Encounters

2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27 | Psalm 130 | 2 Corinthians 8:7-15 | Mark 5:21-43

The scene from this week’s gospel reading lingers in my mind and replays as if there’s still more I have to learn, more to do.

It might have something to do with the fact that I just visited the site where this likely took place. Magdala, near the modern day Migdal, is on the coast of the Sea of Galilee. Currently they’re building a guest house (hotel), have built a beautiful church, and are excavating a first-century synagogue and marketplace. The sun burns hot and bright. From the pathways, one can tell that if there were many people, it would indeed be crowded and smell of warm bodies, fish, dirt, and hot stone.

When Jesus arrives back on this side of the sea, Jairus seeks him quickly, desperate for Jesus to heal his 12-year-old daughter. We know he’s desperate because this is a leader of the synagogue, an important and powerful man (with a name), and what he’s doing is unorthodox (in more ways than one). Jairus tells Jesus what needs to be done, and without a word, Jesus follows him.

On their way, among the great crowd, another person seeks a miracle. While the crowd walks along en masse, we get the background of an unnamed woman. She’s been bleeding for 12 years. Maybe for the first few weeks, months, she thought it would pass, but as the months became years, she spent everything she had to find a cure. No physician had been able to help her, but she had heard about Jesus. Even though she was closed off from society in her constant state of uncleanness, word had reached her about this man who healed many; maybe he could heal her, too.

To seek Jesus would be a great risk for this woman. For 12 years, she stayed out of crowded situations, lest she contaminate someone with her impurity. Surely everyone knows about her, her family. It would be a shame upon her family to be seen or called out, recognized by someone–anyone. But what did she have to lose? She was cut off already from whatever life she had before. She had no money. Her condition was worsening. She wasn’t afraid to die; death was already a certainty.

“If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well,” she thinks in her familiar voice, with an unfamiliar hope.

She approaches Jesus from behind in the crowd and touches his cloak. One simple, light touch.

Immediately her hemorrhage stopped, and she felt in her body that she was healed, something she hadn’t felt for 12 long years.

In that same instant, Jesus, too, knew power had gone out from him, and he stopped. I like to imagine him closing his eyes and with a faint yet knowing smile that passes quickly, pausing before he turns to seek the one who touched his clothes.

The one he calls out is afraid. Jesus was on his way to heal the daughter of a powerful man. She is a nobody, an unclean woman who has not only contaminated everyone she’s touched in this shoulder-to-shoulder crowd but has also brought shame to Jesus and her family by touching a man whom she has no right to touch. She knows her humility and shows it to all by falling down before him. She unburdens her heart and woes to him and everyone listening. Maybe they’ll understand, maybe they won’t. Maybe they’ll be merciful, but it doesn’t change the fact that she knows she’s been healed. But she couldn’t just take it from him without him knowing how desperate she was.

“Daughter,” Jesus says, claiming her as family, “your faith has made you well. Go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

She has no need of shame, and she has not taken anything that hasn’t been given to her.

While we may want to marvel in this moment of grace and mercy, we’re reminded that Jairus’ daughter is also waiting for a miracle, yet we hear that she’s already died.

“Do not fear, only believe,” Jesus says even in the face of mortality.

Perhaps the crowd didn’t believe Jesus could help the little girl because she was already dead. Perhaps the crowd didn’t believe the hemorrhaging woman was healed because they couldn’t see it. They needed to see a healing for themselves, and it was all the more significant because this was the daughter of a prominent family, with so many people at hand (whom Jesus sent outside).

Yet Jesus tells them not to spread news of these miracles. The significance of these events isn’t to spread Jesus’ fame any more than it is to add to the drama of the narrative itself, though they do both. As we encounter the good news of these stories, we find that rich or poor, young or old, alone or accompanied, Jesus is who he is for all: God incarnate to save the world.

