventionality, our societal norms and expectations, to keep things functioning however dysfunctionally so that everything looks okay on the surface? Or do we realize the crisis of the situation? That we’re only as healthy as our weakest member? Do we have the courage of a mother who is willing to go before God saying, “I’m not leaving until you grant me what I need to get through this.”

Giving unconventional baby shower gift certificates and using homeopathic poultices are baby steps compared to the steps Jesus asks us to take as Christians. May our ears be open to hear the direction God calls us toward, our courage be strengthened to stand strong in the face of the adversary, and our love of God be reflected in our true love of neighbor and ourselves. I look forward to the day when such radical love is the norm.

 

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What We Believe & Why We Do What We Do

Song of Solomon 2:8-13 | Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10 | James 1:17-27 | Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

There’s such familiarity in today’s readings that I feel they must be written on our hearts. These words of love, joy, and unity; words of encouragement and instruction; and words of Truth. These are words we live by–what we believe and what we do.

If you look on The Episcopal Church of the United States’ web page, you’ll find this under the “What We Believe” page:

“As Episcopalians we believe in a loving, liberating, and life-giving God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As constituent members of the Anglican Communion in the United States, we are descendants of and partners with the Church of England and the Scottish Episcopal Church, and are part of the third largest group of Christians in the world.

“We believe in following the teachings of Jesus Christ, whose life, death, and resurrection saved the world.

“We have a legacy of inclusion, aspiring to tell and exemplify God’s love for every human being; women and men serve as bishops, priests, and deacons in our church. Laypeople and clergy cooperate as leaders at all levels of our church. Leadership is a gift from God, and can be expressed by all people in our church, regardless of sexual identity or orientation.

“We believe that God loves you – no exceptions.”

(We’ve also copied it onto our web page since it’s pretty concise. Our web page, by the way, is getting a makeover, so check it out and offer us your feedback!)

We are a church grounded in the love of God, and Jesus Christ has shown us the way. There might be images and connotations in Song of Solomon that make us blush, but if we get past our own immaturity and contemplate a yearning and love of God fulfilled and in perfect unity, we get closer to the sentiment the wise words intend. Jesus has this love for the world, for the Church, for us.

We know we’re not perfect, that we are going to fall and let our own desires and the world come between us and God, but Jesus Christ is there for us, showing us the way, and making way for us to return to unity with God. Don’t you know that the writer of the book of James, had his own struggles to deal with? If he didn’t, his words to the people he’s preaching to wouldn’t ring true. (If you came to the video lectures in Christian education, you know that it’s unlikely that one of the apostles James, wrote the book, but what is written contains Truth, regardless of who wrote it.)

We focus a lot on authenticity, right? We shun hypocrisy, what is fake and insincere. Most of us can probably spot it a mile away, smell it like the stinky mushrooms that are invading my flower bed at home. James is being real. He’s saying, “If this is what you believe, then what do you do?” (He can also be read as a what-you-should-be-doing list, but that’s for another time.) The book of James is big on doing, not just believing and talking, and we’re given a quick test for religion that is pure and undefiled: does it “care for orphans and widows in their distress” and “keep (people) unstained by the world”?

I don’t think I’ve met her yet, but someone asked us through our Facebook messenger page,

“What is your church doing in the community to follow the ways of Jesus in supporting the widow, orphan, immigrant, single mother, impoverished, the LGBTQ community, etc?”

Maybe I should have sat and contemplated our ministry roster (that will be updated for our Ministry Fair on the 16th!), but what I did was reply as quickly as I could, as if I were being confronted by “James” himself:

“Thanks so much for reaching out with such poignant questions! Indeed we hope that we are following the Way of Jesus in many ways that directly reach out in love to the very people you name. For widows, there are several in our congregation, and they find community in their midst. Maybe someday we can have a more formal support for them. Outside the church itself, many widows, orphans, strangers, and immigrants are participants in the food pantry at Christ the King (the church we formerly shared space with). They also have a Feast of Grace once a month that is open to all. We’ve also joined up with the HomeTowne Suites feeding ministry that assists all kinds of folks who happen to find the motel their home. We also have our Spanish-speaking congregation, and we don’t ask about immigration status, though we are supportive of efforts to support anyone who needs assistance/support. Padre Guillermo often participates and offers prayers at events for the Hispanic community. I’m working on my Spanish skills! We were the only church from Bentonville that marched in the Pride parade in Fayetteville this June. We are open and affirming of or LGBTQ+ community, and The Episcopal Church offers marriage for LGBTQ+ partnerships.

