Holy Rest

2 Samuel 7:1-14a | Psalm 89:20-37 | Ephesians 2:11-22 | Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Last week, I spoke about The Way of Love practices that Presiding Bishop Michael Curry shared at General Convention. Christians use these practices to live a Jesus-centered life, and I realized as I reflected upon them, most of them are already built into my life, as I hope they are in yours. It’s up to us to determine how well we tend to the practices and how deliberate we are about keeping God first in our priorities. As one of the preachers said at convention, we know what we need to do to be closer to Jesus, to be healthy and whole . . . we just so often don’t do it.

The disciples gathered around Jesus, however, are excited to tell him all that they’ve done because they’re living into the holy Way of Jesus. Just a bit earlier in the Gospel according to Mark, Jesus sent the disciples out two-by-two to exorcise demons, to anoint and heal the sick in mind, body, and spirit. They worked hard in the name of Jesus, and while they’re probably not perfect, they are excited for the work they’ve done well. Now as they gather with their beloved teacher and Lord, Jesus tells them it’s time to rest.

“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while,” Jesus says (Mk 6:31).

So, with the invitation to rest coming directly from Jesus, I expect the disciples to cross the sea or the bay and set up camp, sharing stories from their work and settling into a peaceful and quiet rest for the night.

But is that what happens? Of course not. The good news of the work that the disciples and Jesus have been doing has already spread. People have noticed; they’ve been paying attention. Everyone now, it would seem, has heard about Jesus and the disciples, and apparently everyone needs something made right or whole again. The multitudes not only follow Jesus and the disciples, but they arrive in advance, too. They’re waiting for them before they get to the previously-deserted place, anticipating watching someone be healed if not being healed themselves.

Even though he’s already declared that it’s time for the disciples to rest, Jesus doesn’t send the crowd away. Jesus knows the multitudes wait for him, and when he sees them, he has “compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mk 6:34). Then, Jesus teaches them, this crowd of seekers.

I have sympathy for the weary disciples because I know the looks on my children’s faces when we are somewhere and someone stops me to talk or I have another event to attend before we can go home. They reach a point when they just cannot go any further, and their patience is all used up. In the part of the gospel we don’t read this week, the disciples actually decide at one point that it’s time for the crowd to leave so the disciples can eat and rest. I imagine it’s probably Peter because he has a way of saying or doing what we’re likely to do ourselves, for better or for worse. We get more of this next week–what Jesus does in the meantime among the crowd–but this week, our emphasis is on Jesus having compassion for the crowds. We read that he not only teaches the crowd on this side who need a shepherd to lead them, but he also returns to the marketplace on the other side to continue to heal those who even touch the hem of his garment.

Does this mean that when it’s time to rest, if we truly want to be like Jesus, we have to keep going and run ourselves into the ground?

Absolutely not. Not at all.

Jesus has told the disciples it’s time to rest. Jesus didn’t say he was quitting any time soon.

Even after a long day . . . after many days of healing, Jesus continues to show compassion on those who need him. The people were like shepherd without a sheep, like children without a mother, like plants without water. The crowds needed Jesus more than they knew. However earnest the disciples were, they were tired, and like us, they probably thought they should help. But for all of us, we have to rest. For all of us, we follow the rhythm of nature, resting at night, and maybe even becoming dormant for a while, while the greater energy of God breathes through all of Creation.

There’s no way the disciples themselves could have taught and healed the crowds on their own, and truthfully, Jesus only sent them out to do the work they were able to do. Sometimes we get ahead of ourselves or think too highly of ourselves and think we know what God needs us to do. David’s desire to build a temple for God in our reading from Second Samuel illustrates that point. David, however joyful and grateful he was for God, thought he knew what needed to be done for God. Even Nathan the prophet thought it sounded like a good idea . . . until Nathan listened to the Word of God and received wisdom to the contrary. It wasn’t God’s will that David would build the temple but that it would be his son. We show our faithfulness in many ways, and humility is one of them. Stepping out of the spotlight is often a good idea, as we know that the glory of all our successes and accomplishments are hopefully to the glory of God.

