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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Called Out

1 Samuel 3:1-20 | Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17 | 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 | John 1:43-51

Back in November (Proper 28) was when we had to opportunity to look at Judges as our Old Testament reading, when Deborah is named as a prophet of the time and when Jael made a surprising move involving a tent peg and Sisera’s skull (and that’s not even the worst thing accounted for in the time of the judges). Now, in the season after Epiphany we hear a bit of Samuel’s story. I say “a bit” because his life from before conception to after his death is accounted for in the Bible, which is quite a rarity. This also the transition from the period of judges (which wasn’t working out so well for the Israelites) to the rise of the monarchs.

Today we have this opening sentence setting the scene for us, a brief yet telling commentary of the time.

“Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”

Samuel, a young lad, ministers to the high priest Eli, who is all but blind and depends greatly upon Samuel. And the word of Lord–revelations of God–were rare; visions or prophecies were equally sparse. Since we’re reading the Word of God, a God of abundance and in our season when Christ Light is manifest, our sense of anticipation builds. What happens next? We know it’s the LORD calling out to Samuel in the night, but Samuel, naturally thinks it’s his master.  Even the High Priest isn’t aware of the LORD’s voice, as infrequent as it had become, until the voice has called out three times. The faithful master gives his “son” instruction on heeding the voice of the LORD, little does he know it will indicate his own ruin. For Eli’s sons had blasphemed God, disobeying laws regarding how fat and meat are separated and offered to God before they are consumed. It seems a little outrageous to us, to be judged for such a minor offense, but these were the commandments the faithful were to abide by, and Eli as a High Priest has standards against which to be held. He, like most parents these days, loved his kids, and probably chided them like I do mine for their transgressions, but things were different then. The LORD proclaimed what he was going to do, and Samuel was to be the one to deliver the news. Samuel, who has heard the voice of God is, as his first task as prophet, to deliver the news to Eli. Was this call a joy to Samuel? Was this something he looked forward to? Don’t you know the weight and dread he carried to the next day when Eli convinced him to share? And Eli, good and faithful as he was, accepted the LORD’s judgment, not arguing or protesting, showing us the way of obedience. Similarly, we see Samuel assuming his call, and we are told that he becomes a trustworthy prophet as he continues to heed the voice of the LORD, bearing the burden of responsibility faithfully, obediently.

Our gospel shows us a different call commencing. Jesus decides to go to Galilee and finds Philip, telling him to “Follow me.” I’m sure it was Jesus’ charisma and presence that compelled Philip to follow, but Philip finds Nathanael and tells him that they need to follow Jesus of Nazareth, the one of whom prophecies have been told. Nathanael protests: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”

Now, in the news lately there’s been lots said about countries from which the outcome would be questionable. I’ve seen memes already generated calling Nazareth one of these kind of countries.

Philip doesn’t react much, though. He just says, “Come and See.”

Isn’t that what we have to do? We can’t tell someone how they’re going to experience Jesus. We can love our experience at church and feel like it’s helping us live a godly life, but we can’t describe or even pretend to know how someone else will experience Christ here. They have to come and see for themselves. First, they have to be invited. (That’s our ongoing responsibility, to invite others to come and see the presence of Christ in our midst!) Thankfully, Nathanael does go with Philip, and what happens next? Nathanael calls Jesus “Rabbi,” “Son of God, “King of Israel.”

What happened in the point between saying “What good can come out of Nazareth?” to “Rabbi, Son of God, King of Isarel”? Nathanael encountered Jesus and something transformative happened, something we can’t understand except that it was some kind of epiphany, some kind of realization about God being manifest before him. That’s the kind of thing we expect in the presence of Christ, but where do we see that around us today? Maybe we are attuned to see it all the time, but maybe not.

A couple of weeks ago, comedian Sarah Silverman was called something profane on Twitter. It would have been completely normal for her, a witty comedian, to fire back an intelligent insult, invoking the supporting rage of her followers and erupting a flame war of epic proportions. No one would have thought much about it.

But she didn’t.

Sarah said something to the effect of: “Behind all your hate and rage, I see pain. I see you just trying to get kicked off Twitter.” She took a moment before quipping back to him to look at his profile and saw that this was a desperate, pain-riddled guy who was on the path to further isolate himself and seek further into despair. And she wasn’t having it. She identified with him and invited him to see a different way, to choose love, to have a little hope. And she offered tangible hope to him, helping him out tremendously, networking him with resources in his community. She didn’t have to. When he asked why she was offering him hope, why she was offering to help him, she basically admitted that she didn’t know but that maybe it was something in his eyes. I looked at the guy’s profile. I’m not sure that I would have reacted the same way she did. I might have just chosen not to react at all, turned a blind eye.

But that’s always a choice we have when we are called out. How do we react? Do we hear it at all? Do we understand what’s being asked of us? Do we reply with a smart-alec response? Do we choose love? It’s up to us, but however we reply, I’m not sure we always perceive that we are in the presence of God or that we have the eyes of many paying attention. We just don’t realize the importance of our lives in the scheme of things. It takes someone who knows us fully, intimately, someone who knows our rising up and going down, someone who knit us in our mother’s womb, someone like God. God knows us intimately, loves us deeply, and calls us always to live fully into the life for which we were created. It’s up for us to discern how we are to do this, and it’s not going to be easy. But it’s up for us to decide what it looks like to choose to heed the voice of God, to follow Christ, and to choose love.

