All About the Posture

Jeremiah 31:27-34 | Psalm 119:97-104 | 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5 | Luke 18:1-8

When we talk with one another about our experience of first coming to The Episcopal Church, often we’ll say or hear “we felt at home,” “it just felt right,” or “we loved the experience of worship.” This is particularly true if we are not from a Roman Catholic background, when we haven’t experienced liturgy before. I commend to you the glossary entry for “liturgy” on The Episcopal Church’s website, but I’ll sum it up for you: liturgy is the work we, the people of the church, do in public worship of God. We who follow the rubrics or instructions of The Book of Common Prayer (from which our printed bulletin is derived) have a predetermined, set liturgy. This consistent structure gives us the comfort of going to any Episcopal Church and experiencing the same thing, for the most part. There are, of course, cultural variations. ; )

That we experience comfort in the liturgy or that we miss it if we’ve been away from it for an extended period of time doesn’t strike me as odd. When conditions are right, we are at ease. When we know what to expect, we are comforted. Even when we are relaxed, there are ways to experience challenge without being threatened, to do hard work without being afraid, and to take risks even repeatedly. It occurs to me that this is what we do week in and week out. We gather in this space and are, through the structure of our worship, given time to assume postures ready to receive, to learn, and to serve, encompassed in an environment and posture of praise and thanksgiving, whether that’s standing on our feet or kneeling on our knees. Have you ever thought of it that way before?

If you go back to the beginning of the bulletin, you’ll see we start with song, with praise and recognition of God. Charlie Rigsby, former organist at St. Paul’s always said when you sing you pray twice, so we give more than just a nod toward our praise of God, especially in our Gloria. And we stand through this. You don’t stand because I’m processing toward the altar. We stand with the cross entering the room; many bow or reverence the cross as it moves toward the altar, drawing our eyes and intention toward the even larger cross we have on the wall, behind the altar, our common table, God’s table. We stand as a sign of respect and attention. Here we are, gathered together to do something so counter-cultural. We come to focus on something other than ourselves, to praise the one whose name is above all else, our almighty and everlasting God. Our hearts and voices open and bodies oriented toward that altar, we are in a posture to receive. “All hearts are open, all desires known.” Here we are in our fullness, and with words of praise still lingering in the air, we are ready to receive.

Open to receive, we then turn to learn from God’s Word. It’s so intentional, our liturgy. We open with praise, ready to receive, and then we intentionally receive the Word, ready to learn. We don’t sit and open our skulls like they’re on a hinge to be crammed full and then shut tight. With the Lord with us, we pray to set our intention for this day. Our Collect does just that–let us pray it again together:

“Almighty and everlasting God, in Christ you have revealed your glory among the nations: Preserve the works of your mercy, that your Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

From here we go on to learn from the Word directly. From the Old Testament through the prophet Jeremiah, we learn again how God is on track to lead the people toward a time of building and planting. Whereas before the people had fallen short on following the Mosaic Law (the law of Moses), God is giving them the law in their heart, not just in their mind. There’s a new sense of intimacy between God and God’s people. This is important not just for the people individually following God’s commandments, but it also plays a part in realizing that the presence of the law is not solely kept in the Temple. For a people pulled away from their homeland, where the presence of God is thought to be kept, isn’t it significant that there is a story of God placing the law directly in your heart? If something is written on your heart, isn’t it there forever and always? The words of the psalmist affirm the positive attitude toward God’s law, the significance of obedience and the gift of understanding that comes from God’s commandments.

The second letter of Paul to Timothy is our Epistle reading, epistle being a fancy word for letter. These readings, remember, come after the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. These letters are generally given toward people living in faith after Jesus’ ascension, which is why they are so often applicable to our lives, given contextualization. I find this applicability very much the case today, as Paul commends to Timothy the importance of scripture and the fulfillment of ministry, particularly as it relates to teaching and training the followers of Christ with perseverance. The work of an evangelist is not to go get more people to come to your church or believe what you believe–that’s proselytizing. To evangelize is to share the Good News, the story of Jesus’  life, death, and resurrection.