Today, does that mean that if we pray hard enough, we’ll be healed and cured or brought back to life? Not necessarily, and not as we understand it. It was important for the people of the time of Jesus to see him for who he was. For us, we realize who he is for us as the Risen Lord, one who brings health and life to all in spirit, which in turn affects our mind and body.

As many have been and are preparing for General Convention (#GC79), one of the questions I saw recently said:

“What do you seek?”

In light of the gospel today, I wonder if we only seek Jesus when we are desperate? As beautiful as it is, it can also be devastating if we don’t get the results we want or expect. Pulling from the Presiding Bishop’s theme of love, life, and liberation, we want these things for ourselves especially when we don’t have them.

But what if we seek first the kingdom of God? And its righteousness? (See Hymn 711.) What if even when things are good for us, we seek God’s will to be done in our thoughts, words, and deeds? What if we seek an encounter with Jesus? Even more, what if we seek to be that holy temple that others might encounter Jesus, the presence of God, through us?

The most beautiful thing I saw at Magdala was the mural behind the altar in the Encounter Chapel at Duc in Altum (which means “launch into the deep”).  Painted by Daniel Cariola, the mural captures that moment when the woman touches the hem of his garment (pulling more from the Matthew and Luke accounts). There’s a point of light there that illuminates what we know couldn’t be seen by the eyes alone, but it is so luminous in that chapel, amidst the feet and hand that are larger than life. As we gazed upon this mural, our feet rested upon floor that we’re told was from the first century, stones from pathways that would have been there at the time of Jesus, the disciples, Jairus, and this woman. In her outstretched hand, there’s such hope amidst her desperation. Jesus’ feet are set in a forward direction. Others are all around. It is a crowded scene.

But there’s this point of light.

When have I reached out to Jesus and been healed?

When have others reached out to me in their search for the presence of God?

That point of light, to me, is what we all seek, but we have to be clear about what and why we seek it. If we’re just looking for a thrill in the moment, personal glory, or a fulfillment of a personal agenda, we must tread carefully. This is especially important at General Convention, when what we decide affects the polity and liturgy of our church. Whose will is being done? Whose kingdom is being magnified?

There’s nothing more noble than seeking an encounter with the Light and Love of Christ, because in that moment, we get a glimpse, a taste, of the kingdom of heaven. Whether we’re the hand or the feet in that moment, we pray that God’s will be done and to God be the glory. This work never ends.

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Unity of Spirit

Genesis 22:1-14 | Psalm 13 | Romans 6:12-23 | Matthew 10:40-42

A month or so ago, Krista Mays contacted me, politely asking if I wanted to use Track 1 or Track 2 for our lectionary. Wisely on her part, she mentioned that Track 1 does include the bit about Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac. I grimaced. No one likes that story. What kind of first sermon would it be that mentions human sacrifice at the command of God? (Even though it doesn’t happen.) These are my first split-second thoughts. Then I remembered what I asked Rachel Held Evans at the Insight Lecture at Trinity Cathedral in Little Rock just days before Krista called, something like: “What stories do you find you have to lean into when you really want to ignore them altogether?” So I paused, sort of girded up my loins, and said for this new beginning, we would start with Track 1. I wouldn’t shy away from the difficult. And so we begin our relationship with the lectionary we have today.

Our collect this week asks God to join us “in unity of spirit” by the teaching of the prophets and apostles but chiefly of Jesus Christ. We will spend every Sunday, if not every day we spend in Scripture, gleaning the teachings of our ancestors in the faith. But today, how fortunate we are to have some foundational principles that will guide us in our life together individually and as part of the body of Christ. Especially as we look forward to and imagine the future of All Saints’ . . . we have to know who we are and whose we are. Fortunately, we don’t have to guess what this means. We have a tradition already firmly established in the teachings of Jesus, the prophets, and the apostles.