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The Long Haul

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 | Psalm 78:1-7 | 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 | Matthew 25:1-13

Most families about this time are finalizing Thanksgiving plans, determining who’s going to be where, bringing some part of the great feast. Perhaps your family, like ours, lingers around the table a little while, too full really to move, and starts storytelling. Casey’s dad is really good at this and is prone to exaggeration or throwing a joke in when you least expect it, so you fall for it completely. Then his mom starts in, sometimes barely getting the words out from laughing so hard, and we’re all laughing, too, though we’ve heard the stories hundreds of times (and I can’t tell you many of them because we’re in church and you probably know your own family legends). We can almost guess which stories are going to be told, depending on the theme of the conversation. I’ve noticed my older kids recognize this pattern and can jump in to jog memories if details or stories are left out of the conversation. In a sense, this is the Milford family’s oral tradition. These are the stories we tell when we gather together that demonstrate our resilience, our bond, and our sense of humor (to be sure!).

We gather each week for our Great Thanksgiving, our Eucharist, and we share our stories. Stories like Joshua leading the Israelites to the Promised Land, making sure through a bit of reverse psychology that they’re all in, committed to following one God, like him and his house. (So, yes, they’re really going to have to get rid of all the other idols.) Stories like in the letter to the Thessalonians that offer encouragement, hope, and assurance. They just knew the Son of Man was coming at any moment, but people were dying before he got there. What about their reward? In light of the foolish and wise bridesmaids, how can they–how can we–be sure we’re all ready, fully prepared? It doesn’t seem sustainable to be in red alert mode all the time. Something doesn’t seem right.

We know there’s a lot “not right” right now. A quick glance over the headlines just this past week tells a story of a people clamoring for something but getting tripped up on themselves. Where in all our stories does it say point a finger at anyone but ourselves? We want to do that. We could read and live our tradition blaming everyone else for our plight–from the Egyptians to the pharisees, to the Romans, to the Islamic State, to nonbelievers, to addiction, to mental illness. . . our list is legion. Last week when we were given the Beatitudes, Padre Guillermo and I both read them as instruction for how we live our lives in relationship, in community. They are how we live our lives ultimately because we are in relationship with God, and nowhere in the instructions does Jesus tell us that we are to rationalize or make excuses for not loving God or our neighbor, blaming our inadequacies on anyone and anything but ourselves. This acceptance or even realization that we are accountable for ourselves doesn’t feel good, but it allows us to seek out help; it helps us admit our weaknesses and vulnerabilities for which we need support. We could use our own letter from Paul.

When we’re living into the Christian life and trucking along with a new convert’s fervor, we might shine the light of faith brightly for all to see. We make our decisions based on what is right and good because it seems so clear. We know whose we are. We know where we’re going. We’re ready to meet the Lord now or in the kingdom to come. Our lamps are lit, and we’re prepared. We’re wise. And good. (And incredibly prone to being self-congratulatory.)

(http://www.clarion-journal.com/clarion_journal_of_spirit/2015/03/parable-of-the-ten-virgins-whats-the-oil-brad-jersak.html)

Maybe we started this life of faith with such vigor but started to lose our way. Unconditional love and acceptance drew us in and lit a fire we didn’t know we were capable of. Our light shines as brightly as for those who are wise, or at least it does at times . . . or did at one point. We just missed the instructions on how to keep the oil filled, our lamps ready and prepared. So how do we stay on fire for Jesus? How do we stay in love when things get hard, when the blessedness assured by Jesus seems hypothetical and archaic?

We share our stories.

Remember when Moses saw the Glory of God and was transfigured so much he had to wear a veil to talk to the ordinary folks? Remember how Moses died at the LORD’s command without much ado, and then Joshua was chosen to lead the people on into the Promised Land? Remember how Jesus summarized the law as loving God with all your heart, soul, and mind and loving your neighbor as yourself? Remember how Jesus lived, died, and rose again to show us the triumph of life and love on Easter morning? Remember the first time you experienced the unconditional love of God? Remember when you experienced the radical hospitality of this place? Remember how All Saints’ was planted and all the crazy things you’ve been through? Remember the first service on the Land? Remember the first bilingual service?

All our experiences now are the stuff of tomorrow’s stories, and it’s okay to look at the stories, the memories and learn from our mistakes. The gospel doesn’t say the foolish bridesmaids couldn’t get oil to fill their lamps; they just hadn’t done it in time. The wise ones knew the stories, learned from them, and remained steadfast, ready for whatever came next.

The important thing for us today is that we realize we’re in this for the long haul: “this” being our Christian life. This Christian life isn’t a sprint to the Second Coming but rather a marathon of following Jesus’s way through life, death, and resurrection–physically and spiritually. We need the light of Christ to illumine our way forward, and we need the oil, the fuel for that light. What do we do to nurture our faith in Christ? When and what do we pray? Do we hear Bible stories or read them on days other than Sunday? Do we consider our church family part of our support network? How much of what we do in the other 166 hours of the week reflects that we follow Jesus and that He is the light of our life? If we don’t know how or why or when, know that’s what I’m here for, to help you in your walk in faith, to find fuel for your faith. Normally people seek out the church in times of crisis, but if we keep maintaining a life of faith, we have a reservoir at the ready.