To be able to share the story, to be an evangelist like Paul and Timothy, we have to know the stories, and so we turn to the gospel. Today we hear Jesus offer a parable to his disciples about the widow and the unjust judge. Lucky for us, we’re told straight out of the gate that this parable is about “their need to pray always and not to lose heart” (Luke 18:1). We could learn all day long about Jesus’ life and teachings, but eventually your eyes will glaze over (if they haven’t already). How does this relate to you? To us? 

One thing I find fascinating about our scripture is that at any moment, this literature, inspired by God, speaks to us in our place and time just as it describes another time and place. This is why we call it the Living Word. By the power of Holy Spirit, we continue to receive the Word and learn from it as it impacts our lives today. We don’t have to look far to find one who is oppressed, seeking justice against their opponent, nor do we have to look far to find those in positions of power who have no love or fear of God and no respect for others. The enormity of both lists, actually, is enough to send me into a state of anxiety or paralysis. But I return to what the parable is about: the need to pray always and not to lose heart. Last week I mentioned that faith involves perseverance. Even when it seems our prayers are not answered in the way we would have them be answered, it doesn’t mean we aren’t being heard. At the time of the Last Judgment, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Will Jesus Christ find those of us who continue to pray with perseverance, to endure all the trials and tribulations with a faithful heart? (Remember that even doubt points to a yearning to seek God, so that’s an act of faith, too.) Jesus sharing this parable, these words with his disciples, is meant for our learning, too. Whether we are new to this faith or long-time believers, we come to this Lord’s day to learn again, as if for the first time, that God hears our prayers, that God is a just God, full of mercy. We know that God is merciful because of the very life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Perhaps our greatest act of faith is believing that whatever pain or suffering we endure, joy comes in the morning. Believing the story of Jesus is believing that sin, suffering, and death are not the end, that there is hope in everlasting life, that the moments of joy we taste and know on this side of glory are but glimpses of the joy and life of the kingdom of heaven, where sin and suffering are no more. This message of Jesus Christ is our Good News, which I am given to proclaim and expound upon not just on Sunday mornings. If you want to wrestle with it, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest it some more, come to Tuesday Bible study, read a little each day, do the Daily Office, talk with me about what it means or doesn’t mean to you. As Epsicopalians, we love the Word of God so much we spend half our service dedicated to it in a posture of learning because we need to know it. The Godly Play curriculum we share with the little kids offers it to them in a way they can engage with it to know it deeply as the wonder what’s important about these ancient stories and how it relates to their lives.

And what do we do with this knowledge? We profess it. We don’t have everything figured out, but this is what our tradition has to offer as a base line, as scaffolding to hold us together. So with our voices it’s like we hold hands, even if they’re too hot or too cold, sweaty or dry, shaky or calm. We create a net of common faith to hold us together as move forward, and then we offer our prayers for all people, today focused on hunger as we share in Bread for the World Sunday. And then we confess for not following God in thought, word, and deed, for not loving God with our whole heart or our neighbors as ourselves. Because God is just and merciful and truly knows our hearts, we seek God’s forgiveness and renewal. And we move forward in peace to greet one another and put into action our gratitude. We bring forth the Presence of Christ in our Holy Communion. We take, bless, break, and share, full of praise and proclamation. We do this prayerfully, intentionally, and gratefully. Together we partake in this holy meal, and then we go to love and serve the Lord.

We, who have received, and learned, been nourished and blessed, posture ourselves again to follow the cross and go out into the world. We go to live lives that speak louder than our words of our deep love of God. We offer a ride to a neighbor, check in on the sick, tend to our families, greet strangers, feed the poor, advocate for the vulnerable, laugh with our friends, cry with the weak and the strong, and do all the things we do because God has continually revealed God’s mercy through the presence of Christ in our lives, through the power of the Holy Spirit that gives us strength to continue when we think there’s no way, no how. And we come back next week, God willing, again given the opportunity to receive, to learn, and to serve. Sometimes we make that net of faith stronger, and sometimes we rely on the faith of others to hold us. Always, we do this work together, in a posture of gratitude in the liturgy of our Holy Eucharist.