“This seems really condensed but hopefully gives you a glance at our work made possible by our faith community nourished by Jesus Christ, our worship together to offer praise to God, and the power of the Holy Spirit.”

This was just a list off the top of my head in response to her questions, and this is just a portion of what we do here at All Saints’ because we believe in a triune God and the teachings and salvation of Jesus Christ.

So why do we do what we do? Why is it important that we do what we do authentically? . . . Because if we do good because of true belief and faith in our hearts, what we do won’t stink.

God knows I’m being lazy with those mushrooms by my front door. I get one whiff of them these days, and I grab the hoe (that I just leave by the porch since it must be stinky mushroom season), break them down, and cover them over with the mulch. I’m probably just encouraging their growth right there, saving the flies that spread their spores the trip. But y’all, these mushroom stink, smell like death or rotten meat. They’re gross. You’d have to be crazy to eat them, and I’m pretty sure your hands would stink for days if you touched them. But God has said it doesn’t really matter if what we touch is clean or not. Whatever we bring into our grasp, whatever we put in our bodies is just going to go to the sewer anyway (or perish in its materialism, yes?).

It’s what’s in our hearts that matters. It’s all that God wants. It’s what Jesus Christ already knows.

It’s easier to just make things look pretty on the outside, to cover up the stench with mulch or Glade or Febreeze or the most beautiful church ever, but to be pure and undefiled . . . that’s going to come from our hearts . . . that’s going to get at the source.

We do all that we do because we believe in a Way of Love, and it’s not always easy. It’s going to mean that we have to hold ourselves accountable and worship with people who might have a different opinion than we have, but what holds us together is greater than our worldly discrepancies, if what holds us together is the Love of God.

God also knows that we like things a certain way in The Episcopal Church. But I’m pretty sure we’re not asked anywhere in the scripture which vestments we wear, how centered the altar is, what kind of windows we have, or what kind of coffee we serve. What we are asked is: if we examine the works that we do, what does that say of our faith? What do we believe, and what does that say of our heart? What do we trust to be true in our heart of hearts? God knows, but if we hold up a mirror to ourselves, do we see clearly? Are we willing to be honest about who we are in all our beauty and imperfections? I believe we are. That’s why we confess. That’s why we reconcile ourselves to God through Christ: so we can receive the Body of Christ and go back out into the world in peace, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit to do good work in the name of a true religion that actually practices love. If that kind of thing isn’t for you, then this isn’t the church for you. If that kind of stirs your heart or gives you goosebumps or makes you smile, then stick around. Because we are a church that believes in Jesus Christ, and we can love one another so much because with all our hearts, souls, and mind, we love God. We love what God can do through us and with us. I love what God does with me, when I am weak and when I’m strong . . . but especially when I’m weak. More than true religion, I know true love. God loves me with that love, and I know without a doubt that God loves you with that true love, too.

 

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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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Come, Holy Spirit!

Acts 2:1-21 | Romans 8:22-27 | Psalm 104:25-35, 37 | John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Blaise Pascal, I’m reminded, “was a (17th century) French mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer, and Catholic theologian,” as described on Wikipedia. I sought the refresher on a familiar name because I read a little story about him that said he “kept a folded piece of paper with him, a note sewn into a hidden pocket in his coat. Scribbled on the page were intimate truths about God, including this line: ‘Christ will be in agony until the end of the world.’” The author, Isaac Villegas, a pastor of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, adds “that (Christ’s) agony is love.” Pascal titled the note: The Mystery of Jesus.