And what about All Saints’? We’ve considered the stories of the past, but what of its trajectory? What do we need to make ready so that when Jesus wanders in in the guise of the unemployed, the hungry, or any one of us, we’re prepared to show love of God and neighbor in practice? Keep in mind, we’re not pointing fingers or making excuses. This isn’t just a prompt for a “we need a building” discussion. This is really a prompt for us to prayerfully consider who we are as a church, as a people of God who proclaim the Risen Lord and who are gifted with Holy Spirit. Because if you put us in a room with a hundred other people from a hundred other religious traditions, we couldn’t distinguish the foolish or wise, the lazy or the prepared. Looking out at all of you, I don’t know your heart and mind (though some of you are likely still thinking about Thanksgiving). How does who we are affect our trajectory as a church in Bentonville, in the world?

These are the kinds of questions the vestry and I ask ourselves as we put together a yearly budget. Good caretakers, good stewards consider not just the material but also the intention and the hope. As we gather weekly for our Great Thanksgiving and tell our stories, what stirs in your heart? What fuels the light of Christ within you? What are you grateful for? What gives you a sense of wisdom? Those are things we can’t really put a pricetag on and say, “Well, match your yearly pledge to that.” The work we do here, the preparations we make from a place of faith are not of this world but are still very much within it. I know in the newsletter there’s been an emphasis on pledges that haven’t been met and how we have a deficit. But I believe we are a community that knows how to prepare. We are a community of abundance–of love, of talents, gifts, and treasure. We’re also a community of vision; we see All Saints’ filling an important role in the faith community in Northwest Arkansas. We’ll watch and wait together, but our anticipation isn’t idle. There’s work to be done, memories to be made, and stories to tell. We’re in it for the long haul.

 

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Our Command

Deuteronomy 34:1-12 | Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17 | 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 | Matthew 22:34-46

(More of what was preached for Proper 25)

The other day on the radio I heard an engineer talking about the amazing thing that a tiny robot can do (called the robo-bee). Fifteen of them together weigh about as much as a penny, she said. It flies, and now it can swim. More than that, it can launch itself out of water, converting water to gas to create enough propulsion so it can break through the water’s tension and emerge above water ready to fly again. Amazing. Most of you know my husband is a computer guy, so I understand there’s a whole programming side of things that I will never fully understand. My husband spends a lot of time at the command line on the black terminal screen that most of us regular users never see, but it’s the commands that he puts in that keep the software running as it should, just as the programs coded for the little robo-bees direct them in what they are able to do.

So when we have this account of Moses death, that he died as the LORD commanded, I marvel at the significance of his obedience even in death, knowing full well that his life has not been perfect. Even in his imperfection, Moses had been singled out by God to know and experience God in a way few have. Joshua had big shoes to fill, leading the Israelites, but they carried on, doing as the LORD had commanded Moses. They persisted in following the law, keeping their tradition alive through generations.

By the time of Jesus, there are an estimated 613 laws to follow in Judaism. The Pharisees know them and are responsible for keeping them. A lawyer would presumably be one skilled in Mosaic law, also, and that’s the person who speaks up to test Jesus, offering what he’s sure to consider a trick-question. “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” To which Jesus unhesitantly replies, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” And the second is like the first: “Love your neighbor as yourself,” a natural outgrowth, seemingly, of the first.

Knowing your Book of Common Prayer, you of course knew this summary of the commandments, as it’s in the Catechism. This “Greatest Commandment” is also in Mark and Luke, with the addition of loving God with all our strength. We can know these commands by memory, but what does it mean to love God with all our heart, mind, and soul? “Love” alone is complicated. Sometimes we want to focus on agape as a love that seems to evoke the all-compassionate love of God, philia that has the brotherly-love emphasis, or eros that gets at desire. Yes to all of these, and more. There’s so much more than sentimentality here. This all-encompassing love asks for all of our heart. However much we think we love, it’s that and more, requiring our loyalty and devotion. It’s putting God before all else, before any idols we might have, be they animate or inanimate (thinking of relationships, power, money, etc.). Love God with all our heart and with all our mind. I can’t even begin to wrap my feeble mind around God, but with all that I am, I let my thoughtful self love God. I allow myself to bring all of my questions, doubts, concerns, and fears to God. I bring my whole intellect, even when what I’m wrestling with makes no rational or logical sense. Love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our mind, and with all our soul.With the very essence of our being, we love God. It is our soul which most yearns for restoration in full likeness of God.

With whole-hearted, holistic love of God, love of neighbor is both a natural outgrowth and a societal obligation. But especially here, it’s important not to forget that Jesus is talking with people who want him dead. Earlier, in Chapter 7, Jesus tells his followers that the greatest thing they can do is treat others as they want to be treated, thus we get the golden rule. Now, he’s telling his enemies, his neighbors, that they are to first love God and then love one another. Jesus could have easily pointed out how these people were disobeying both commandments, kind of like the scene with the men charging a woman with adultery when he tells the one without sin to cast the first stone. Jesus is writing something in the dirt, and when he looks up, everyone but the woman is gone. Perhaps he was enumerating their own transgressions. But Jesus doesn’t do that here. He goes on to ask a question of his own, a question that as he interprets it, points to his own divinity. Psalm 110 is referenced about 37 times in the New Testament. In Christianity, it points obviously to Jesus’ Davidic ancestry but also to his divinity, his life as fully human and fully divine. Obviously, this isn’t so for the Jews then any more than now, but that didn’t change the Truth of who Jesus was and is. He had his own commands inscribed in His being and in His will. It’s no wonder those who were adamantly trying Jesus were ultimately left speechless, not daring for a time to ask any more questions.

