Trust & Lament

Genesis 15:1-12,17-18 | Psalm 27 | Philippians 3:17-4:1 | Luke 13:31-35

Maybe you, too, have an uncle or family member who has shared a similar thought: I vividly remember him telling me that the harder he tried to do good and actually did acts of kindness, the worse things got. This comes to mind in a week when I’ve invited us to reflect on gratitude this week as part of our Lenten journey. When we’ve made it through the wilderness, through times of trial, what is it we’re grateful for? What are we grateful for in this moment? Each week in our Prayers of the People, we offer thanksgivings for our blessings, and since there’s not enough time to name each one, we at least pause in a moment of thankfulness. Intensely focused on what is good, what is going well, we come to late Thursday evening or maybe Friday morning with the tragic news of the mass shootings in New Zealand. In mosques. In places of worship. An outright hate crime. 49 dead. At least 40 more wounded. What does that do to our sense of gratitude?

I suppose it depends on who we are and how we choose to react in situations of adversity, when it seems like the Adversary is making an outright attack. I made a quick decision not to click on any links to videos or manifestos so as not to feed more attention to the horrendous crimes that were intentionally set up to grab media attention and go viral. I let our Muslim community here know of our support and solidarity with them. I am genuinely thankful for them. I went to one of their Friday prayer services, where I listened to their prayers spoken and chanted in Arabic. They reminded me of the Ramadan calls to prayer I heard when I was in the holy land. I wore a scarf I bought in Israel, where tensions run high between Christian, Muslim, and Jew, yet they live side by side and have for millennia. I listened to the lecture from the leader who spoke about anger being a natural reaction but one the faithful are not inclined to embody, lest they sound like a braying donkey. I continue to be grateful for faith witnessing to peace.

What in my faith, as a Christian, led me to wear a scarf and go sit among our female Muslim neighbors and some of their children? Sincere love of neighbor. Compassion. Compassion sees suffering and shares in it. That suffering might be anger, grief, or deep sadness. With empathy, we can feel what one another feels. My faith response to trial and grief is to turn to prayer first, so in support and solidarity, I offer not only my own prayers and condolences, but I go and sit with those who are scared, angry, and/or sad.

And what of our prayers? Are they always “Lord, have mercy,” “thank you,” and “thy will be done”? They can be. That’s enough. But my experience is that life is more complicated than that. Our tradition shows us that prayers to God get challenging, but they are nothing that God can’t handle.

Take what we hear in our lesson from Genesis today. The word of the Lord comes to Abram in a vision. This is before Abram is Abraham, before he’s fathered a child, and that is the focus of this encounter. God has promised Abram that he will be the father of many descendants, but so far the only children in his household are those born to slaves, not his children (this is even before the birth of Isaac). Much time has passed since Abram first had this promise from God, so here in Chapter 15, God speaks to Abram not to be afraid because Abram is afraid that the promise isn’t going to come true. Abram fears that something isn’t right, that the promise won’t be fulfilled. Abram offers his lament to God, and God responds, renewing his promise, making a covenant with him–that’s what all that business with the animals is. The original promise is made and even more is promised, with the land being promised, too. God heard Abram’s lament and responded, not with the actual fulfillment yet but with promise for even more. And Abram believed. And the LORD reckoned it as righteousness. In faith, Abram trusted that God was remaining faithful, that the covenant made would be kept.

Most of us don’t have direct encounters with the word of God. For most of us, we have a more one-sided prayer that mirrors that of the psalmist’s, which again portrays great faith and trust in God yet is not without lament. The psalmist speaks of trouble and enemies, pleads for mercy and attention, and begs not to be forsaken and to be delivered. There is physical, emotional, and spiritual turmoil present for the psalmist, a holistic view of someone in distress, crying out to God in pain and suffering and yet with faith and trust that “the LORD is my light and my salvation,” “the strength of my life.”