 

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Almost, Not Yet, Already

Isaiah 43:16-21 | Psalm 126 | Philippians 3:4b-14 | John 12:1-8

The cherry blossoms and tulips taunt me with the coming season of Easter, but we’re not there yet. Entering this fifth week of Lent, we know we’ve been in the season a while. After a month more likely than not, we’ve either given up on our practices, or they’ve become habit. As any of us know who have had to cut ourselves off of an addiction, at this point if we’ve been off for a month, we’re clean. It doesn’t mean we don’t still struggle with temptation, but after a period of detox, we have a bit more clarity. For those with powerful substance abuse addictions, that period of detox is especially cruel to witness, let alone experience. Addicts will think they’re dying, that they won’t survive, and those who are helping them make it through will offer witness and assurance that while, yes, they feel like they’re dying, they will make it. They will survive, and they will be stronger for it. They’re at a critical moment in their journey–a tipping point, if you will–and now more than ever, as people of faith, we know that God’s grace is needed.  Wherever we are in our journey of faith, wherever we are in our wilderness, whether it’s in the throws of painful cleansing/detox/transition or in the lush jungle of joyful, life-giving discernment, there comes a decisive moment of taking that next step into a new chapter and hopefully with a newness of life rooted in Christ.

It sounds like easy words, but we know the process is more complicated. Even if we gave up something simple for Lent, the intent is still to give up something in our lives that makes more room for God’s will to speak to us and guide us on our way, which at our best is God’s way. We do this because we remember that after baptism, Jesus went into the wilderness for forty days, was tempted in every way but did not sin. He emerged from the desert, prevailing over evil, and fully lived into his life’s ministry, perfectly living into God’s will. Jesus’ faithfulness prevails in every way. And we remember, too, that God’s faithfulness always prevails. God’s faithfulness is what gives the psalmist hope in Ps. 126: recalling the great things that God has done, from deliverance from Egypt to the restoration of fortunes, whatever it is they lament now, the will of God is to be faithful, to keep promises, and to transform the lives of those who survive the wilderness.

It is this transformation that we hope for when we’re going through difficult times. I don’t want to suffer for nothing. If I’m going to give up sugar, I want to lose weight and be healthier. If I’m going to give up drugs, I want to live a life worth living. If I’m going to do good, I want to know that what I’m sacrificing for is worth it. I want something to look forward to. This is hard for us because we can’t promise that because we’re doing good things that life will be sunshine and roses. We can’t assure there won’t be daily temptation, that our bodies will stay in remission, that there won’t be some senseless tragedy, despite our best efforts in our home or at the capitol. But our remembering God’s faithfulness strengthens our faith in God’s will and fortifies our hope, our imagination of what is to come. Not yet are we transformed ourselves or as a community, but there is hope that it can be.

When we have this faith and hope of what can and will be done through the grace of God and our cooperation, if this is our belief, we can’t help but act upon it. Paul, sitting in prison, writing to the Philippians, couldn’t help but strain toward the future, toward what is to come. Paul wants to know Christ fully, even to the sharing of his suffering. In commentary on The Working Preacher, Edward Pillar suggests three ways that Paul demonstrates how the knowledge of Christ could be obtained. To me they sound like Paul’s three ways of love because they include

  • Letting go of status or significance in our culture–value is only rooted in love;
  • Being obedient to the values and ethos of God, which is love; and
  • Maintaining love and loving even to the death, even if it’s at the hands of the powerful/unjust/corrupt.

We are given how Paul does this, having given up his status as a blameless leader. We know that this is the very model of Jesus in his life and death, which is why by our experiencing these things, we are more inclined to know what it is to live in Christ, to have the Christ-mind, to be Christ-like, to be truly Christian.

In our gospel lesson today, we are given a couple of people through whom we can see how they are orienting their lives toward knowing God through Christ, or not. Martha and Lazarus are there at this dinner party, Martha serving as she does and Lazarus living his resurrected life (wouldn’t we love to hear more of his thoughts?). But it’s Mary and Judas who are the two characters we focus in on today.