We can love God with all our heart, soul, and mind and love our neighbors as ourselves, but in practice, things can get a little fuzzy. We have a day like Thursday. I’m all ready to go to the gym to practice my self-care after I drop Avery off at school, but on the way to school, my oil light comes on in my car. It’s the big red hazard light and another oil can light. Rarely do they both come on at the same time, so this is a huge red flag, and I’m just praying my engine doesn’t seize up in 8:00 traffic on 102. I stop in for an oil change at my regular place, and they tell me it will at least be an hour and a half, but I have a lunch appointment in Siloam. So I go to a 15-minute oil change place. I have my schedule to stick with, things I’ve got to get done. As the mechanic is welcoming me to my new venture, being my first time there, he’s smooth. I’m thinking he’s about to up-sale me on everything, but he assures me he’s not. At some point in the conversation, I tell him I’m an Episcopal priest. Before long, he brings my air filters to me to show me that they’re not bad, that I have a bulb out, and that they’re about finished. When we’re wrapping up the paperwork, where he’s giving me a first-time discount, it’s mentioned how expensive things are, and he says something about not being able to afford the best stuff, either. And I say, “Are you doing okay, though?” “Yeah, I’m alright,” he says. And he shares with me in less than five minutes the abbreviated version of his life story. How his mom’s life changed drastically when she found out she was pregnant with him, how it was her come to Jesus moment. How he didn’t really have a relationship with his birth father, but his mom found Jesus and also found a husband in a Church of Christ pastor. He shared a lively story about her being caught up in Spirit. His family is mostly in central Arkansas, so he’s a bit isolated up here, but he’s radiant with life. I probably would have bought anything he suggested, because I was smiling as I pulled away from the shop. That feeling of fullness and contentment, that happens when we let go of our preconceived notions of how things should be or how we think they are, even when they’re not. Opening ourselves to love God first and then extend it to our neighbors, we open ourselves to unlimited possibilities–yes, of potentially being hurt but only because the love is so grand.

So with the fullness and taste of joy and a much happier car, I drive to the gym and eventually make my way to Siloam, where the sapphire skies are shining, it’s nearly 80 degrees, and all seems right in the world (I rocked out to Hamilton rather than listen to the news). My colleague treated me to lunch as we caught up on life and work. He showed me some of the plans that Grace has for their expansion, as they get ready to break ground. I left with that same feeling of having had a lovely time.

But on my way back to pick up Avery, I started to feel a bit of worry, maybe a touch of anxiety or fear because I had signed up to go to the Q Commons event, an event sponsored by–as my colleague pointed out–some very conservative evangelical folks. Even the speakers were from the very conservative side of the spectrum. People who are probably praying for me, right? I’m going to this event where I imagine I’ll be judged, and I don’t know anyone else. We see what’s happened, don’t we? I’ve walled off myself in fear and worry, already forgetting what God has revealed to me just in this one day, let alone my whole life!

So I go, and there’s Christian folk being played from the stage, the tables are set, the food truck vendor has a buffet at the back and I judge it to be typical hipster scene. (The cookies on the table were a nice touch!) I’m mistaken for a sister, but the mistake informs me that someone I know will be there. Before long, I get to see her and make contact with someone I know. I talk to people in line, at my table. I start to see and converse with people I recognize but also meet new friends, all of us coming from various Christian denominations. But the whole event was about showing up to address Questions of this particular cultural moment, when we’re as divisive now, it’s perceived, as we were during the Vietnam era.

During the talk, NYTimes contributor David Brooks talks about cultivating virtue. Kara Powell talks about our addiction to technology. Propaganda talks about how complicated our lives are, how truly connected we are to one another so that we shouldn’t judge one another. Local folks spoke about art, service, and the Confederate statue. We listened, and at our tables we had a few moments to share. Of the many things I heard that still resonate in my mind, David Brooks mentioned how much our society shies away from commitment; we’re not anchored. We’re like the fall leaves right now, barely hanging on, and when a gust comes along that makes life difficult, we run away. We’ve been told by society we’re free to do whatever we want, be whatever we want, and have forgotten our covenant. We’ve forgotten that while we are free, we are in a committed relationship not only to God but to one another, with all our heart, all our mind, and all our soul. This covenantal relationship anchors us through trials and tribulations and keeps us moving forward in life, hopefully more aligned with God’s will.

So we can see how we have commands built into our Christian DNA. Born in Baptism, we are commanded to do certain things. We agree to them in our Covenant. It’s not just a contract, though; it’s a relationship. It doesn’t make life easy, but it roots us deeply in something bigger than ourselves. It might come with persecution or ridicule, but it promises us eternal life through Christ. It comes with expectation, too. Dr. James Hawkins from New Heights in Fayetteville, who spoke about the statue, said that we keep looking to our government, to politicians, to make changes. He told us that it’s up to believers to start the revolution, the radical move to life lived for love of God, that it’s up to us to pave the road of reconciliation. It’s up to us to love God with all our heart, with all our mind, with all our soul and love our neighbors as ourselves. It’s what we’re commanded to do, but it’s also what I want to do with every fiber of my being.