This psalm speaks to me deeply, to my great faith and to times of trauma in my life when it feels nearly like an out-of-body experience. Yes, my faith is strong, but, O God, this reality can be too much to bear. The worst thing imaginable in that moment is to be forsaken even by God when all that I know and have evidence of seems to have turned against or away from me. The trust of the psalmist is that the LORD will sustain us, won’t abandon us, will be our comfort, and is our salvation.

The mosaic on the altar in Jerusalem in the chapel where the Lord wept.

I would like to think that we wouldn’t have to have times of trial and despair to experience the tremendous love of God, but in the times when we feel most abandoned, when we hunger and thirst most for fulfillment, that is the feeling that I imagine gets closest to the yearning that God has for us, the desire to share that unconditional love, the desire that Jesus expressed as a longing to gather “children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” Why could Jesus not gather the children of Jerusalem together? Because they “were not willing.” They didn’t have the trust or desire to partake in the work of God that Jesus presented, yet Jesus is entirely about doing the will of God, not bending to the powers that be or even protecting his bodily interest.

As the letter to the Philippians emphasizes, our being Christian and following the way of the cross, the way of life through Christ, is not about self-preservation, self-fulfillment, personal glory, or materialism. Our Way of Love through Christ is bigger than any one of us, and, like Paul, we experience sadness when others suffer with despair, without recourse to a broader network of faith, hope, and love.

Like the image of the good shepherd seeking out even the one lost sheep, the image of the hen gathering all the chicks under her wing gives us a glimpse at an aspect of God we might not expect or might shy away from. The image of a hen protecting her chicks is not only intimate but also vulnerable, yet is it no less vulnerable than a man hanging on a cross, an image we might also rather shy away from, preferring instead the resurrected Jesus, full of Light and Glory?

God knows our trust and our fear, our faith and our doubt, our joy and our lament, and God does not shy away from them but stands all the stronger in the midst of them, especially in our weakness. How can I continue to breathe through my racing heart and shallow breath in times of great fear? How can I continue to live in the face of great tragedy, especially if it is someone I love so deeply? Because we are so loved. Because we have been so loved, so are we called to love others, regardless of what evils we face, what persecution we experience, what fears we have in this body and this life.

There is so much we don’t know, that we can’t see, that we can’t describe. Yet we have experienced an ineffable, unexplainable presence of God working in our lives that has changed us into people who live into our faith, not without trials or doubts or suffering, but with resolve to act in ways of love. Our belief in Jesus Christ as our Savior and the understanding of our relationship with Jesus and thus with God enable us to be incredible witnesses to the love of God. How we act day to day may evangelize more than anything else we say because we never know who is paying attention. We do what we do out of love, without expecting anything in return, because we already know that we are loved by God.

But when we return the gesture of love, isn’t there great joy? When we are the stranger at the mosque and are welcomed with a smile . . . when someone replies with gratitude for a kindness offered . . . for me that seems to get close to what it feels like willingly to be gathered into mutual love, to be enfolded in the embrace of sheltering arms or wings. We need not hesitate to live into our faith and trust. We don’t need to hold back when we want to rage or lament to God, even against God. God can take it. God won’t drown in our sorrows or tears or be tossed about by the tempest and chaos of our lives and actions. As the psalmist instructs the reader to wait patiently for the LORD, trusting that God fulfills promises faithfully in God’s time, God waits for us with infinite patience and perfect love.

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Superpower

Genesis 45:3-11, 15 | 1 Corinthians 15:35-38,42-50 | Luke 6:27-38 | Psalm 37:1-12, 41-42

I can’t help but wonder if, when the lectionary committee was deciding which Old Testament reading to put with today’s gospel, they had to draw straws as to which story was the most gut-wrenching story of forgiving one’s enemy. Because there are loads of stories about people doing wrong by their neighbor but mostly doing wrong by their family, and not every story gives us an illustration of forgiveness, either.

Recall that Joseph, beloved son of Jacob, was thrown into a well and then sold to traders by his brothers, was accused of raping an officer’s wife (because he wouldn’t have an affair with her) and imprisoned, and then because he interpreted Pharaoh’s dream, was released and rose to power, second only to the Pharaoh himself. It was Joseph’s planning through the seven years of plenty that prepared Egypt for the seven years of famine, that not only made Egypt the breadbasket of the world but also saved the people from starvation, including the very brothers who had cast him away, good as dead.