Last week I emphasized that at the Last Supper that stretches out in the Gospel of John (also containing today’s reading), Jesus pours out his love for the disciples, and that he had to leave them was not without all the emotions and sentiments of self-sacrificing love–like a loving mother not wanting to be separated from her child. Villegas says that what Pascal identified as truth was that though Christ was glorified, ascended to the throne of God, he bears the agony, the anguish of “an unbearable separation from his beloved, his life straining toward his disciples on earth, his body pressing through eternity and reaching for communion with us.” Apparently the mystery of Jesus is his enduring love for us. And that love has no boundaries. Thanks to the Holy Spirit, this mysterious love is brought to us, be it in a violent wind or sighs too deep for words.

You know I’m not going to get through this without mentioning the Royal Wedding. I hope you watched at least the sermon offered by Presiding Bishop Michael Curry (or at least listened to the music). Truly, I hoped you watched the whole thing, as it was a glorious celebration in our tradition, and it was full of faith, hope, and love. In a week marked by tragedy again in our schools, a horrible plane crash, and any number of tragic turn of events, for a little while we’re reminded of something more than death and suffering. Bishop Curry seized the moment for the glory of God by shining his light on Love, love that has the power to heal the world, to bring about a new world. Knowing he’s preaching to leaders and the powerful, he asks them and the commoners listening from afar if we can think of or imagine neighborhoods ruled by love, communities governed by love, corporations, institutions, nations leading in the way of love. He spoke about the power humans obtained when we learned to harness fire and how when we truly discover love and the power it holds, it will be the second greatest discovery for humankind. It makes sense that so often love is compared to fire: love is as powerful, burns as brightly, and can be all-consuming.

Love is powerful, and perhaps love, like fire, needs room to breathe.

Had Jesus stayed in one place for all time in one form, how constrictive would that be to the Gospel? In Jesus’s leaving and promise of sending the Advocate, what was accomplished? Jesus said he would be betrayed and die and rise again, and he did. Jesus said he would be going to the Father but would send an Advocate, and he did. Jesus promises not to leave us comfortless, and here we are . . . wondering, doubting, not knowing. We hear the familiar story of the wind and the languages, but maybe we think it’s just that: a story.

Fortunately, our tradition is full of stories; it’s our narrative. From this narrative, our tradition pulls the great Truths, especially how we understand God’s love.

And God’s love is disruptive, especially in its full power, especially when two or three are gathered in the name of Jesus Christ.

Martin Luther King, Jr., knew it; it’s him that Bp. Curry quoted. The black and white men and women who gathered at Azusa Street in 1906 that birthed American Pentecostalism, so overwhelmed with Spirit they were that the nation’s segregated order fell away to a “holy, insurgent communion.” These revolutionaries rose up. They found a power that even if they couldn’t harness, they could tap into the power. The power was love, fueled by the fire of Holy Spirit. And it might look like we’re drunk on new wine, so disorienting can the holy experience of divine love and spirit be, even at 9 in the morning. And when we get caught up in the Holy Spirit, we might get really excited and be going ninety-to-nothing toward something we don’t know for certain. But we’re tethered to Jesus Christ in a solid relationship. We’re firm in our foundation as a child of God, bound to God in love. And so Spirit can come and blow like a mighty wind and bestow upon us gifts that help us build beloved community, a new world . . . even if it disrupts the status quo.

We don’t always know what will happen when we’re feeling faithful and brave and sincerely pray, “Come, Holy Spirit! God’s will be done.” Yet we can be assured that more often than not the next thoughts are, “What have I done?” We get caught up in the power of God’s love, the momentum of the power of the Holy Spirit and lose ourselves, maybe, for a bit.

Maybe that’s the point: to lose ourselves in love of God, to let go of our certainty long enough to give Spirit a little breathing room and some space to flourish without trying to fit into the constraints of our realm of what is safe, practical, and not terribly uncomfortable. As Bishop Curry and Archbishop Welby said in an interview after the Royal Wedding, there’s nothing conventional about Christianity. If it seems so disruptive, maybe we need to think of what’s happened to the power of love in our tradition. Where do we feel it stirring today? Is it your own love and yearning for Christ that guides you now? Or is there something burning within, something only you can do? It could be that you’re given the language someone else needs to hear . . . or the idea, or task, or witness. But rest assured, God is with us. God loves us, and all of our beating hearts here today were made for this: we’re made to love, fiercely and fearlessly.