In a church whose tagline is “The Episcopal Church welcomes you!”, we get the Gospel message today. Our Good News is that whoever you are, wherever you are, you are welcome in this place, you are welcome at God’s table. Given the number of times I think we will have to extend hospitality to each other and the commitments we have made to reach out to others, I know All Saints’ understands the imperative of this teaching to extend welcome to all, to receive one another in the name of Christ, whether we are devout children of God or wandering seekers yearning for something we just can’t wrap our mind around. The graciousness of Spirit that Jesus showed us in his life with all the people he came across, especially the marginalized, that is the graciousness of Spirit we are to embody in our daily lives in whatever way we can.

That’s where the apostles and disciples come in: they show us that the most ordinary folks are acceptable in the eyes of God and that we’re meant to be a motley crew. Last week we got a list of the twelve apostles, but we know there was an even larger band of misfits with them, male and female, young and old, rich and poor, though mostly poor. The apostles teach us that it’s okay to doubt and ask questions. It’s normal to get uncomfortable, especially when Jesus gets excited and breaks yet another social norm, let alone when he starts flipping tables. And they show us that it’s okay to be completely surprised when we do something remarkable in the power of the Spirit. The apostles and disciples show us that if we are full of ourselves, how does that leave room for Jesus to shine through? Only when we’ve given ourselves over to God, become slaves to righteousness, only then can God fully work in our midst, only then is the kingdom of heaven at hand. All of this sums up to living a life in faith and righteousness to the best of our human ability (because we know none of us is perfect).

So we have what we often call the radical hospitality of Jesus and the faith and righteousness of the apostles and disciples. That leaves us with the prophets, and I promised I wouldn’t neglect Abraham.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t normally think of Abraham as a prophet. Father Abraham, yes. Prophet? Of course he is. He gets a remarkable call from God from the beginning to leave his people, and he goes. He’s told he will be the father of nations, though his wife is barren. And when he does finally have sons, one he is told to send away, which he does, and the other he is told to make a sacrifice, which he sets out to do.

Now, if you want to read a remarkable book on Abraham, I commend to you David Rosenberg’s book Abraham: The First Historical Biography. After I told Krista I would do Track 1, in my conversations with the Rabbi in Hot Springs, I asked him nonchalantly, “So, anything in particular I should be mindful of about Abraham if I were, hypothetically, to be preaching on the sacrifice of Isaac?” “Let me think about it,” he said, and the next time we met, he gave me a 300-page book on Abraham, being the good rabbi and Hebrew studies scholar that he is.

The obedience of Abraham, as with all the prophets who eventually accept their calls, is the main teaching that stands out to me today. (Maybe it’s because I’m so close to this most recent transition in my ministry.) But Abrahams’s obedience–particularly related to the near-sacrifice of Isaac–bears particular significance in lessons for our lives in faith. The translation Rosenberg includes in his book has Abraham responding to God not with “Here I am” but with “I am listening.” Not only is Abraham present, but he is actively receiving the Word of God. And Rosenberg describes Abraham’s actions, as the text does, as very physical, very tangible, yet in a dream-like state. There is something at work here beyond the natural realm, but very much in the natural order. For Judaism, God cannot cross to interfere in the natural world because then He would not be trusted ever again. But the boundaries have to be tested. Boundaries like between life, the affirmation of continued existence, and death or the fear of extinction. Isaac is the one upon whom the continued identity of a nation depends. This situation, Rosenberg says, is a “biblical nightmare” because God is testing Abraham with threat of cultural extinction. We realize how incredibly vulnerable this young nation is, a small family in the midst of strangers.

We might think God interfered directly, but Abraham awakes from his trance-like state from the voice of heaven, not entirely unlike the voice of our conscience. Probably with tears streaming down his face as he holds the blade above his son, both of them showing their devout obedience to God above all else, Abraham hears the voice and says, “I am listening.” And he’s told to stop, for Abraham is shown to have “an integrity dedicated to God,” not just fear of God. I love the translation that shows a father of nations to be filled with humility and integrity dedicated to God. That is the kind of obedience we are to show. Not false humility or empty martyrdom, but a complete devotion in knowledge of our strengths and of our faults that we will do nothing but our best to live into the commandment of our LORD. Every day we are listening, we hear the command to love one another as Christ loved us.