You’ll have to go back read Genesis 42-44 to get the full story of how the brothers go to Egypt for their stores, experience the dramatic irony of the brothers not realizing that it is their Joseph who is their lord, their saving grace. The recognition between the brothers does not start with our lesson today. Chapter 45 begins:

“Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, ‘Send everyone away from me.’ So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it.” (vv. 1-2)

And then we begin with today’s reading, when Joseph addresses his brothers, re-introducing himself and inquiring about his father. Is he still alive? But the brothers can’t answer him, “dismayed” at his presence. Dismayed? The Jewish Study Bible contains a more accurate description, I think: “…his brothers could not answer him, so dumbfounded were they on account of him.”

After all he has been through and all that he has done for them, Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers, and he breaks down. Breaking down doesn’t give Joseph credit, though, and perpetuates the stereotype that to show emotion is a weakness. This man who is second to the Pharaoh sobs before his brothers so loudly that everyone in the vicinity can hear him. The floodgates of emotion–of grief, loneliness, heartbreak, anger, worry, fear, anxiety–all of that and more, I’m sure, are finally released. Of course the brothers are dumbfounded. They tried to kill Joseph, and when they finally meet him again, he’s a great man of power, sobbing, and inquiring about his father’s well-being. They don’t know what to do.

They don’t recognize him. Do you think that’s because if he really was their brother, this isn’t how they expect him to react? Maybe Joseph realizes this might be the case, too, so what does he ask them to do?

“Come closer to me.”

Come closer to him so that they can see into his eyes, recognize the familiarities that persist through time. Listen to him as he says he knows they’re the ones who sold him into slavery. Listen to him as he says that he sees God’s hand at work because in all of this, it is Joseph’s presence in Egypt that has saved them. In fact, he says that it was God who sent him there, ultimately to serve as lord and ruler of the whole land of Egypt. He tells them what to do, essentially to go get their father and all their things and come live in Goshen near him, and he kisses them all, weeping with them, and only then are they able to speak with him, covered in his tears and affection.

This story takes any story we have of sibling rivalry to a whole other level, doesn’t it? And it says something about Joseph’s sense of presence, character, and faith. He could have easily recognized his brothers and had them imprisoned, as he nearly did to a different end. The Pharaoh would have his back, as he did on recognizing the brothers and assisting their move. It could have gone the other way very easily. Some decisions are like that, balanced as they are on the edge of life and death.

In our gospel lesson today, we have a mighty checklist of do’s and don’ts for disciples. Jesus tells us to love our enemies. “Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Don’t strike back, give generously, and don’t expect things to be returned. “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Be merciful. Don’t judge or condemn, and forgive.

Are these things that only the ancient Joseph, ultimately mighty in power and favored by God, could do? No. They happen every day. Only God knows the extent to which the Golden Rule helps preserve humanity itself, let alone the goodness conveyed in our true love, mercy, generosity, and forgiveness. And only God knows the strength that these actions have in moving us closer to the kingdom of God.

If you listened to Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s nearly hour-long sermon from the Yes to Jesus Revival that I posted a couple of weeks ago, you heard him share the story from the documentary about Jackie Robinson called 42. Baseball had been divided into all these different leagues to keep it segregated, but there was one man named Branch Rickey who loved baseball so much that he wanted the best of the best to play together. Now, you’ll have to watch the documentary or listen to the sermon for more details, but essentially, when Rickey, the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers made the proposition to Robinson, he acknowledged that there were going to be people who would say and maybe even do ugly things because he was a black man and that’s the way the country was in the 40’s. The man also said that he wanted Robinson not to retaliate. At this, Robinson said, “Oh you want a negro who’s afraid to fight back,” and the man said, “No, I want a great ball player who has the courage not to fight back just like our Savior Jesus Christ.” Rickey pulls from his desk a book of sayings of Jesus and reads to Robinson words that include our words from Luke today. When he put the book down, Robinson shook Rickey’s hands, and as Curry summarized, they went on to change baseball and America because they followed the Way of Jesus, the Way of Love. At our best, we have the power to change the world because of our love, because of Jesus’s love, God’s love.