So it is when we rest and step back and let God do God’s work as God wills it, not necessarily how we expect it to be or even how we want it to be.

As we participate in the Baptized for Life program, we begin with a survey that asks each of us where we are in relation to our spiritual life: how spiritually mature we feel, how well we think All Saints’/Todos los Santos meets our needs, how encouraged we are to live as faithful Christians, as disciples. I’m sure if I asked each of you what you envision for the future of All Saints’/Todos los Santos, there would be recurring themes and similarities, but ultimately you would have a particular vision of what worship looked like or sounded like, what programs we offered, and what our church building might be like.

Our individual particularities add spice to our congregation and community, and I believe they also give opportunity for the Holy Spirit to show up in creativity and imagination. We need this kind of energy and possibility. But it is in the collective similarities that strengthen the bond of what holds us together. At the heart of our recurring themes for our experiences of All Saints’/Todos los Santos, I hope it is the love of God that energizes us. I hope that it is the desire for a life restored in Jesus Christ that motivates us to live The Way of Love, knowing that exactly how we do that individually is going to vary greatly. I hope it is a deep trust and faith in the wisdom of the Holy Spirit that truly unites us as the Body of Christ and keeps shaping and forming us as we grow into the children of God we are meant to be. These currents flow through us and through our congregation at all times. The presence of God is ever-present, and when we add our own spice to events–to feast days and celebrations and special occasions–God’s presence is all the more glorified.

In April, when it was Earth Day, my son and I went out to the land to get some of the plants there to plant by the office door at First Christian Church. We planted some twenty plants in the area where the mulch is outside our office, and within just a few days, the leaves withered and died, leaving nothing but the mulch behind. This can happen when we transplant plants; they don’t always make it. Since then, I bought a couple of lilac twigs to see if they’ll grow (one seems to be surviving), and geraniums from the Pentecost service are now in pots by the door, giving some welcome greenery.

On this past Thursday morning, as I approached the office, I noticed strange shoots coming up out of the mulch. Surely they’re not mushrooms, I thought, as they’re too tall. As I got closer, I was certain they’re some sort of plant, growing from where my son and I had put bulbs into the ground, the greenery having long since passed. I moved one of the containers because there were shoots trying to grow underneath it. I have no idea what the plant or flower is. (Maybe by Sunday they’ll open so I can tell!) But what I can tell is that while what I could see had died and fallen away, there was still something at work beneath the soil. To me, this is very much the workof the Creator. Even in seasons of dormancy, something is at work. Even when we think our church isn’t growing, something is stirring in our midst, preparing us for what is to come in our journey. Even when we think that our taking a vacation is wasting precious time when we could be working or doing something, we are given time to sit back and rest and witness what Christ might be teaching those around us. When we rest, we are given the opportunity to be restored in our energy, our enthusiasm, and our dedication to do God’s will and to let God’s will be done.

 

In the Gospel according to Matthew, we hear the familiar refrain: “Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” It doesn’t say that God will rest, just that we are given rest. This rest is a gift. This rest is a necessity. This rest is part of our Way of Love, and this rest also makes way for a whole, restored life in Christ.

Parishioners tell me they’re called “surpise lilies.” What a lovely surprise, indeed.

 

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Seeds & Weeds

Genesis 28:10-19a | Ps. 139:1-11, 22-23 | Romans 8:12-25 | Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

A lone thistle from All Saints’ property.

A few years ago, I recall talking with my dad on the phone as he was out checking the cows, and he was complaining in colorful language how there was another … thistle in the pasture, another weed that–given the smallest window of opportunity–would multiply quickly and continue to contaminate the hay field. It reminded me of when Casey and I laboriously tended to our lawn in Conway, the lawn of the first home we purchased. We wanted to be organic, so I pulled weeds by hand on the lawn that Casey mowed in a certain pattern. Someone told me that one weed would spring forth seven more, at least, if not caught before it matured. I couldn’t imagine pulling up a thistle by hand, definitely not without gloves. Any time I would see thistles along the roadside or in a nearby field, I’d think of my dad and his battle with the thistle, his weed archnemesis, and wonder if that landowner felt the same way, exasperated at trying to get rid of them.