We don’t know what Jesus said during the meal, but at some point, Mary gets the perfume and anoints Jesus, filling the room with the scent of nard, a fragrance that takes me back to Jerusalem in a heartbeat. This fragrance, they would know, is the fragrance of a burial anointing. Six days before the Passover . . . maybe Jesus had said something again of his coming death, of going to be with his Father. Maybe Mary is letting go of her attachment to Jesus in recognition of him living into God’s will and is showing her utmost act of love in supporting him, encouraging him, and loving him up to his death. She’s the one who sits at the feet of Jesus and listens to him intently. Whatever he says, this is how she responds, acting in faith, hope, and love. Her act is tender and heart-wrenching, if she truly anticipates his death. This isn’t to say it couldn’t also be an impulsive act of adoration, but either way, Mary is giving herself over to Love, offering probably one of the most precious material possessions she has.

Judas, however, I imagine him going from being annoyed at Mary’s affection to disgusted that she would waste the nard. The value of the perfume–I read that it’s about a year’s salary for a laborer–could have filled the disciples’ discretionary fund, providing him with more for his own pockets. Not only are we told here that Judas will be the one to betray Jesus, but he’s also a thief, a dishonest treasurer. How, we might wonder, can Judas be with the disciples all this time, even up to the end, and be so cold-hearted? Quite obviously, the way of love is not Judas’ way of living. There’s something he benefits from being among the disciples, if even it’s the status of treasurer or being among the band of misfits making a ruckus. His values are self-centered, and ultimately he doesn’t show love in his betrayal, even to himself.

Who do we see leaning into God’s grace in their actions in this life? Judas never lets go of his self-interest. In Mary we see repeated acts of her following the guidance of Spirit or love or impulse–whatever we want to call it. In those moments, we can see where her actions reveal something of love made manifest in unexpected ways. There’s something sacramental about it because it is making visible and tangible something invisible and spiritual. Mary’s act demonstrates grace, which is an offering of God’s love. It’s unwarranted, unearned, and unconditional. Grace is always ready to be received.

At the end of our wilderness pilgrimage, or after a long period of struggle, we know that point when we say “I’m done” or “I can’t do this anymore” or “I don’t want to.” Those of us advocating for the rights of the poor and marginalized might feel like it’s an endless uphill battle. What does it mean for us to hear these words of Jesus, spoken to the one who does not embody or understand the importance of love? What does it mean to hear Jesus speaking to cold-heartedness, “Leave her alone,” she’s doing work for what is to come. This is her act of faith and hope, and my receiving her act of love lets my grace be fulfilled with mutual affection. Does it prevent what is to come? No, but it emphasizes the importance of moment to moment actions, the significance of one act of grace, one donation given, one kindness exchanged, one life transformed.

Remembering our stories and promises sustain our faith. Seeking the transformation of nightmarish realities into dreams of God’s will made manifest in the kingdom of heaven speaks to our hope. Above all of what is “almost” and “not yet” is what already is in the prevalence of God’s love for us from beginning to end, through and beyond. How are we leaning into God’s grace, acting in ways of love, especially when we are most ready to give up and walk away? Do we turn away from God’s grace, or can we act in love and take that next step into new life in Christ?

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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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Unveiled

Exodus 34:29-35 | Psalm 99 |  2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2 | Luke 9:28-36-43a

When we think about talking with God, we usually mean through prayer, and we trust that by offering our words out loud or in our heart and mind, that God receives them and “hears” them, in whatever way works for God. Because we don’t know. Prayer is one of our constant actions done in faith, and it is one of the building blocks of our discipleship, how we live as faithful Christians. Especially in times of trial, the words of Paul to pray without ceasing come to mind, but I know I’m not the only one who finds the thoughts in my head on an average day filled with a one-sided conversation with the Almighty. Probably more often than I’d like to admit, it’s filled with me telling God how I think things should go. On better days, it’s filled with “Your will be done.” On truly hard days, it’s filled with surrender, acknowledgment that I need God’s help.

But in all of this praying, I don’t think about actually meeting God face to face. Maybe I don’t think about it because it just doesn’t happen. Sure, it happened for Moses, and, sure, it happened for the disciples with Jesus. But it doesn’t happen for us. Look what happened to Moses, anyway. His face had some divine perma-glow that terrified his people, even his brother Aaron. He wore a veil to help others feel more comfortable. Yet Moses continued to be an intermediary between God and the people. Moses went from seeing God in the burning bush, to seeing the backside of God from the cleft in the mountain, to talking with God face to face, so to speak. And Moses was a changed man. Not only was he a leader of the people, but he was one who had survived being in the presence of God. And he shone for it, even if it was off-putting to others. Intimidating, maybe? Moses was physically changed by his encounter with God.