You might still be thinking that all this is fine and good, but these are extraordinary circumstances with heroes from our past. I’m sorry. I’m sorry that we don’t hear more about our everyday courageous warriors who fight with love. I’m sorry that our news is filled with anger, division, fear, and violence. I’m sorry because for all the time focused on the evil of the world, there are countless others upholding the Golden Rule, doing right by their neighbors, strangers, and kin, and practicing the Way of Love, even if that’s not what they call it.

And I bet there are times in your life when that’s just your m.o., and I also bet that there’s a time in your life when you felt it more poignantly. When these words of Jesus, that have revealed themselves to be written in your heart, revealed your belief of them in your actions and proved yourself to be a warrior for love, too.

Someone I love dearly was in an abusive relationship, and she had escaped–not her first time to try to get out, but this time it was sticking. (It typically takes 7 times before a woman leaves her abuser.) I received a call from the abuser late one night. He was looking for her. He was saying things, telling me what I thought of him. And I don’t know if you’ve ever had an encounter where you felt like you were facing demons, something truly evil, but my heart was racing. I felt stunned, but I stayed on the phone, words coming out of my mouth that came from a place I didn’t know I had. At one point, I said, “No, I don’t hate you. I love the good person you can be, that you are at your core, but I do not like what you’ve done. And I won’t tell you where she is or help you get in touch with her.” There are other times in my life when I realize how much I love people, especially people I don’t like, and there’s a sadness that washes over me, a lament at the loss of what could be.

The Way of Love, following the Way of Jesus, does not make us passive doormats. It doesn’t mean that we will always be protected from danger, nor does it mean that we see everything as sunshine and roses or always see the silver lining. What it does mean is that we know that love is a powerful thing, that God’s love is our superpower when we find ourselves tapped into it.

God’s love enables us to be wholly in relationship with others, even if that person is so other that we can’t see eye to eye. God’s love enables us to act in ways of justice and mercy, to heal and seek reconciliation rather than bury ourselves in grief or anger or grudges. Most importantly, God’s love transforms us, turning us into Christian superheroes capable of amazing feats that most often won’t make the headlines but make all the difference in someone’s life. I hope this week or even today that you get the chance to share a moment when you tapped into that superpower, when you did something you didn’t think you could do but were keenly aware–if not in the moment then at least in retrospect–that it was God working through you, living through you, loving through you.

Come closer, and recognize the power of God’s love in our lives.

 

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Fanatacism & Love

Jeremiah 1:4-10 | Psalm 71:1-6 | 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 | Luke 4:21-30

“Today,” Jesus says, “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

And the people are amazed at his gracious words–more like his prophetic words. In their amazement, they’re asking, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” It’s a question that both questions whether or not they really knew him when he was their neighbor, but it also questions whether or not they can believe him as a prophet or teacher.

Jesus doesn’t mince words or hold back. He’s all in. He is who he is, and he knows their hearts, their questions, their doubts. He knows they’re going to want him to perform a parlor trick to prove himself. He knows the precedents that say it doesn’t go well for prophets, especially in their hometown.

And just like that, the crowd goes from amazement to rage in the presence of  one so self-realized, the embodiment of Truth, a mirror held before them a little too clearly for their liking, if they even understood. The challenge presented in the person of Jesus was too much for them to deal with, so they try to throw him over a cliff. (But Jesus’s time to be killed has not yet come.)

When I say that Jesus is “all in,” I can’t help but think about all the fans gathering in Atlanta that we’ve been hearing about on the news. Maybe you know a fan or two, if not for the Rams or Patriots, at least for the Razorbacks, right? One of my faults as an Arkansan is that I’m not fanatic about sports. Don’t get me wrong: I can be competitive, and I’ll cheer for my kids with gusto. I’ll also cheer for the “other” team and wince when anyone gets hurt or makes a bad move. I’ll watch games, even play games with focus and presence, but it’s not what I consider myself fanatic about.