So when I picture the scenario of the parable Jesus gives us today, I imagine the servants looking suspiciously at their master as the weeds–and of course I picture thistles–grow above the wheat. “Trying to cut corners, were you?” they might be thinking. He bought the cheap seed, huh? Got a good deal? Because they had only planted what had been given to them. They had done their job right.

But the master isn’t a fool. He knows what’s going on. While everyone was sleeping, the enemy flung the invasive weed seeds throughout the crop. There was at least a 50% chance for the master to get aggressive in getting rid of the weeds. A chance that he would destroy the weeds and crop alike. To let the weeds and crop grow together would require more work and use valuable resources. There’s a chance the whole field would end plowed up, given up on.

The God of Jacob, who promised to be with him and keep him; the God of David, who is inescapable and knows the way that is everlasting; God, who revealed Himself in the person of Jesus as a sower of good seeds, is not a God of chance.

God knows.

The master knew what was up, what the stakes were, what the stakes are.

We struggle with omniscience. Because if God knows all, what does that mean about our free will? What kind of choice do we have? But if we listen carefully to our treasured parable today, we hear that the Son of Man is the sower of good seed. God, creator of all Creation, saw from the beginning that Creation is good. And that God knows everything means that God knows all variations on a theme of our choosing–from a reality where Adam and Eve stay obedient to a reality where only giving of God’s self brings redemption to the world. The great I AM knows all that is, has been, and will be, even though our human brains cannot even compute the infinite possibilities of the infinite variables at play in the actions and reactions taking place in all the world throughout the cosmos. And Creation is Good.

But what of evil? THE enemy?

Are we Episcopalians even supposed to be talking about evil and the devil? Yes. Because when were the seeds of the evil one sown? When everyone was asleep. When no one was aware. When no one was paying attention. Not until the deed had been done did anyone notice, and did you notice how quick everyone was to put the blame on the master? You planted the bad seed, didn’t you? It’s your fault. We want to do that, too, don’t we? When things go wrong, when life gets hard, we want to say God did it. Or if we’re trying to maintain a sense of faith, we’ll say, “God has a plan.” But it is so out of our hands that we’re just the innocent servants in the field, doing what we can with what we have. We’re just objects in the cog of the machine. Where here, God’s there, and if we’re doing everything right and staying faithful and obedient, evil is nowhere near us.

(If this is what you practice in your life, we need to sit and visit and hash out our theology a bit more.)

Every bit that God is faithful and devoted, inescapable and everlasting: God is Love. This Love is not only all-knowing, but it is also ever-present. So we can lay our head on a rock in the desert and receive a dream that blurs the distinction between heaven and earth and know that the LORD is in this place. We can bare our heart and soul, fears and doubts, joy and praise, and the unconditional Love never fades. We can hope with all hope and stand in the midst of the field when danger is all around and know that we are ultimately okay.

In the goodness of Creation, there was from early on the ability to be against God, to disobey, to interrupt the relationship of unconditional love. That we can do anything means we have choice, and love fully lived into is of free will, otherwise it is not unconditional, true, wholehearted love. And when Jesus tells us to love our enemies, it’s yet another example of Jesus telling us to do what God has already done.

God knows this. But the Devil doesn’t understand Love. The Devil doesn’t understand the devotion of a loving Creator who will go to great lengths–even through death and resurrection–for the sake of the good seeds that have been sown.

Does that mean that the weeds are automatically to be burned in the fiery furnace? We are so hasty to point out the faults of others, to label “us” and “them,” and to judge in general. Given texts that have language of reaping and burning, weeping and gnashing of teeth, we have an arsenal to broadcast fear. I want to be a righteous one, not an evildoer, and if being a “good seed” is too hard, well, I may as well not care at all. Why believe in something that dismisses me out of hand? The Enemy is clever, right? Is apathy worse than fear? It’s not any better. But if we think we are castaways, why bother?

Do you hear what our God who knows is saying today? I won’t hurt the seeds, even those sown by the enemy. I’ll let them grow. My workers will tend to the field, as I command them. The choices that are made will create the end result. Never am I not here. Never have I dismissed them out of hand. Even my enemy’s children have the option to choose love.