We’re more comfortable with our way of praying, aren’t we? We’d rather whisper or think our prayers or say them together comfortably and predictably than experience what Moses went through because we understand Aaron’s and the other’s terror. What if that happens to us? We certainly don’t want to alienate ourselves. What would it mean for our lives?

It might mean that people know our relationship with God has changed our lives. It might mean that we share our stories because we can’t hide the fact that we have lived through encounters with God in our lives. It might mean that we’re like a friend of mine whom I met in Hot Springs. She was living in a tent at the time with her dog. She came to the church because she needed some more blankets. We talked a while, and she came back a time or two. Eventually she was able to lease a place, and we helped with furniture. Mostly when we talked, though, it was about her accomplishments, her determination, and her recovery. I would know when she wasn’t doing so well, when she’d smell of alcohol or when I met her in the detention center. She was both embarrassed and grateful to see me then. We struck up conversation, same as we would if we had seen each other in the church or out and about. “Will you be okay?” I’d ask. She had faith. She was praying. She was reading the Bible, finding verses that inspired her and kept her going. Even now I see her on Facebook, not just her pictures of her highlighted Bible verses but pictures of her face, a life-worn face that smiles through hardship and smiles with grace, shining in its own way for knowing the love of God, experiencing it in her life.

I know I keep harkening back to diocesan convention, but there was a statement Jerusalem made that I want to make sure we all hear again: We have to use our words to share the Good News of Christ. We can give all the tents, blankets, and food there is, but if we don’t share WHY we’re doing it, how will they know we’re not just part of a charitable or service organization? “Preach the Gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.” We typically attribute this quote to St. Francis. Jerusalem says that today, it’s necessary.

And Paul, he says that because of Christ, our veil is removed. We don’t need to hide from the light. It’s not terrifying . . . it’s glorious, and we’re meant to share it. Don’t get me wrong, to live in the Light is terrifying at times, uncomfortable to us and to others. Why? Because it threatens to change the way things are. If we are mirroring the image of God through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are bringing into this world evidence of God’s mercy, experiences of transformation. But if we practice over and over again, it becomes less scary, changing into glory can become our expectation, if not a norm.

But what do we practice?

People like my friend from Hot Springs know what it is to hit rock bottom and have little left to lose. But she found a thread of hope which was intimately linked to her dog, through her love of another, that empowered her to act with great boldness. And as she grew to understand more and more that the love of God was hers, that God wasn’t punishing her, she began to act more boldly for herself. And along this journey she was sharing that she had love of God, that God was working through her to live better, and maybe her witness could help others live better, too. She didn’t get to a place of sharing publicly overnight.

Like Peter, we might experience something truly marvelous and make a claim to capture it then and there, freeze it in time and place. In this action, we, too, might not know what we say or what we mean. In our belief, Jesus wasn’t just a man who lived and died in ancient Israel, doing really great things, many of which are accounted in the season of Epiphany that we conclude today. With his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ continued the story for us. The Transfiguration during his lifetime, when he was radiant as ever and in the presence of figures who had gone before him, gave us a glimpse that in our lives lived in God, amazing things can happen, surpassing human understanding. These experiences happen not just in one time and place but everywhere we go bringing with us the Light of Christ.

In our baptism we are given a candle as a symbol of that light of Christ, that it would go with us into the world. It’s a symbol of the light within because I don’t know anyone who carries that candle with them everywhere. It’s a physical thing that doesn’t have enough wax to last out the day. But that light of Christ, which comes from the glory of God, that’s eternal and everlasting.

So what, exactly do we do? Start small, which is really starting big because we have to train our way of thinking. Do we want to do good? Are we already doing good work? Why? Because we’re supposed to? Because we don’t want to be hard-hearted? We do good because we love. We love because we are loved, and if we believe that, the rest stems from there.