When we’re “fanatic” about something, our enthusiasm defies all reason, doesn’t it? A quick definition search reveals that “fanatic” is defined as “a person filled with excessive and single-minded zeal.” It’s easy to shorten the word and end up with something that sounds harmless, right? A “fan” just sounds like someone who’s rooting for a certain team/party/religion. Surely they aren’t zealous, are they? But “zealot” is a synonym for “fanatic.” Paul was zealous for his religion. Paul took his fanaticism to an extreme and persecuted those who didn’t conform to what he thought was the only way. I hope that all the “fans” at the big game this weekend keep their fanaticism in check and don’t lose sight of the common humanity and sportsmanship to be shared between good neighbors and responsible adults.

Paul has much to teach us about maturity. “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child,” he says, but “when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” If you’ve ever tried to reason with a two-year old, you get what Paul is saying here: the efforts are futile with an unreasonable child, likewise with someone excessively and single-mindedly zealous, for whom there is no other way. But, “when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end,” Paul also says, when we can “know fully” even as we “have been fully known.” What happens when we can see in the mirror fully, when we have a clearer picture, a broader view, a fuller perspective of the greater picture?

And what is it that enables our completion, our fulfillment, our knowledge, and our perspective?

Love.

Love of God. Love of neighbor. Love of self.

That’s why Love is the greatest of all gifts, as Paul says, the most excellent one, the one which if we don’t have, we can scrap all the rest because it won’t bring us closer to God.

Often First Corinthians 13 is used in weddings as one of the readings because of the emphasis on love and the characteristics that are exceedingly helpful in maintaining a successful relationship. But this love isn’t the romantic (eros) or brotherly (philos) love; this is agape love, the highest form of love, of charity–the kind of love that exists between God and all of us. It is this kind of love that completes us because it’s what we all seek.

With the love of God, we know whose we are and who we are. We are more likely to find what our calling is because we have an honest, open relationship with God. Self-knowledge and self-awareness are powerful things, particularly when lived in relationship to God. It doesn’t mean we don’t doubt or question–all the prophets do that, as we heard in Jeremiah and can find in every call of every prophet. But there’s clarity.

Following his baptism and temptation, Jesus was fully known and beloved publicly, for all with eyes to see and ears to hear, and he was coming out to his family and friends in his wholeness. In his openness and honesty, in the fullness of his being, there were people who couldn’t handle it, who couldn’t comprehend what he meant, what he was saying, what he was representing. It was “other-ness” to them that was threatening, and their survival response was to get rid of it, even if that meant killing a person.

Singleness of vision doesn’t always present itself in such fanatic ways. Status quo is upheld by a majority’s concession to one way of being as the norm. It can just be the way things are, and people go politely about their way. It can be unnoticed, latent, until something happens, and a greater truth is revealed. And someone comes along and says “this is who you are” and “this is what you’re standing for,” and it’s unrecognizable as Truth because we’ve conditioned ourselves to see ourselves as good people who could never do or be something so ugly and unrecognizable. It’s not what we meant.

Again, we need–we rely upon–that agape love, that unconditional love to see us through the hard work of seeing ourselves and being who God created us to be. It’s a given that we are beloved children of God as we are right here, right now, but if you’re like me, we have a lot to learn about being Christ-like, about being the best Christians we can be.

I say this because it’s Black History Month. I know woefully little about black history in Northwest Arkansas or in Arkansas generally. At the bishop’s suggestion, I researched Bishop Edward Demby, the second black suffragan bishop in The Episcopal Church, who was here in Arkansas in the early 20th century. He was one man to support the segregated congregations, initially without receiving compensation or housing. I plan to attend as many events as I can throughout the month, starting with Raven Cook’s talk in Fayetteville Sunday entitled “Celebrating Black Women’s Resistance.” I have a stack of books to read, including White Fragility by Robin Diangelo, which will be the focus of our next few Continuing the Conversations, and the community college has a section of books relevant to black lives for everyone’s greater understanding. If we don’t understand why having a Confederate Statue at the center of our town square is offensive to many, I guarantee that we have a lot of work to do on self-awareness individually and as a community. And we need agape love to see us through the learning, the healing, and the reconciliation that will take us into a more beloved community.