Hospitality. Faith and righteousness. Obedience.

The teachings are spelled out for us, but it is up to us to figure out what they look like in practice, what the process of becoming a holy temple will be like. What makes us worthy of the name Christian in the eyes of God?

So I have my sermon prepared by yesterday afternoon when I checked my email and saw the letter from the Bishop about the Little Rock mass shooting early Saturday morning. I had read about it not long after I woke up and thought, as I’m sure many of you did, “How horrible. How senseless.” Like our state leaders, we probably sent up our prayers to the victims and their families. And I went about my day and wasn’t even going to mention it in my sermon . . . except I read the bishop’s letter that challenged us to think about how we can be life-giving when so much of society condones violence as a solution. How hospitable is it for me to look away shaking my head just because the Power Ultra Lounge isn’t my scene and I’d never heard of Finese 2Tymes before Saturday? The victims at the concert were people’s children; the youngest wounded was 16 years old. If it was gang violence, these are individuals looking for belonging in the only places they think they can find it. How faithful and righteous is it for me to ignore or look away from that which is not pleasant and painful? How obedient is it for me to pretend that this doesn’t affect me or us? Because we are all connected. If I’m going to say my prayers matter, then another person’s pain also matters. We can’t turn away or pretend the situation didn’t take place any more than we can pretend that there aren’t some deep-seated issues in our society that need to be addressed for what they are . . . issues that make a place especially susceptible to fatal violence. I don’t expect us to come up with a response for the bishop right away, but he poses questions worth asking ourselves. Keeping our foundation firm in our teaching, we can engage the questions and embark on the arduous journey together.

It will take time, but I aim to meet with everyone here. Don’t be alarmed when I call you . . . consider this your advanced notice, and please let others know who aren’t here. I’ll not show up unexpected, though you are welcome to surprise me. (I’m a big fan of scruffy hospitality, so be at ease.) I want to know how live into your baptismal vows, what keeps you curious about a faithful life, how you see Christ at work in our midst. Together we will discern how we live into these teachings that give us a sure foundation in all we do because no one of us is at the head, save Jesus Christ. When we serve meals, it is the light of Christ we share first. When we visit jails, it is the presence of Christ we bring first. When we pray, it is the voice of God we listen for, surrounded in the presence of Christ, filled with the Holy Spirit.

In everything we do, how and who are we welcoming?

Are we doing it in good faith and righteously?

Are we being obedient to God’s will, or has our own will obscured our way?

The rewards of our practice, of our being Christian grounded in these teachings, is not spelled out in our Gospel today. But allowing the creativity of Spirit to craft our rewards accordingly encourages us to be aware, to keep looking for the glory that awaits us. It won’t necessarily be gold stars or even stars in our crowns, but it will be something like the glory of God manifest in the world around us. Something like that taste of joy when we are aligned with God’s will. Something like the smile of a loving father or mother who tells their child, “Well done, good and faithful one.”

I know we have hard work before us, for Jesus assures us that living as disciples isn’t easy. But our foundation is sure, and our prayers are set for the glory of God. I am blessed to share this journey with you, in unity of spirit, as we fill our community with the light and love of Christ.

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Priceless Discipleship

1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21 | Psalm 16 | Galatians 5:1, 13-25 | Luke 9:51-62


Rarely does one walk into an employment obligation without really knowing the full range of requirements, expectations, and compensation. Sure, a teenager might take a summer job and not know what her hourly wage will be, and her mother might sign up to be part of summer camp staff for a couple of weeks without a clue as what exactly to expect. But most people most of the time know what they’re signing up for. We want to make sure that we’ll be able to fulfill expectations and that the effort we put into something will be justly compensated. Our needs and abilities are paramount when we make these important decisions about how we invest our time and energy. When it comes to how we make our living, it’s a matter of getting the math to work in our favor. When it comes to how we live a life, however, especially a Christian life, it’s a matter of something else entirely. When we signed on to be Christians, we signed on to a life of discipleship. Even though discipleship is spelled out for us in the Word, we’re still trying to figure out what it means for us … and what it will cost us.