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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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Boundaries of Limitless Love

Acts 10:44-48 | Psalm 98 | 1 John 5:1-6 | John 15:9-17

I’m not exactly sure why, but this is one of my favorite verses: “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” Maybe it’s because reading this every time feels like Jesus is speaking to me (I hope you feel Jesus is speaking directly to you because I really feel like he’s almost whispering this to me). There’s intimacy here of a beloved friend. And joy. Ah, sweet joy. If you’ve ever seen the movie Inside Out, they capture the inner workings of our mind-controlling emotions, and I think they do it quite well. Joy is one of my dominant emotions, and she wants to be fed and seen and expressed and complete . . . whole. For me, joy made complete feels nothing less than a mountain-top experience: radiant like the sun soaked into every pore, full-bloom, fulfilled and ready to burst into love outpoured. That’s my joy, but it’s not always mountain-top highs. Sometimes it’s more subdued in those everyday moments that still bring that sense of fulfillment, contentment, abundance, and desire to share all of that with those around me–not by force but by mutual desire.

Jesus says he’s told us the things to complete our joy. We’ve all heard them. So why aren’t we all walking around 100-percent joyful all the time? Jesus says he’s given us the key. We have full access.

Peter has the key, too. (Literally, doesn’t he hold the keys to the kingdom of heaven? Mtw. 16:19) Peter’s love has been reaffirmed in Jesus’ resurrection (remember he has to repeat his love for the Lord three times, enough to counter his three denials, yes?), and Peter continues the work of a disciple, proclaiming God’s love and the power of belief in Jesus Christ. And like Philip evangelizing to the eunuch last week, Peter is crossing social norms to evangelize to the Gentiles.

When I read these verses, I can’t help of thinking of Peter as being sort of a Great Showman, like Barnum speaking to new recruits, surprised to learn that they are truly gifted. If we read these verses in the context of Chapter 10 from the beginning, we get a better sense of Peter’s attitude through his resistance to eat unclean foods (though he’s been told all things have been made clean) and his continued resistance to associate with the Gentiles. Maybe Peter just really doesn’t want to be there. These aren’t his people, aren’t his friends. They’re of a different culture, from a different neighborhood. He’s been brought up not to associate with this kind.

But bless Peter for following Jesus, for going into forbidden relationships with love of God put above all things–even above himself. Low and behold, the Holy Spirit shows up, gifts the Gentiles and opens Peter’s eyes and mind again to realize: who can withhold the power of Spirit? Who could dam up the water God makes abundant to baptize those who desire it? For the grace and power of God are free to all and are not limited by social labels or barriers. Thanks be to God!

Last week I mentioned the “loving, liberating, life-giving” theme of General Convention. This week I found myself wondering: why liberation in regard to our relationship with God? God’s grace and power are free, unconditional, and limitless. But Peter’s story illustrates perfectly why we need liberation. We, with our beautiful, blessed free will, don’t have to recognize or even realize God’s grace and power, and we’re awfully good about creating all the boundaries and barriers that separate us from one another and from God. Separate from God, it’s a race to see who or what has the most power in our lives. Even within the Church, there’s competition or at least comparison to see who has the biggest, best, most.

Even if we had the greatest Sunday attendance, biggest, best building, I don’t think that would make my–or our–joy complete. That’s not what Jesus was saying. But what Jesus did say gave us the keys to our own liberation so that we can live into that loving, life-giving way he made so readily available to us.

Jesus says:

  1. Get off your high horse and abide in my love.
  2. Keep the commandment to love one another as I have loved you.

That’s it. That’s the key.

Getting off our high horse means putting God first. God’s love shown through the love between Father and Son. Effortless yet requiring everything. In their very nature. Selfless, whole, unconditional. Chosen. Beloved. Jesus loves each person with this kind of love, and we’re called to be loved and love in return, to abide in this love. Soak in it until we’re saturated. Be loved, beloved. Abide can mean accept. Can we accept our belovedness?

