God’s Dream: The Way of Love

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 | Psalm 24 | Ephesians 1:3-14 | Mark 6:14-29

Wow. Coming back to you from General Convention and revisiting the beheading of John the Baptist doesn’t quite match up with the Good News I experience. I’ve spent the nearly past two weeks being surrounded by Episcopalians from all over the world, worshipping with hundreds and, at times, thousands of others. We had a revival, folks! We sang and clapped and nearly danced at our seats not just in English. We sang in Spanish and offered prayer responses guided by our chaplain who was raised in South Africa. It was a joyous, mountaintop experience, though there were times we could tell we had a mountain to climb as we pulled ourselves through long legislative sessions and voting processes guided by parliamentary procedure. It was joyful, and I felt the presence of God in our midst in our prayers, laughter, and our being mindfully present to each other.

So I understand the story of David rejoicing in the street as he and others carried the ark of God. For them, this ark contained the actual presence of God, which makes it all the more significant for who carried it and where it was located. It was a big deal, and in their music and dancing, I feel a kinship for the rejoicing taking place.

But there’s something else in that story, too. There’s one who looks on with “disdain in her heart.” Michal, daughter of Saul, is not happy. Maybe she’s bitter that it’s not her father carrying the ark and being celebrated in the streets. The darkness of her disdain contrasts sharply to the joy surrounding the ark of God.

I sense an echo of a similar disdain in Herodias, wife of Herod, former wife of Philip his brother. John the Baptist didn’t approve of their relationship, and while Herod didn’t necessarily appreciate John the Baptist’s judgment, he somewhat protected him . . . in prison. He protected him until in an evening of joyful merry-making, he promised the dancer anything she asked for. Dutiful daughter she was, she consulted her mother who seized the opportunity to quench her disdain and kill John the Baptist. As if he had been double-dog-dared in front of all his friends, Herod granted the request of his oath rather than protect the one he knew to be holy and righteous (something he repeats with Jesus).

So where’s the Good News in this?

I commend the Epistle this week for giving us a reminder of God’s blessing to us: grace and salvation through Jesus Christ. God wants for us to live into our grace and salvation, to live into the holy and blessed ones we are created to be. This state of being is already available to us, but we tend to get so inwardly-focused that we forget that we have a life centered in Christ.

That’s easy to say, but why, then, do we get bogged down with enmity, spite, and disdain, if not outright hatred? One might say we lose our way.

You’ve probably heard Presiding Bishop Michael Curry mention the Jesus Movement, how it leads us to becoming Beloved Community, which is, after all, God’s dream for us. A movement truly involves moving, changing, maybe even transforming. Lucky for us, at this General Convention, he gave us a resource for living into a Jesus-Centered Life, and he and his evangelism team simply call it “The Way of Love.” It’s appropriate, I think, that for us to live into God’s dream asks of us to walk the Way of Love. Truly, this is the Way that Jesus showed his disciples from Day 1.

We received these handouts at worship the first night, I think it was (I’ve been to a lot of services lately!). I have a few more and can order more if you don’t get one or if you’d like to have more to share with others. These little things outline the practices for Jesus-centered living. There’s no fancy acronym: just The Way of Love.