From what we learn from Elisha and the would-be followers of Jesus, one has to be crazy to be a disciple. Crazy because it doesn’t make sense in our fight or flight world to leave what is comfortable, to surrender oneself, or to let go of control. Who gives up everything to take on something new and unknown? But that’s what Elisha did when Elijah called him. Maybe not right at first, but when he realized that Elijah meant business, Elisha cut his ties quickly and followed Elijah completely, becoming his servant. Likewise, Jesus makes no qualms about the expectations of his followers. It’s going to be difficult. There are going to be times of alienation, and it’s going to require everything, all of their being, all of their focus. It’s all or nothing, and the same is true even today: Jesus demands our all with a focus as determined as he was with his sight set on Jerusalem.

This full demand of ourselves perhaps doesn’t sit so well with us because humanity’s evolutionary process and technological advances strive to make our lives successful and efficient. “We live in an environment of ease and abundance,” says National Geographic explorer and Blue Zones author Dan Buettner, but it turns out that ease and abundance are not serving us well. As we focus on making a living to keep life easy and abundant, we can end up caught in a hamster wheel of stress, illness, and discontent, chasing an illusion. Continuing that cycle seems crazy, too.

The Blue Zones that Buettner studied are places where people live longer, healthier, and happier lives. Yes, diet and natural exercise are important factors, but so are one’s outlook on life and sense of belonging. Having a sense of purpose, knowing what one’s purpose is, along with belonging to a family and practicing a faith tradition are crucial components of living a fulfilling life. (I’m fairly certain some of you are already in on these not-so-secret ideas.)

There was also a recent article about an assistant professor of psychology at Sewanee who conducted a study to compare “the emotional efficacy of strategies that people might use to make themselves feel better–doing something nice for themselves, doing something to benefit another person, and doing something for the betterment of the world.” Again, not-so-surprisingly, doing something for others or for the world enhances one’s well-being by increasing experiences of feelings like love, gratitude, and trust. Contrary to media and advertising, doing something self-indulgent like getting a massage, going shopping, or eating a decadent dessert has the same long-lasting effect on well-being and happiness as doing nothing.

So where does that leave us? I think it leaves us pondering upon Paul’s words to the Galatians. “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another” (Gal 5:13). We have the freedom to do what we want, which means we can remain contained in a finite web centered upon ourselves. But we also have the freedom to seek and to serve the kingdom of God, opening our lives to the infinite. We cannot open to the infinite on our own but only through Christ. We are invited to be willing servants to one another through Christ, through love, and it’s not without compensation.

As disciples of Christ, we follow his way, expressing our love of God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind. We follow his way, loving our neighbors as ourselves. We follow his way, teaching the Good News of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension, making way for more disciples. We use the resources and gifts that we have because we realize that they are all from God. Even in our feeble understanding and humKeller Dining Hall, Camp Mitchell, Arkansasble efforts, God sees fit to nurture within us fruits of the Spirit. These are our rewards in our faithful service: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. When manifest, these fruits further empower the works of the devoted disciples to do things we didn’t think we were capable of. Moments marked with signs of these fruits are beyond precious and remind us how near and dear God moves through the Holy Spirit.

It’s okay to be the crazy Christian. We can all be the disciple who accepts the call of God, who embarks upon the thankless, sometimes dangerous, and unpredictable adventure of discipleship. “If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit” (Gal 5:25). We can trust the work that we do or the hobbies that we have to enrich our witness to Christ as we proclaim the name of God and not only make disciples of others but become better disciples ourselves.

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