What in our lives has been hard but we lived through? What kept us going? We don’t always or even often start with love of God. Maybe, like me, you had a loving family and lived a pretty sheltered life and have continued to live a good life, given a few trials and tribulations but nothing insurmountable. But we don’t take that for granted. Great religious figures of the past, even when surrounded in comfort and/of luxury, went among the suffering and had empathy, had compassion for them, and it changed their worldview, guiding others to shape their perspective, too.

One time of doing something does not make a practice. My kids wouldn’t be great swimmers or musicians if they just jumped in and swam a lap or picked up an instrument every once in a blue moon. We have to practice our skills, and that includes living a life in Christ without fear. Fear to me is embodied in that unclean spirit from the gospel lesson today. Fear with thrash about and throw us to our knees rather than go boldly into the light of God. But with God’s help through Jesus Christ, we can be healed of our fears, return to the Way of Love, and astound others with the greatness of God, rather than scare them.

This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, and I will share a practice every week that will encourage you to find words to share your story as a child of God. You wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t experienced God either knowingly or because you seek God in your life. Maybe all we need to do is remove the veil to see clearly that God is already at work.

 

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Called

Isaiah 6:1-8, [9-13] | Psalm 138 | 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 | Luke 5:1-11

Our scriptures are filled with stories of people who are called, and by “called” I mean that faithful people have discerned that God is offering direction and purpose in their life and making a proposition to them. A “call,” then, might also be described as a divine invitation. A “call” is certainly a mile-marker for where we sense the presence of God intersecting in our lives.

A prophetic call from God, or from the voice of the Lord however we discern it, is a multi-stage process. God chooses a person, usually at a moment of crisis when some intervention is needed and puts forth a message to proclaim or action to perform (typically an impossible task). The person denies it because of their inadequacy. God basically says, “I’m gonna be here with you,” usually offers an affirming sign, and keeps the promise as the calling is fulfilled.

Fortunately, our calls are not typically like Isaiah’s, who came directly in the presence of the LORD almighty. And what did he encounter? The presence of the LORD on a high throne, the LORD’s hem–the LORD’s glory–filling the whole temple. This is saying that God of heaven also fills all of creation with God’s glory, and Isaiah was seeing it. Seraphs are in attendance. Seraphs, not chubby little cherubs but seraphs, six-winged fiery beings. They sang their Sanctus that we sing a version of at every Eucharist. “Holy, holy, holy Lord,” we sing. As they sang, the very ground shook, and the air filled with smoke. Isaiah is struck by his unworthiness, his uncleanliness yet is still awe-struck that he has seen the LORD of hosts. A seraph flies to him with a coal from the altar and touches his lips, departing from Isaiah all guilt, blotting out all sin. And now when the voice of the LORD asks “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” what does Isaiah say?

“Here am I; send me!”

This person Isaiah, whom we know so little about, becomes one of the most renowned of the Prophets, a mouthpiece for the voice of God. And the optional text for today shares that what Isaiah is called to share is not good news, not what people want to hear. There’s a reason not many clamor to be a prophet or even to do the work of God. This passage, this call story of Isaiah is one of the Old Testament lessons suggested for ordinations to the priesthood in our Church. More than likely it points not to the magnitude of God’s commission (which is still great) but rather points to the reality that God calls and equips all of us to holy work, to ministry in our particular context, be it in the church or in the world at large. Isaiah can represent the universal believer.

Peter has a way of filling in for us as a type of “every man,” too. Simon Peter has a very different kind of encounter with God, one much more down-to-earth. Peter’s been working all night and is working with his fellow fishermen tending to the nets. Jesus has come near the Sea of Gennesaret, another name for the Sea of Galilee, and is preaching to the crowd that’s pressing in. Jesus gets in one of the boats and asks Simon Peter to push it out a bit so he can teach the crowd sitting down, perhaps to let the wind carry his voice to the people. Peter and crew hold the boat in place, maybe enjoying a bit of rest after a night of work, listening to the voice of Jesus while they man the boat on autopilot. They do what they do with ease.