If we can accept our belovedness and abide in love, the second point is easier, though not easy. It’s easy to love those who share our station, beliefs, and opinions. It’s not as easy to love with any manner of grace those who differ completely, especially if they challenge us directly. But it does get easier. If we can try to comprehend how beloved we are, even with all our faults and imperfections, we begin to truly believe that “others” are beloved, too. And even if I don’t like what someone does or how they live their life or what they profess, I can at least try to love them as Jesus loves them. The doors that closed in Jesus’ and the apostles’ faces as they brought peace were closed by people Jesus loved. Yet he didn’t force his way in. That’s true love, right–freely given to be freely received. I guess God’s unconditional love is conditionally manifested–we have to unlock its potential.

Thursday was the National Day of Prayer, right? And it wasn’t until I was reading about it on their website that I realized our National Day of Prayer is particularly Christian. This works for me, for us Christians, but I wonder about the millions who are about to start their prayers and fasting for Ramadan next week, those who sit in silence according to their philosophy and as a means of contributing to their right living, or those who whether they go to church or not when they’re outdoors they marvel at creation, its beauty, and feel close to something they can’t quite name. This is why we keep Time to Breathe as a time set apart for silence, meditation, prayer, or whatever it is you call your time to sit and be, your time to abide in your belovedness.

I want to give myself accolades for being so open and loving, but then I’m walking to the square on Friday evening, having parked at Christ the King. The weather’s gorgeous, the place abuzz, and then this car with two huge Confederate flags waving above it, nearly as big as the car, passes by for everyone to see. I can’t hide my face, for that’s how I feel about it. I notice a couple who doesn’t exactly look like they’re from around here, though maybe they are, and I read their lips as they say something like, “Did you see that? Really?” They look my way, their face matching my expression, and I say, “Classy, isn’t it?” “I know, right?” was their response. And then I realize what I’ve done, in my out loud voice. I’m so glad I wasn’t in my clericals, but then I was in my All Saints’ shirt, where “All are welcome.” All except that guy, right?

I may not agree with that guy, but I can love him as a neighbor. I won’t agree with what he’s suggesting, and I would stand between him and a friend should he pose a threat or my friend threaten him. Violence works both ways, and it’s not the way of love. It gets complicated fast, and it demands our sense of presence and awareness to truly see the love of God in all things and above all things.

That’s what all of this love business is about: manifesting the power of God’s love in our lives.

In society it looks like justice. In relationships it looks like mutual respect and nonviolence. In our education it looks like wisdom. In our prisons it looks like reconciliation and redemption. At our table it looks like radical hospitality.

All of this is readily available to us, just waiting on the next willing heart to open to receive the power of the Holy Spirit. What’s to come when we unlock the love of God in our lives truly surpasses our understanding, but it might be something like joy made complete.

 

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Written on our Hearts

Jeremiah 31:31-34 | Psalm 51:1-13 | Hebrews 5:5-10 | John 12:20-33

On this fifth Sunday in Lent, it seems like being so far into the wilderness journey that I should be bowing my head parched in penitence, wearing my sackcloth and ashes. Especially revisiting Psalm 51, the same psalm we recite as we receive the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday. But I got to attend an ordination this weekend, and to me those services are nearly as joyful as baptisms. I get giddy with joy, even though I know the life in ministry is full of its own trials and tribulations. The bishop ordained six new deacons into the church, one of whom was our own Greg Warren, and it was a delight, honor, and privilege to serve as one of his presenters, alongside Mark. This solemn-joyful contrast reminded me of the video I sent out along with the newsletter this week, the one where Jesus needs some time alone and embarks on the forty days in the desert. Along his way, halfway through, he finds a flower, another day he chases birds, gazes at the sunset, or whistles with a bird. These are portrayed as pleasant experiences, in sharp contrast to the circling vultures, chapped lips, and tests of Satan.

Just because we’re going through a season of acknowledging our sins, of recounting the commandments, of bowing before the Lord in prayer . . . this doesn’t mean that there won’t also be moments of wonder, delight, awe, and even joy. This is life, right? If you’ve ever gone on a strict diet or done a cleanse (I’ve only really done it once or twice), after the first three days of feeling really yucky, there’s a sense of clarity that arrives with being more healthy.

Having let go of that which we don’t need, there’s a lightness and new perspective that’s especially focused around that which we really need.