While I was in seminary, I had the privilege of being close to Nashville where Becca Stevens began the Magdalene House, a place for women to escape drug addiction and sex trafficking, lives on the streets. The founding principle is that love heals, and I have a couple of shirts and stickers of my own that promote Magdalene House and the social enterprise they started to give the women opportunity to learn and work. As many of you probably know (since we have models based on the Magdalene House in our state), the enterprise is called Thistle Farms. In addition to bath and body products, Thistle Farms sells paper products like greeting cards. In the handmade paper are bits of thistle, particularly the flower. The very weed that was the bane of my dad’s pasture is the very flower sought out by Becca and the rest of the Thistle Farmers. Becca says,

“To me, being a thistle farmer means that the world is our farm and our job is to see the beauty in the areas that have been abandoned or deemed unworthy of cultivating. Our fields include alleys, lots behind malls, railway clearings, and the poorest sections of town. When we harvest a thistle, we see the beauty in all of creation and that nothing should be left to be condemned.”

When she speaks to groups in Tennessee, she’ll often say that if we notice a place where thistle are growing, to let them know. Whether she’s talking about the thistles or the women who need healing, it’s hard to say, but God knows.

And we know, thanks to Jesus Christ, that we bear the burden of responsibility not to judge what is good seeds or bad weeds but to keep our focus on what is of Love. We stand in the midst of the field and know that there is so much more to this life that we don’t know than what we do. We believe even when we can’t fully understand that the boundaries between the realm of the angels and the depths of hell are not that far apart and that the promise of an end of an age happens more often than we realize and continues to happen only as God understands until the reality we perceive matches God’s dream for the kingdom to come. A dream where love is the pervasive reality, a place where love not only heals but also where love always wins and grows among us all.

 

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On Listening

Amos 8:1-12 | Psalm 52 | Colossians 1:15-28 | Luke 10:38-42


How grateful I am that we are able to come together this morning. We may have an altered location, but we have set apart a time and place to come together in worship and prayer, no matter what is going on in the world around us. We have set apart a time and a place to engage the Word of God, to offer our thanksgiving, and to receive the body and blood of Christ into our person. All this we do as is our habit, our custom. For most everyone here, it’s just our Sunday morning routine. Many could do it without a prayer book or bulletin. Indeed, you can do it without saying anything at all. You could just go through the motions, literally, but I invite you this morning

to be fully present.

In this holy place where more than two or three are gathered, I assure you that the presence of the Lord is here. I invite you this morning

to open your heart.

As sure as the presence of the Lord is here, so also is the Spirit speaking to us. I invite you this morning

to listen.

If we are present, open, and listening, we will not leave this place the same person as when we first entered. A true encounter with God leaves us a changed person.

Getting to that place of encounter, though, can be difficult. Even now, some of your minds may have already wandered, my voice a blur in the background to the interior monologue of your mind playing your tape of things to do, reminding you of things you might have forgotten. Or maybe you’re still struggling to be present, as I invited you to do just a minute ago. No, it hasn’t been long, but our brains these days are wired to focus for a max of about three minutes. If we were communicating online, our focus would only last about 45 seconds. I’m not making these numbers up. I listened to a program a couple of weeks ago called “Infomagical: BOOTCAMP.” “Infomagical” was about a 5-day challenge to fight information overload, but in this particular podcast bootcamp, they focused on the one thing that was most effective for being productive and anxiety-free: single-tasking. They interviewed a neuroscientist who affirmed that we truly only do one thing at a time, though we can shift quite quickly between our many tasks, cashing in a bit of glucose in exchange each time and increasing our stress levels. It’s no wonder Martha gets frantic. If we continue to follow the pace set by media Martha&MaryWindow-StLukesHSoutlets and social media networks, we’re all on a trajectory leading to burnout and exhaustion.

Then there’s Mary, who has chosen to listen to Jesus, devouring his every word. Mary knew how to single-task. We might say, like Augustine, that she is feasting on the Word before her. Mary sat at the feet of Jesus so transfixed upon him that we don’t hear her speak. Whether her mind is racing with questions or whether she’s struck with awe, we don’t know. But Jesus knew. Jesus knew she chose to stay attentive to his word, completely abandoning her duties as a first century woman. Jesus probably knew the weight of her heart and the truth of her soul.