 

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What are we looking for?

Exodus 33:12-23 | Psalm 99 | 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 | Matthew 22:15-22

I imagine it’s safe to say that we’re all looking for something. Maybe it’s job stability, good retirement benefits, better health, or healthy friends. Maybe more existentially we’re looking for meaning and purpose, happiness and quality. This question of considering what we’re looking for is worth exploring, in Scripture and in our lives.

What was Moses looking for when he spoke to God? He knew it was important and set up his Tent of Meeting, and everyone in the camp noticed when the pillar of cloud appeared, signifying that Holy Speak was going on. From the reading today, we hear that Moses needs certainty in the presence of the LORD, an Advocate. Moses wants to see God. The LORD assures him but also reminds Moses that the terms are set by God. God will be gracious and merciful as God sees fit (though Moses already knows that intercession doesn’t hurt). God tells Moses that no one can see the face of the LORD and live, so instead the glory of God passes over Moses, with the hand of God covering him in the cleft of the mountain. We’re told Moses could see the back but not the face of the LORD. Amazing. Could Moses even imagine in his seeking God that he would so intimately experience the presence or the Glory of God? Or be told so blatantly that to see the face of God would be fatal to his mortal body? In all the encounters with God, Moses himself was too much for the people, eventually having to wear a veil over his face (Ex 34:29-35). Moses was transformed by his encounters with God.

What is Paul seeking in his correspondence with the Thessalonians, when he repeats, “You do not need to have anything written to you” but still sends the letter and asks that it be read to all the brothers and sisters. In the letter–since he can’t be there in person–Paul conveys his affection, encouragement, and instruction. In times of persecution, he’s telling them to be strong and keep doing the holy, blessed, and good work they are doing as believers. He’s seeking to support this small, marginal community as devoutly as if he were supporting a mega church. Paul’s sincerity of writing matches his tenderness. Always, it seems, Paul seeks to grow the Church, encouraging all to believe in Jesus Christ, holding himself forward as an example.

What about the Pharisees? What are they seeking, and why? They again show determination to destroy Jesus. They continue in their effort because they know Jesus is not going to let things continue as they are. The holy men can’t do this alone; they need the help of the Romans, from now through crucifixion. Catching Jesus in heresy or in treason, the Pharisees don’t seem to care so long as he is removed from the scene entirely. With Jesus gone, they can return to normalcy, their power unchallenged, the Law as they understand it enforced.

And what is Jesus looking for? I don’t ask this as a trick question or a trap. As I pondered the question, I realize that Jesus isn’t looking for anything. Jesus, the Son of God, Word incarnate, is perfectly present and  whole. If Jesus is “looking” for anything, it’s him looking to manifest the will of God on earth, to bring the presence of God to earth in a way we can encounter and not die from. Jesus looks to give his life that all might proclaim his name and live. Jesus looks to show us the Way of Life and Love so we can die to sin and live in glory. Jesus looks to teach us that while we will be tempted, tested, tried, and maybe even tormented for our faith, that is our cross to bear, that even those are things of which we are not to be afraid because for those who call upon the Name of the LORD, the LORD answers them . . . maybe not as we’d like but with a peace that passes all understanding.

Consider now what we are looking for. We, a people gathered here in this pocket of the Church, in this little corner of Arkansas. In this country. In a time not unlike that of Paul, Matthew, Jesus, or Moses. In a time when we are, as ever, people divided, especially by race, gender, and class.

In two-thirds of her new book Braving the Wilderness, Brené Brown looks “at how we can reclaim human connection and true belonging in the midst of sorting and withdrawal” (p. 59). Because what we are looking for, her research affirms, is true belonging, but we let our fears divide and isolate us from one another. We’re afraid others won’t believe us or follow us (like Moses). We’re afraid our community will crumble if it’s not strong or persevering enough (like the Thessalonians). We’re afraid our power will be tested and get overthrown (like the Pharisees). Perhaps we’re even afraid that Jesus isn’t enough to help us make it in this world. In all the stories, Jesus never sought to do anything but the will of His Father. Jesus wasn’t phased by politics, economics, or social norms, just as today Jesus Christ isn’t partial to any one race, gender, or class. Jesus Christ is all about true belonging.

Brown offers a working definition of true belonging I find useful:

“True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.” (p. 40)

And we are people created in the image of God. We are the coin of God, just as much as the denarius is the coin of Caesar. Jesus knew this fully, in every moment, whether he was in the midst or the head of the crowds, in the wilderness facing Satan, or on trial informally or formally.

What can we do to believe and belong to ourselves so deeply that we tap into the child of God we are, that we find a way to unleash the Light of Christ that shines in wisdom and knowledge that we know we are known to God, beloved of God, belonging in God, abiding in love?