I also say we need the kind of love that Paul speaks of and that Jesus embodied because we’re about to show a documentary about homelessness. In Northwest Arkansas. To present such a film and discussion says that maybe everything here isn’t wealth and abundance, roses and sunshine. When temperatures dropped into the single digits on Wednesday night, Padre Guillermo called me to ask me where a homeless person goes in Bentonville because a parishioner was trying to help someone from sleeping on the street. Apologetically, I told him that the Salvation Army is the only place in Bentonville. Otherwise, you have to go out of town. If you’re not a domestic abuse victim, the women’s shelter isn’t an option. If Soul’s Harbor or any of the other homes are full (for which there’s usually an application process), you’re out of luck. A hotel room is often your only choice, which is what they did that night–not unlike the generous donors in Chicago and probably thousands of other untold cities and towns. Holding up a mirror and realizing the reality of a situation is one of the first steps to addressing a solution. Identifying common practices, common hurdles, and characteristics of poverty are all part of being able to look honestly at homelessness and start chipping away at creating pathways to safe and stable environments for everyone. They might not look like what we think they should look like, but with love and mutual respect, we can create relationships that honor one another and bear fruit for the kingdom.

To do this work of being Christian, the only thing we need to be fanatic about is keeping love at the front and center. In all that we say, think, and do, does it reflect love of God, neighbor, and self? If not, why not? If so, what’s the next step?

We might have people who want to push us over the cliff, but we mustn’t forget that God is our crag and our stronghold, that rock jutting out to give us footing when we’re on the edge of our comfort zone and entering the dangerous territory of doing truly good work. God is our hope, our confidence, and our sustainer. Let us never be ashamed of the work we do in the name of God and for the sake of Love.

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God’s Hour, This One Life

Isaiah 62:1-5 | Psalm 36:5-10 | 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 | John 2:1-11

Last week we heard the story of Simon the magician-turned-believer. Witnessing what the people did after they received the power of the Holy Spirit, he brought his silver to the apostles so that he, too, could get some of that power. But remember what Peter told him? “Your heart is not right before God.” Peter chastised him for thinking he could buy the power. Peter had the wisdom, knowledge, and discernment to know this person Simon (maybe Philip had advised him) and Simon’s intent to use the power of the Spirit for his own grandeur. We can hope that Simon’s repentance is sincere, that he truly changed the course of his way, and that he finally did get his heart right before God.

In the frenzy of the moment and not at his best, don’t you know that Simon would have loved to have been at the wedding at Cana in Galilee, to have been the one who changed the water into wine? Wouldn’t he have thrilled to tell Mary, the mother of God, not to worry, that he’s got it taken care of, to go up to the steward with a sly, knowing look and ask what he thinks of the wine, only to take full credit (after trying to play the humble one first) for the best wine in the house. Maybe he would even mention to the bride, groom, and family that he had saved them from humiliation but not to worry because he did it out of the goodness of his heart.

All this is exactly what Jesus didn’t do.

Sometimes we take for granted that our tradition is full of rich poetry and well-written stories. This vignette about Jesus and the water-turned-wine whisks us behind the scenes of a wedding banquet, reveals to us the wisdom of a mother, the gifts of her son, and the obedience of the servants. While the party carries on seamlessly, Jesus performs a grand miracle, surrounded by silent witnesses whose lives are forever changed, having encountered the glory of God. Those at the head of the table don’t even know what’s happened, happy they are to enjoy the richness and abundance of the newly found wine. This, the first of Jesus’s signs in the gospel according to John, revealed God’s glory and led disciples to believe.