  1. Turn – PB Curry knew it wouldn’t take if we started with “Repent,” but that’s what it means. We realize we’re losing our way, and we want to turn toward Jesus in our lives so we can live into our blessed grace and salvation. So we TURN: pause, listen, and choose to follow Jesus. I think of a tune from a Richard Scarry video my kids used to watch when they were little: “Stop, look, and listen.” When we come to an intersection, crosswalk, or crossroads, we have to stop and listen, and we make a conscious decision about where we’re headed.
  2. Learn – We’re not walking blindly. We have guidance, and we get it from reflecting on Scripture each day. If we want to live like Jesus, we have to know what that looks like, sounds like, tastes like, and maybe even smells like. What did Jesus do in his life and say in his teachings that offer us instruction?
  3. Pray – We not only ask God for help and give thanks, but we listen. We set apart time each day to dwell with God, to abide in God’s presence. We might not yet be able to pray without ceasing, but we practice prayer every day.
  4. Worship – You all know the importance of gathering weekly in community to thank, praise, and dwell with God. We come to the altar for solace and strength, courage and renewal. We offer our prayers together and experience very tangibly that we are not alone. We receive the Real Presence of Christ. I tell people all the time when they are looking for a church to “go where you feel the presence of God.” (I certainly hope you all will be back next week!)
  5. Bless – Sure, it’s the priests and bishops in the church who bless in the name of the Trinity, but we all bless one another when we share our faith and when we unselfishly give and serve as so many of you do. When we experience the joy of being in the presence of God, we almost can’t help ourselves but share that with others. On the first day of walking in downtown Austin, we were approached by a homeless man (one of many there). My companion, maybe more experience at navigating larger cities, managed to walk on, but I made eye contact at the same time he was asking for money. He had joy in his bright, light blue eyes as he said, “Hey, you see me,” and gave me a fist-bump. He proceeded to walk with us to our destination and then go on his way, but I learned a bit about Ricky as we walked, though I realize it may or may not be true (especially the part about Stevie Nicks). I hope my seeing him with light and love of Christ was more of a blessing to him than the money I gave.
  6. Go – Throughout the gospels, especially after the Resurrection, the disciples are told to GO! Several of the sermons admonished us to GO! Go outside the church and do the work of the Lord. Because we have to move; we can’t stay comfortable, even if it’s within the confines of our church. In our going, we are told to “cross boundaries, to listen deeply, and to live like Jesus.” We don’t have to go far, but it is worthwhile to go where we don’t feel comfortable. Maybe that’s volunteering at the animal shelter or food pantry, where you experience sadness or smells that you’d rather avoid. Maybe it means going to the Salvadoran restaurant that you don’t go to because they speak mostly Spanish, and you’d be the minority. Jesus was always going to the other side, talking and eating with people he wasn’t supposed to. How often do we do the same?
  7. Rest – Finally, we also have to rest, to “receive the gift of God’s grace, peace, and restoration.” Jesus would go apart from the crowd. To do good work, we have to be well-rested, restored, and whole–mind, body, and soul. It also acknowledges that God is the one who’s doing the deep work; we’re not in control. We can leave for a while, and good work continues. (There’s nothing wrong with a good, long nap when it’s needed, either. I took one Saturday afternoon when I realized how much softer my bed is than the one I’ve slept on for almost two weeks!)

These practices outline The Way of Love for us, and they’re circular, not linear. They invite us to assess where we are and begin again when we feel ourselves losing our way, maybe even experiencing a hardening heart. They’re grounded in Holy Scripture and the life of Christ, but most importantly, they’re rooted in God’s blessing, God’s dream for us. God’s dream for us is ours to be had when we walk in the Way of Love, the Way of Christ, and that’s Good News for us all.

(Be sure to click on The Way of Love link for online resources and a message from the Presiding Bishop!)

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Our Fertile Ground

 

Genesis 25:19-34 | Ps. 119:105-112 | Romans 8:1-11 | Matthew 13:1-9, 19-23

Hopefully you’re all familiar with the Sunday School curriculum we use with our children: Godly Play. In this curriculum, which is heavily based on story-telling, there are special lessons in golden boxes, golden because they hold something to be treasured and opened like a precious gift. These are the parables, holy mysteries in our tradition. And we tell the story in Jesus’ words and ponder at the mystery of it, wondering–because that’s what we do together in Godly Play, we wonder–what it is that Jesus is really trying to tell us, if we have the eyes to see and ears to hear.

Thanks to our gospel lesson, we impatient adults don’t have to wonder too much today because Matthew shares with us Jesus’ explanation to the disciples. The parable of the sower is focused on the good soil, the fertile ground, that will bear fruit of the kingdom once it’s given the seed of the Word.

Whereas Jesus gave a very quick riddle of sorts to the great crowds that surrounded him (so much so that he makes an auditorium out of the sea side), he explains the parable to the disciples in clearer terms.

  • The word of the kingdom = seed
  • The path = heart
  • The various conditions = world/what’s between the world and the heart
    • Evil one
    • Lack of depth/roots
    • Too much of the secular world

It seems clear-cut, but what does it mean for the “word of the kingdom” to be sown into our “heart”? The seed is not just the words that come from Jesus’s mouth but his very words and deeds, actually himself that is the Word made flesh. Jesus is the seed, sowing himself into the hearts of those who surround him . . . or at least trying to.

What of the various conditions of the soil, of the hearts of the people in whom Jesus Christ is trying to germinate?

In the midst of the pericope we have today, in the verses we jump over, Jesus quotes Isaiah. Isaiah was prophesying what would go wrong with the people of Israel, what would come between them and the LORD their God and set them up for judgment, and we realize that this is also true of the people in Jesus’ time because he says the prophecy is fulfilled in them. They can’t understand or perceive because

“… this people’s heart has grown dull,

And their ears are hard of hearing,

And they have shut their eyes;

So that they might not look with their eyes,

And listen with their ears,

And understand with their heart and turn–

And I would heal them.”

The great crowds are flocking to Jesus for healing, whether they knew it or not. Their hearts drawn to him like a magnet.