Maybe you heard the phrase “me, too” this week. #Metoo was people braving the wilderness, facing vulnerability and perhaps fear by declaring that we, too, were victims of sexual assault and/or harassment. With all the women and men who said “metoo,” did you consider that we were finding belonging in our pain, in our being devalued, considered less than someone else? But it is in the belonging, in the collective, in the standing together to hear and listen to one another, to risk feeling together (even the pain) that love grows. Where love grows, fear has a harder time finding its way into our fault lines of division and isolation. Making the choice to stand out is braving the wilderness, being vulnerable even to temptation or evil itself, Satan we call it to personify it. Equally evil are the violations themselves and the shame that silences the voices and hardens the hearts, both breaking the connection of belonging as a beloved, whole child of God and as a person in beloved community. This is one example of how gender is abused. Internalized racism blinds a white person to their privilege and whispers in the mind of a person of color that they don’t know any better, that they can’t or shouldn’t speak out, up, or against. Classism, our social stratification, traps people in worldly systems, making their “worth” only as great as their social standing. These belong to God about as much as Caesar’s coin–part of creation because humans created it. They are in God’s power to change because it’s up to us to say where the power and authority lie. It’s up to us to call out violations of true belonging, to pay attention when our brothers and sisters aren’t being valued as children of God. In the name of Christ we stand against the status quo and stand up for love one genuine contact at a time so that the life and love of Christ flourish.

A life lived having seen the face of God is one reborn having known Glory. This was Jesus’ every breath, but we are so defended that we protect ourselves even from God. We see a sunrise and pause in its beauty. Our soul stirs at those liminal moments, those thin places where we feel the hand of God on our backs, but then we quickly forget or return to life as if we hadn’t been touched by God. Brown says what God knows to be true:

“Mercifully, it will take only a critical mass of people who believe in finding love and connection across difference to change everything” (p. 58).

It will take a critical mass of people looking for Christ here and now to change the world. It is taking a critical mass of people uniting together to build beloved communities across differences, whatever they may be. In the complicated moments we find ourselves in, we have to pause–especially in our fear–and breathe in the breath of God to inspire us, to remind us of our belonging and our belovedness. And then we set out looking for ways to affirm that we bear the image of God and seeking the reflection of the light and love of Christ in others. When we start looking, we’ll see that Light has been with us all along.

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Changing the Rule

Exodus 16:2-15  | Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45 | Philippians 1:21-30 | Matthew 20: 1-16

Everybody stretch your shoulders a minute for a brief exercise, if you are able. By a show of hands, how many of you here today are cradle Episcopalians, meaning you’ve been Episcopalian since your infancy? . . . (keep ‘em up, if you can) How many of you have been Episcopalian for 20 years or more? . . . How many of you have been here at All Saints’ since its beginning in 2007 or have been in The Episcopal Church at least 10 years? (you’re probably getting tired, cradle folks–hang in there!) Five years or more? For how many of you is this your first visit, or you’re not even part of The Episcopal Church but have landed here at this point in your spiritual journey? Here’s the thing:

All of you are welcome here, in this place and at this table.

(You can put your arms down now.) All of you are invited now as ever to taste and see God’s grace and mercy. Is there more grace and mercy available to you if you’ve always been faithful and devout? Do you have special privileges if you’re an old timer, get more bread at communion for holding your arm the longest? No. It’s the same for everyone, infinitely and abundantly the same. The kingdom of heaven, according to our gospel today, shows no partiality amongst its workers.

This is good news. We are all equal, have the same access to God through Christ, receive gifts of the Spirit. Why can’t we leave it at that?

Well, Jesus said, “the last will be first and the first will be last.” All I hear at first glance is that there’s a first and a last, and Jesus knows I want to be first. I want to be rewarded for my efforts. I want it to show how much I love and serve, how close I am to Jesus as His number one fan. Last week (I’m sure you remember) I mentioned that Peter’s question about how many times to forgive was a question of quantity: just how much do we have to do to be good or right? This is a humanly economical thing to do, to quantify something so we can measure rank or amount, put “stock” in something. With such a measure, we can gauge our self-worth, estimate our value. We can also judge others. I want to be first in my devotion and faithfulness, not the least devout and most unfaithful. In my striving to be the best and most, I compare myself to others. I might even begin to think that I don’t have what it takes to be first. So focused am I on increasing my value in the system that I complain when things fall short, I complain that I don’t have enough. I might even think that I am not enough.

When we lived in Fayetteville from 2004-2012, I noticed this increased lingo about who was “native” or not in Arkansas, especially in Northwest Arkansas. Returning to the area of my nativity, I can’t help but notice that this distinction between natives and non-natives has reached almost a fever pitch, as if only those born and raised here have a right to give voice to the way things should be, now or going forward. We’ve been here longer than they have, so we have greater value.

Consider also the young children brought here with their aspiring immigrant parents, parents who were hoping to find their place in the economy, establish their value in the social and cultural constructs. These children, many now adults, are struggling to maintain a sense of security in the only place they know as home. They are looking to the others who have been here longer to help them, to protect them. Somewhere along the way they heard and believed that people were to look after the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner, that people were to love their neighbor. As they clamor to rush paperwork, our DREAMers are trying to navigate a system that sees them as another statistic, another number.

With our emphasis on earthly things, we cling to our human economy, constantly compare, and make our value judgments based on what we determine matters most. We get anxious thinking that we will come up short in this valuation, afraid that we won’t measure up.

And then Jesus goes and affirms that if we’re first, we’re going to be last.