The Greeks on their way to a festival decided they needed to see Jesus. They did what any of us would do: they go up to someone like them who has a connection to the one they seek. Philip then goes to Andrew, and then they go to Jesus who then says the time has come and again remarks about the kind of death he would die. We don’t know if the Greeks got to see Jesus, but something about their seeking was enough to signify to Jesus that the time was ripe, that his mission was drawing near to completion. For no longer was it just the inner circles who were hearing the message of Jesus; news about the new Way was touching the hearts and minds of others. There was a desire to see Jesus.

When I think about where desire comes from, I think it comes from somewhere deep within. I think of desire as a yearning of the heart. For those of us who just can’t stay away from the church even when we’ve gotten mad or doubted or just wanted to be lazy on Sunday morning, maybe we feel a connection to the Israelites upon whose hearts the LORD had written the law so that God would ever be their God and they God’s people. This was a new covenant for the Israelites because it focused on an internal knowing and God’s forgiveness–not a new law but a new covenant, one that indicated an inward transformation of the human heart that (would) allow the people to know God intimately and to be obedient to the commandments.” This sounds strikingly familiar to us Christians who believe God sent Jesus Christ to bring us a new covenant that transforms the lives of those who believe and commands us to love.

If only we could read what was written on each of our hearts, what the mark of our Creator has spoken to each of us.  How many layers of barriers do you think we need to peel away before we get to a place where we not only recognize with our minds but truly know in our heart, in our being, that we are not only created with love, commanded to love but also worthy of love?

How different do you think our society would be if we lived into what is written upon our hearts?

We’re wrapping up Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy this week in our Lenten Soup and Study (so if you haven’t been and want to see what that’s like, this is your last chance!). Last week we discussed the chapter titled “Mother, Mother,” which shared stories of women who had been incarcerated, separated from their children. This is tough, painful material. Particularly we focused on the story of Marsha. Marsha and her husband both worked but still didn’t have enough to make ends meet. They lived with their six children in a FEMA trailer, their house having been destroyed by a hurricane. The trailer was right by their ruined home so they could keep the kids in the same schools, for these are devoted parents, determined not to fall back into a life destroyed by addiction. Stevenson captures beautifully the love and devotion Marsha has for her children: what she can’t provide for them monetarily, she makes up for in her love and affection, spending time with the children, reading and playing with them, staying clean and sober. When she finds out that she is pregnant, she does what many a poor mother has done and sacrificed her healthcare rather than deprive the rest of the family. She figures she’s been pregnant many times before and pretty much knows what to expect. She would love this child as much as her others. Without prenatal care, however, she missed or ignored the warning signs that her pregnancy showed complications. On a particularly tiresome day she went to soak in the tub of their previous home that still had water . . . only she was met with a fierce and quick preterm labor, and she birthed her stillborn child. She loved the baby instantly and grieved its loss. The family mourned together and held a burial for it at their home. But we know there’s no rest for the weary. Life marched on for them.

But a neighbor . . . a neighbor noticed that Marsha, who had been pregnant, was no longer pregnant, and there wasn’t an infant in sight.

If this were the case for one of our neighbors, mightn’t we wonder what had happened? Wouldn’t we take a deep breath to fortify ourselves and approach our neighbor to gently ask how she’s doing, what happened? I certainly hope I’d be brave enough to ask directly.

But that’s not what the neighbor did. The neighbor reported her to the authorities who came out and searched the place, took pictures of an unflushed toilet and a beer can which was used to testify to the improper, unclean living environment. The baby’s body was exhumed and examined by a fraud of a pathologist who declared that had there been medical attention at the birth, the child would have lived (this wasn’t the case, as determined by credible doctors who testified). But Marsha ended up serving ten years in prison before Stevenson helped her get released. Ten years of being separated from her children. (Children of incarcerated parents are so much more likely to end up drug addicted and/or incarcerated themselves.) One of our study group questions was “who was the most guilty one in Marsha’s case?” We unanimously agreed that it was the neighbor. Instead of showing an ounce of concern or compassion, she had made a judgment that ended up dividing a family, sending them into a wilderness more harsh than the one they were already traversing. She didn’t bother to ask what happened, to know Marsha’s story, to even get a glimpse at what was written on her heart. Lest we be quick to decide that this neighbor was just one of those gossipy women who has her nose in everyone’s business, we don’t know her story, either, what pains and hurts she carries that has blinded her to the call for compassion and love of neighbor. Maybe she thought what she needed to do was make sure that someone else was following the law of the land, blind to the command on her own heart that comes from God.