Then Jesus tells Peter, calls on him, to go out deeper and to cast the nets, and Peter doesn’t hold back his resignation. “We’ve already fished all night and got nothing,” Peter says. They must have exchanged looks or something nonverbal because Peter goes on to say, “Alright . . .okay . . . if you say so,” as if his mom has just told him to do it because she said so. And they catch more than they can handle. In the chaos of the moment when the weight of their catch is about to sink them, Peter falls at Jesus’ feet, confessing his sinfulness–not unlike Isaiah in the presence of God. Jesus tells Peter, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” Jesus hears Peter confess his inadequacy but still chooses him, calls him to a greater purpose, and in telling him not to be afraid is also affirming what he says repeatedly, “I’m gonna be with you.” Peter, James and John bring their boats to shore and leave everything to follow Jesus and become fishers of people.

The call of the apostles lives on in faithful disciples, including Paul, who knows he’s called to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ. Paul is quick to remind us of his past sins and the grace he’s received. He reminds us today how hard he works, as if he’s the hardest worker of all time. His confidence always strikes me as boastful, but maybe his self-assuredness is an affirming characteristic, one meant to give us strength and confidence, too. Paul never fails to acknowledge his past sins, how he was unworthy, too. Yet  he continues forward, advocating for the faith, shaping the church as one Body in Christ.

Where would we be if any one of these people has stopped at their claims of unworthiness: Isaiah emphasizing his uncleanliness as he must have been where he wasn’t allowed in the Holy of Holies; Peter, who could have stayed with his boat, focusing solely on the fish he may or may not catch; Paul, if he would have let his blindness lead him to despair? Sure, God could move on to the next person, and we don’t know how many were before these chosen ones. But these are the people who answered God’s call in their life and said in one way or another: “Here am I; send me.”

Send me to proclaim the Good News of God through Christ. Send me to learn the skills to heal and comfort the sick. Send me to build homes. Send me to teach the children. Send me to defend the accused. Send me to raise a family. Send me to change policies. Send me to care for our roads. Send me to protect the citizens. Send me to fill our community with music or art. Send me to fill hunger. Send me. Send me. Send us. Here we are.

Even if we’ve known since we are a child what we want to do with our lives, there will come a point when we want to say, “Whoah. Not that. Not me.” We may think we don’t have the skills, or we may think we’re not worthy. We’re sinful. We’re not the right person. And we may not be wrong. But when we enter into holy work, we’re not doing it because we can cover it all on our own. Actually, we cannot do it on our own. We depend upon God’s help, in any way it comes. It’s going to come from mentors and teachers, friends and allies, and even opponents who strengthen us along the way. There may be those auspicious times when things just seem to align in the perfect way, reminding us that we are where we’re supposed to be, doing exactly what we’re supposed to be doing. There may be times when everything seems wrong and we think we’ve messed up, missed the call, but there’s a still, small voice that reminds us not to give up, that it’s just temptation prowling at our door trying to keep us from doing good work.

When the boats were laden with their catch, Peter turns to Jesus, falls at his feet, and tells him to “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Peter, who had been listening to Jesus, maybe halfheartedly, confessed that he had turned away from God. Peter was working night shifts and probably wasn’t keeping the law as well as he was supposed to be keeping it. But mostly, Peter, in his resignation to do what Jesus invited him to, was hinting at his greater distrust of God. Almost like he was saying, “Fine, I’ll throw the nets in; it’s not like it’s going to make a difference.” Peter didn’t trust, until he saw that it did make a difference, and then he, like the others, was amazed. And if Jesus can lead them to a great catch, what if everything else he was saying was true and could happen? Jesus tells them, “Do not be afraid.” He’s going to be with them every step of their way.

Just like with us when we are called. In all our questioning, all our discernment, all our doubts, and all our resignation or faithful trust, Jesus is with us. God is with us. Yes, it’s scary when we are called to proclaim what people don’t want to hear. Yes, following the Way of Jesus might take us in new directions. Yes, it’s okay to be self-assured and confident in faith, so long as we know that it’s grace that makes us whole and not any effort of our own. Yes, when we discern the call of God, it’s up to us to go through the process and choose whether or not we want to answer or not. We always have a choice, but only God leads us to life abundant, love eternal. This I trust. This I believe, as one who like you has been called.

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