For when we are present and open-hearted, we tend to reside in truth . . . vulnerable, naked truth.

When we listen in this state, it feels like another dimension opens up. It feels like an alternate reality because the walls that divide us are let down. My armor is cast aside; our barriers disappear. I don’t need a hearing aid or a microphone to hear or be heard because my whole being is attuned to you. Our minds track our thoughts, our eyes speak volumes, our hearts beat in time, and our voice when we speak gives voice to our soul. I hope with all hope that you’ve experienced this kind of listening with another. It is a gift. I can only imagine what Mary experienced listening to Jesus, both in what was said and unsaid.

Reflecting on this act of listening, I am reminded that the invitation to sit and feast on the Word is always available. CB last week reminded us that amidst all the distraction of the media and our own worries and concerns, that it is the Bible to which we should return for our guidance. Even as Jesus last week reminded us of our command to love our neighbors, this week he reminds us, too, to be attentive to Him, to be present and open to Him, and to listen to Him.

If you think that you’ve gone too far away from a life lived in truth or that it’s been too long since last you felt the presence of Christ as the word whispered in your heart, I share this story with you.

There is a practice of holy listening that I’ve experienced. I learned it through Parker Palmer’s work. As a Quaker, Palmer is quite familiar with the art of listening. He explains that often we need a third thing, something between us and Wisdom to invite that suppressed or too quiet voice to be heard. Like a wild fox in the forest, Wisdom waits for us to be very still, waits for us to be ready for the truth so we can hear it with love and without fear.

A poem makes for an excellent third thing because a good poem captures a moment yet reveals a universal truth which can then relate to our lives in myriad ways.

To a few men at the Garland County jail a couple of months ago, I brought a poem. Before I brought the poem, I brought the desire to hear their truths. I brought the belief that each of them is a beloved child of God. I brought the desire to listen to them and to help them listen to God.

With mutual trust we read the poem aloud. We highlighted words or phrases from David Whyte’s poem “Sometimes.” Some of the phrases that stood out were “move carefully,” “frightening requests,” and “questions that have no right to go away.” We shared what the phrases made us think of and what the images might mean to us individually. Each of us entered that sacred dimension of holy listening.

The poem is set in the woods. I invited the men to imagine walking in the woods with a beloved companion, someone they loved, trusted, and truly respected, someone who always had their back. And we asked questions of this beloved companion, honest, open questions that I didn’t know the answers to. We also let the companion respond to our questions. After a period of silence, most shared their responses, and I wish you could have felt the stillness of the room, how even in a cinderblock, windowless space, there was the presence of the holy.

Daring to break the silence, I invited them to regard their companion as their own best self, the child God created them to be. If that was too hard, they could regard their companion as Jesus. Either way, the encounter they had was with the Wisdom within, the Truth that abides in the Word, the Truth in which we are all held together through Christ Jesus.

With an “Amen,” I brought our exercise to a close. One of the guys looked at me directly and said, “I’ve never done anything like that before. That was intense.” Other guys nodded, and I saw in their eyes that some truly had encountered something. It wasn’t necessarily joyful and awesome. It wasn’t something they could necessarily give voice to beyond affirming its intensity. Whether their encounter changed them or not, that’s up to them to choose, but God was there to speak to them, to offer an invitation.

We don’t have to have a third thing to get to the one thing that matters most: opening our heart to Christ. It doesn’t simply mean opening the door to let Jesus in then getting on with our agenda. Opening our hearts to Christ means deeply ingesting the Word of God and receiving the fire of the Holy Spirit.

Opening our hearts to Christ means living in this world with a love so fierce that our hearts break in the suffering and bleed in the violence, trusting that our love in Christ remains steadfast and true and heals us all.

We listen to the Word as it fills our hearts and minds and then . . . and then we rise to do the work we have been given to do.

When we leave this place today after our prayerful encounter with God, we leave changed that we might change the world.

Amen.

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