How well are we listening to the true desire of our heart–not the superficial ones that we mask with whatever makes us feel good in the moment but the deep desire that pulls us in the direction of Christ? Following this desire will definitely lead us into the wilderness where we will have to make choices on whether we hide and build up more barriers or let go and persist along the Way, calling out to God to “Create in me a clean heart . . . and renew a right spirit within me” (Ps. 51:11). It is the clean heart and right spirit that guides us with clarity toward what is written on our heart, that delights in the joyful even amidst the darkness, and that keeps us tethered on our way to seeing Jesus in everyone around us. It’s also this clean heart and right spirit that we’re refining throughout Lent that painfully become part of the crowd who shout, “Crucify him!” in the Passion Narrative. We’re working so hard, dear Christians, to seek Jesus, to see him in our neighbors. Let us not forget how easy it is to slip into darkness and judgment and be the mob quick to crucify and to deny the message of love written on our heart.

 

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Words to Live By

Exodus 20:1-17 | Psalm 19 | 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 | John 2:13-22

Back when we had the Works of Light series in Epiphany during Christian Education, Cathy Luck came and spoke to us about a local program modeled after the Magdalene House (Oasis NWA), and Deacon John Reese spoke to us about efforts to get an Oxford House started. Both of these programs helps people who might otherwise be homeless. The Oxford Houses are specifically geared to be homes for those in recovery. They’re not halfway houses or transition homes: they’re an Oxford House, which brings with it nationwide credibility and accountability. Places like this are desperately needed not only because affordable housing is a critical need but also because addicts who are striving each day to stay in recovery are among a very vulnerable population. If ever a time we needed to step in and offer assistance, it’s now. I learned just this weekend that as far as mortality rates go, the mortality rate in working-age adults has actually risen, in large part due to the opioid crisis. We need homes like these to help people who are pushed to the margins, forgotten about, and sometimes even left to die. I’m reminded of the Collect for the Day: “we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.”

The Oxford House is a successful model in large part because they have a 43-year history of refining details that work to help. About 80% of their folks stay clean, and they never remove someone from a house unless they break one of the three rules. The basic rules are: 1) participate in the democratically-run house; 2) stay clean–zero tolerance for relapse; 3) share in chores and expenses. That’s it, and the houses are financially self-sustaining by the rent the residents pay per week. Now, they probably also have further charters or agreements particular to each house, depending on where they live, but the ground rules are set, rooted in the nine traditions of the Oxford House program. These rules and requirements create a safety net and an accountability network that helps people stay clean–in body and house (they really are particular about keeping a clean home!).

Likewise, in the Magdalene House model, the are 24 Principles that the women of the house follow, things like “cry with your Creator,” “find your place in the circle,” “forgive and feel freedom,” and “laugh at yourself.” These principles shape the sense of who each woman is in the house community but also helps form the important Circle with consistency and intention, deeply rooted in listening to self and other around a single candle.

So when I hear about Moses receiving the words of the Ten Commandments (and I have to try hard not to just picture Charlton Heston with his white beard and outstretched arms holding stone tablets!), I absolutely hear them as law coming to the people of Israel as a means of helping them survive so that they’ll make it to and through the Promised Land to live out their lives and that of their descendents as faithful chosen ones. These are their rules to live by, though they’re not the only ones. They begin with “I am the LORD your God.” God is making sure God’s people know that it is He who has delivered them from Egypt, and it is only God who will keep the covenants with them. God is the only God they’re to worship–not that there weren’t other gods to contend with in the polytheistic culture they lived in–but that this God is the only one for them. These Ten Commandments are basically broken down into the first four being about duty to God, in believing and trusting in God, and about duty to neighbors, in loving them as ourselves and doing to them as we would have them do to us. The Catechism in our Book of Common Prayer offers more of a present-day read on the Commandments, because it turns out that these laws remain valid in our Christian life. As the Jews did, we’ve done, too: we’ve added a lot of charters, agreements, and even unspoken rules and cultural norms.