Contemporary Christian mystic Cynthia Bourgeault says that the heart–our path, our soil–is an “organ of spiritual perception,” the “perfect holograph” of the divine. Created as we are, perfectly and in God’s image, our heart is the “homing beacon” that ever yearns for its source, its pure identity. Can you imagine the magnetism of Jesus, perfection incarnate? Bourgeault and others point out, however, that our hearts are overrun with interference, which drown out its connection to its source, dulling it so that we neither see nor hear the kingdom at hand, even when it’s within our midst. Our hearts are dull, indeed, our ears hard of hearing, our eyes unable to see.

This might sound very esoteric, but practically speaking, we realize how true this is. If you were to answer on a scale of 1-10 how fertile you think your heart is to receive the Word, to let the Spirit fertilize and nurture the Word in the midst of your life and others so that you bear fruit of the Kingdom, are you super-rich soil at a 10, or nearly depleted and rock-hard at 1? Chances are that we span the spectrum on any given day, really.

During morning prayer, I’m fertile ground, and journaling feels like a dance with Spirit, pouring out my heart and soul, nearly writing poetry in praise and thanksgiving. Then the weeds and thorns start to crowd in with all the stuff of life that has to be done. What if I’ve just gotten back from a conference or a really good gathering that has given me one of those mountain-top experiences? I’m high on life lived in the Spirit, but then I can be devastated by tragic news, someone’s terminal diagnosis, or a challenge I don’t see a way through. Then put me in 5:00 traffic on I-49 in a construction zone, and my heart can become rock-solid. Morning prayer is long-gone, and by the end of the day, I’m too exhausted even for compline.

It would be easier for me to tell you the ingredients we could buy to amend the soil of our hearts, where we could go to find the best soil and keep it ever-fertile and rich, but the truth is, as faithful disciples of Christ, we don’t buy anything or go anywhere. We can’t, actually. We have to be who we are, where we are. We realize that the very heart we have, whatever state of health it is in, it is our path to God. We might get benefit out of a retreat or vacation, to let some of the interference fall away, but we open our hearts right where we are; there’s no escaping them, no place we can go where our heart isn’t with us (at least in the same room, in cases of surgery!) just as there’s nowhere we are that God isn’t also present.

The Word that we see or hear may be out loud or beneath the surface, kind of like a parable, but we only find what we seek, we only see what we’re looking for. We only grow that which we nurture. Any gardener will tell you that a garden requires work and tender loving care to produce the best fruits. Now, Spirit is generous and sometimes gives us abundant volunteers (I used to think the compost pile was an intentional cherry tomato factory), but the best fruits come from loving intention.

Between our God-given heart, the Spirit that dwells within us, and Jesus Christ, the Word that is, as our Psalm suggests, “a lantern to my feet and a light unto my path,” if we focus our attention and intention on God’s will, what is there that we cannot do? It might sound like we have to align the stars just right–and in a way, we do–but it’s not impossible. When we acknowledge and comprehend that God is very much at work in our lives, the stakes change.

Like I’ve said before, life can get harder. The evil one that plucks the Word out of our heart before it’s had a chance to sink in gets even more stealthy as our faithfulness grows. But so do we. We learn what practices keep us nurtured. When and how do we pray. With whom do we surround ourselves? What are we listening to? What are we reading? What kind of community are we nurturing locally and globally in the decisions that we are making? Am I doing this all on my own, or am I letting the Trinity work through me? Am I giving my best effort to tend to my gifts and skills so that when people meet me, they know that I’m doing something important, even if they don’t know what it is. It could be that Jesus is healing them through us.

This has mostly been framed with a mind toward the individual, but it works at the corporate level, the group level, as well. What is the state of the heart of All Saints’? We’ve been planted well, the Word settling deep in our heart. We’re still young as a congregation. Seedlings have to be tended to carefully, often supported by something more stable, as we have been by surrounding parishes and are by the diocese. We’re often repotted when we’ve outgrown our current pot, eventually settling in a place where we can let our roots grow even deeper.

But all the while we are living and growing, participating in the cycles of our lives and the liturgical year, always beginning again with the purpose first and foremost to give glory and praise to God. At the Tri-faith book club, we realized that our traditions all have as our focus to worship God. Worshipping God is part of our mission in the Christian Church, which is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ, in Love. We work toward this restoration through prayer and worship, through proclamation of the Gospel, and by promoting justice, peace, and love. (I’m not just making this up; it’s in the Catechism, BCP p. 855.) These are good practices to keep the heart of All Saints’ nurtured and aerated and nourished so that the Word of the Kingdom will fall onto our rich soil, our ready heart and bring forth the Kingdom of Heaven in ways we have yet to imagine.

And that’s why we hold the parables in their golden boxes. The mysteries they hold are full of divine imagination we will receive differently at various times in our lives. Sometimes we’re ready to understand, and sometimes we can’t quite yet. We have to make sure our path, our heart, is tended to so that when the gifts come our way, we’ll know how valuable they really are.

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