That makes us even more anxious, unless we understand the love and compassion Jesus shares in these words. Can you hear him saying that you can be first, third, 50th, or last; what matters is that you’re part of the kingdom. You’re in. Notably, however, we’re not the boss. We’re the hired laborers doing the work, tending to the resources made available to us by nature of our position. We tend to think that the materials we work with, the resources we use, the compensation we’re given is all ours. So we hold onto it. We might even do a really good job of tending it well, watching the quantity multiply. But holding it to ourselves traps it, in a sense, keeping it from being in circulation. Whether it’s money or time or products or anything valuable, if we hoard it, we prevent it from being in the flow, being part of what Eric Law of the Kaleidoscope Institute calls “holy currency” (he has a whole book about it). Healthy congregations, healthy societies, healthy systems reap the cycle of blessings when the holy currencies are enabled to flow and fulfill the will of God, to manifest the Kingdom.

At one of his workshops, Eric Law shared with us an example of how not just someone but a community rallies to perpetuate an economy determined by values of the Kingdom, where everyone and everything has value. It did take the resources of one to help make it happen, but it has involved the whole community to keep it going. It’s the JBJ Soul Kitchen in New Jersey. (JBJ for Jon Bon Jovi, of course.) It’s one of those kitchens with great chefs and many hands and many patrons. Where some pay for their meal with cash, giving whatever they can afford but at least the minimum donation, and some pay with an hour of their time to volunteer, paying for their meal with dignity. What is most valued here is LOVE.

Love is God’s economy, and we can’t get it fully because it defies our understanding. In our human economy we are so predisposed to focus on scarcity, of there not being enough, that accepting even the possibility of there being enough for everyone seems improbable. It’s improbable if our systems adhere to human economy. Enough for everyone is provided by God. We, as caretakers and workers of Creation have imposed our earthly values. Gold is just another metal except that “its rarity, usefulness, and desirability make it command a high price.” What if we replaced greed with love? What if we gave power to those who truly exemplified the love of Christ? What if we frame our hope for the future around a kingdom of heaven that does welcome all, that values love above all things, and requires us to be good and faithful workers in the field, doing whatever work we are gifted to do?

I’m an optimist. Of course I can imagine a place in time where we make the Kingdom a reality this side of heaven. I’m also realistic, so I know that the odds are not in our favor for the whole world to coalesce into a single hum of peace and love. But if we keep making pockets of the kingdom, we are doing good work. We support places like Soul Kitchen–places that affirm and support the dignity of all persons and pay attention to their stewardship of creation. We realize that whether we’re native or alien, we are here together–whether that be in Northwest Arkansas or in this country. Our job is to love one another. That might look like protecting one another. It might look like getting someone out of a ditch, carrying them to the one who has the cure, or standing or kneeling beside them in their deepest, darkest grief. We might have done this all our life or just realized that this is what we’re given to do. Either way, we don’t push our way to the front of the line.

We make a bigger circle so we can gather around the table and marvel at the beautiful tapestry of the heavenly kingdom revealed as beloved community on earth.

 

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Hope, Unity, & Vision

Exodus 1:8-2:10 | Psalm 124 | Romans 12:1-8 | Matthew 16:13-20

At the Christianity panel sponsored by the Tri-faith Club on Tuesday night, there was a question regarding all the different denominations within Christianity. The question really started out with something like: “What’s up with all the different denominations in Christianity?” We were told there are more than 33,000 denominations, and that number continues to grow. So when our collect mentions a church “gathered together in unity,” I pause. “Unity” doesn’t exactly come to mind when thinking of the whole Church, and therein lies a warning flag for a shortcoming in my living into God’s will. So focused am I on “our” well-being as an appendage to the Body of Christ, that I miss the opportunity to pray with all my heart, soul, and mind this prayer of hope that sees–that visualizes– the potential we have as the Body of Christ to give glory to God.

We are taught from a very early age to look out for ourselves, for our kind. It’s a tribal mentality, and I haven’t tried it, but I imagine that if you look at every conflict throughout history, you can see the battles playing out between an “us” and a “them.” We must protect ourselves for our survival. Certainly we have that within our Christian ancestry. Take this genesis story of Moses. The new king didn’t know Joseph; he didn’t know that it had been Joseph’s leadership that had helped the Egyptians and the Hebrews live through the famine. From his place of power, he saw the others, the Hebrews, growing in number, and rather than do the hard work of learning to live together without fear, without oppression, the king leaned harder into the oppression, motivated by his fear of this strong multitude of people. Where was the king’s hope? We can’t see it for the fear of losing power. What is his vision? For a continued reign unchallenged. Where is his sense of unity? Solely within his kind.

(I’m talking about the ancient Egyptians, remember. People who lived thousands of years ago.)

What about the “others”? The apparently growing number of Hebrews, who, even in their subservient place in society, were also growing in power. Whereas the Egyptians feared the Hebrews, the Hebrews, we are told, feared God. At least, the midwives feared God more so than the king. So when they are told to kill the boys born to Hebrew mothers, they commit civil disobedience. They speak the truth when they say that the Hebrew women are vigorous; they are strong from all the labor they have to do. Are they born before the midwife comes to them? I birthed with a midwife who said the baby always started to come when she stepped away to go to the bathroom. Maybe these midwives, too — Shiphrah and Puah — didn’t get there in time. It can happen like that. We have the names of these midwives. Shiphrah and Puah. They had a sense of where they stood in relationship to God. They had a sense of hope in the blessing of their people, that they dare not defy God’s covenant or work against it. Their hope is in God. Their vision is in a people chosen by God. They know the stories of Joseph, Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham, and even more than that, they know the roles of the women in the stories, too. They know the power of the women to continue in God’s work. Their people cannot survive without them. They know they have to work together as a people united to be and stay strong. Out of all of this, Moses is born and rescued–by the cooperation of Egyptian and Hebrew women. Leave it to something innocent, precious, and good like a baby to bring people together, even if they aren’t fully aware of the divine work at play.