That’s the beauty of someone whose heart is right with God: there’s no false humility or piety, extravagant showmanship or self-aggrandizing mannerisms. For one who lives out of right relationship with God, there’s godly revelation. We witness the attributes that Psalm 36 enumerates, characteristics like love and faithfulness, righteousness, justice, refuge, loving-kindness, and abundance. People who experience and/or know the love of God as the source of life are a beacon of the eternal light. But it doesn’t mean they’re always perfect.

The churches Paul writes to are a good example. Our epistle today shares part of Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, and he’s talking about spiritual gifts. They’re believers and gifted with the power of the holy spirit in various ways. Paul, however, is as tactfully as possible trying to present them with a teachable moment. He’s trying to emphasize the value of wisdom and knowledge to help prevent the squabbles or the competition that can wreak havoc on any community.

There are many gifts (and Paul lists several of them), and no one person is going to have all of them. We learn from Simon and Peter’s exchange that we can’t buy the gifts. Paul’s main point is that these gifts are chosen by the Spirit and meant for the common good. Many gifts, one Spirit. Many services/ministries, one Lord. Many activities/deeds, one God, who activates all in all. Again, we get the lesson that the true end is not ultimately about us–it’s not about “our hour” but about giving God the glory.

Yet our lives are intimately connected to each of us, and that we have free will means that we play a vital role in how much attribution God gets, for better or for worse. Maybe that’s why Simon’s story is open-ended. Like him, we get to choose what to do in the error of our ways. At best, we repent and return to the Lord, returning to ways that are loving, life-giving, and liberating not only for ourselves but for everyone. I’m reading Michelle Obama’s biography, and I’m at the part where she’s encountered the deaths of loved ones and is realizing that pursuing her legal career through a traditional trajectory isn’t as fulfilling as she thought it would be. She’s also become engaged to someone who is encouraging her to see things from a different perspective and with a less fixed course of direction.

That’s what happens when we are in truly loving relationships–we are no less who we are, but we become open to being more fully who we are as God created us to be. It makes sense that Love would be an activation key, doesn’t it? When we love God, we realize the value in truly knowing ourselves and valuing our gifts, whatever they may be. There’s great joy in celebrating our gifts, especially when we get to use them for the greater good, like when Lily can use her Spanish to speak with the refugees, help them find their home, all the while reminding them that they are “mi amor.” Even our adversities, hurts, and struggles teach us more about who we are, and in overcoming them, we garner skills that make us that much more adept at navigating difficult situations in the future.

This loving relationship between God and ourselves and for ourselves takes work and faith and belief and trust and courage–all that. Where I think the Holy Spirit really gets energized, though, is in our loving relationships with each other. Where two or three are gathered, right? When we join our efforts to build community, to work for the greater good, to manifest some aspect of the kingdom of heaven, there is something amazing at work, something recognizable yet out of our reach of control. To me, that’s Spirit at work. It’s nearly electric. It’s bright, a beacon of what is at work.

It’s also vulnerable. When we break down barriers to love, we’re at risk for letting things like hurt, shame, doubt, fear, pride, greed, etc., in. Maybe that’s why our baptismal covenant asks us about when we sin and not if. Because if we’re living a Christian life, chances are we’re gonna get hurt and fall and get off course. The important thing, though, is that we get back up and turn again to Lord, remembering that we have important work to do, important work that only we can do.

On January 17th, beloved poet Mary Oliver died at the age of 83. While she spent time honing her skills and practicing her art, she undoubtedly had a gift for written art, for poetry. I say written art because the poems that she wrote take you out into the natural world she loved so dearly, that she spent countless hours wandering in and observing. And a good poet describes the obvious in such a way that it can depict not only the thing that is but also look deeper into it or beyond it to a greater truth, asking without asking about our own experience or encounter.

As Christians, we believe in God, are empowered by the Holy Spirit, and strive to fulfill our lives in service to God through many and varied ministries. We know we are to give glory to God, but each of us needs to ask ourselves how we’re going to do that . . . or maybe how we’re already doing that. The question that comes to my mind is one I see oft-quoted from Mary Oliver from the end of her popular poem “The Summer Day.” If we haven’t before, we need to be asked now, as Oliver does, “What is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” The good of all depends on us.

 

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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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