But at the Interfaith workshop at Hendrix I went to yesterday (“Cultivating an Interfaith Mindset in Rural Arkansas”), Dr. Jay McDaniel pointed out that when we’re trying to understand people from different faith traditions, we don’t go up to them and ask them what their 10 guiding principles are; we don’t say, “What are your 10 Rules for being x?” If we do, we might get a sense of why the do/don’t do what they do, but we lose sight of who they are in relationship with others around them.

When Jesus entered the temple and fashioned a whip bound by his righteous anger, he cleared the place and overturned the tables. It was all wrong, apparently. Often we hear that Jesus was angry because people who come to make sacrifices have been taken advantage of, being forced to pay inflated prices for whatever it is they needed. (I liken it to having to pay for gas at the only gas station for 50 miles; convenience comes at a price.) But this year I read this as Jesus clearing it all out. All the material, all the consumerism, all the stuff that also includes the ridiculously complicated laws/rules/requirements for living and practicing a faithful Jewish life. I say this because Jesus clears the temple and then draws the attention to the true House of God in their midst, his own Body, the Temple that will be destroyed and risen again in three days. This doesn’t make sense to anyone, and they would rather have a miraculous sign now. But Jesus has given them a sign, told them what to look for. When they look back on this moment, the disciples remember his words. Jesus’s whole ministry has been about providing signs, working miracles, showing the incredible power in their midst–if only they had eyes to see and ears to hear, if only they weren’t so jaded in their self-perceived wisdom.

In the human body the Divine worked to break down the boundaries and barriers that all the laws and rules and regulations had created. Jesus supped with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus defended the accused, healed the leperous, spoke with the outcast even if it was the opposite sex, and never turns away anyone who recognized the Life and Love he offered. Jesus tells them and us what the most important commandment is: to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. We’re also to love our neighbors as ourselves. It really hasn’t changed, though everything changed with Christ. In Jesus Christ, God gives us our new covenant that knows no boundaries. In Jesus Christ, the new word that God gives God’s people is Love, Love revealed to us in the Word made flesh.

And how are we doing with that?

In Northwest Arkansas we have a child poverty rate of 27%. While homelessness in Arkansas statistically had dropped 10% since 2010, there are still just over 2,400 homeless in Arkansas, if the counts have collected everyone. The nation-wide Poor People’s Campaign–and we have the Arkansas Poor People’s Campaign in our state–there’s a call for a moral revival because the sins we’re living with now aren’t market extortion for sheep and cattle and doves but the sins of hunger, fear, and poverty. And if we look to the children, about one in three reflect that we’ve fallen behind in duty to our neighbor, and we’ve fallen behind on that because we’re obviously having a hard time with our duty to believe and trust in God. We’ve become pretty good at being self-sufficient at the surface level; most days the market’s going just fine. But the currents of fear that ripple through are eating away at our hearts. For all the measures of success, we’re having to turn a blind eye to more and more of the signs we have now that we’re forgetting our greatest Word: Love. We’re forgetting Jesus Christ.

Maybe we’re waiting for Jesus to come back with a great whip and clear the marketplace and make all things new in a great dramatic show. But in three weeks, we get to recount the Passion that Jesus underwent. If our heart, souls, and minds have been marked by Jesus Christ, when we experience the Passion, we don’t want anything like that to happen again. We certainly don’t want to be an advocate for it. Yet each fatal shooting, each overdose, each homeless, each hallowed face from hunger, each chronically ill and uninsured, each uneducated mind is a sign to us that we’ve put other gods before our God and that the Word God gave us in the Body of the Son, well, there are more important things that have to be done. That’s not the love Jesus brought to our awareness. That “take care of me first” kind of love actually reduces God’s place, and, again, we see signs of that at every corner, in every report about society and environment.

“We have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.” Thankfully God gives us the power through Christ and the Holy Spirit. But first we have to open our hearts and minds and souls to receive the Love that God gave and continues to give and have to courage to change everything because of that Word, that Love.

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