We’ll continue with more of Moses next week, but today, where is our hope? What is our vision? Where is our unity?

We, who know the stories of our people, who, like Peter recognize Jesus as the Son of God and are assured the kingdom of heaven, can we kick back and ride out this life on the waves of grace and the assurance of our salvation?

Peter might have been granted this moment of glory with the favor of Jesus shining upon him, but remember that Peter is also the one who denies Jesus three times. Peter is a lot like us in his imperfections, right? He showed us that great faith can get us out of the boat, but our fears can also sink us. We needn’t be so sure of ourselves. We have to know who we are, really.

We have to know where our hope is, and our hope is in the name of the Lord. How many times have we said that? What does that look like in practice? My hope is in God, so even when I’m told to do something that I know in my heart of hearts is wrong, I do not do it. More than that, I say out loud what is true, and if I do what is wrong, I confess and repent and begin again. With the strength of Shiphrah and Puah, I support life and protect the vulnerable, and even if I’m scared, it is hope that I have in God to be with me, behind me, and before me, that I walk in the way of Jesus Christ. Hope in practice looks like living with the marginalized, if not as actual neighbors then as advocates for them. Sharing meals together. Sharing conversations together. Voting on measures that support the poor and silenced. Hope in practice looks a lot like taking the Light of Christ and sharing it with others because it gets stifled and changes when we hoard it for ourselves. We begin to think that the hope and all God’s promises are just for us when we keep hope to ourselves, when we start to enclose ourselves in our echo chambers which are too confined for the Holy Spirit.

Our hope is in the name of the Lord, and our vision is set on the Kingdom of Heaven. Isn’t it? “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done.” We mean that, right? If we don’t pray this every day, we get distracted. We forget what’s important. Our vision gets short-sighted in the busy-ness of our daily lives, and our hope becomes fixed on making it through the next few hours for me and mine. And we do have to take care of ourselves, making sure that our basics are met so that we can help others. But taking care of ourselves doesn’t mean that we only make sure our basics are met; our neighbors need the basics, too. Do you know when and where the food pantries are in our community? (Here’s a link.) As long as there are people starving, we’re going to struggle to share the vision of the kingdom because people are living in hell. When our basic needs are met, we can imagine the kingdom because we’ve tasted abundance. We’ve known love and safety and stability. There are people worldwide who don’t have those experiences. And it doesn’t mean that God is any less with them than us. Don’t for a second think that God doesn’t love someone who is suffering. The culpability is on us, the Body of Christ, the hands and feet of God in this world.

Have we become lame? Do we need to be revived?

Yes, we need to be revived, and we must be united as the Body of Christ. Yes, there will be divisions because we do not agree on everything, but fundamentally, we share one Lord, one Word, one Love. As a Church gathered together in unity by the Holy Spirit, we can’t help but show God’s power of Love in the world, and this is work we must do.

There is hope.

Being new in this community, I’m building relationships. Yes, it’s easier to build relationships with people like “us,” but I’m also looking for opportunities to reach out and unite with others for the sake of Love and to the glory of God. Because we have a Light that shines and illuminates for us a vision of the kingdom. The doors are wide open and sometimes we get a glimpse, like when Camp Mitchell announces it’s open for refugees from the hurricane or when another Magdalene House opens up or brings another woman in. And ultimately, we are a people united, not just as Christians but as children of God, as people of humanity. What unites us? Love. The love that involuntarily bubbles forth when we recognize our common humanity. The love that makes us rush into harm’s way to help another. The love that makes us pick up the crying baby from the river.

At the interfaith prayer service Monday night, Dr. John L. Colbert from the Northwest Arkansas Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Council had a speech prepared and threw it to the wind as the Holy Spirit blew in. His heart showed in his eyes and smile as he greeted us with the energy of a black pastor about to lead us in a gospel sing. He admitted that he was overcome by love as the voices from people gave thanks and as we came together as a people united. And he did the thing that we are so dis-inclined to do. He chided us for sitting so far apart, and he told us that we love being told that we are loved. Then he told us to stand up and tell a neighbor that we love them, to look them in the eyes and say, “I love you.” Laughing genuinely, and I’m sure some were laughing nervously, we all stood up and spent the next five minutes hugging one another, telling each other, “I love you.” And we meant it. You know when you look into the eyes of another person whether they are telling the truth. You know when it’s hard. You know when they’re trying. But if you look into someone’s eyes and say, “I love you” with the love of Christ, that love of Christ shines forth from the depth of your being and rejoices that you’ve given glory to God, allowing a connection to be made, for a union to occur. It might be tenuous at first, but with a lot of practice, all our hopes and vision for the kingdom can be realized if we focus on what unites us.

 

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