The Work We Must Do

Exodus 17:1-7 | Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16 | Philippians 2:1-13 | Matthew 21:23-32

Saturday night marks the end of Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement, one of if not the most important day in the Jewish calendar. A day of prayer and fasting begun at sundown Friday evening, it’s not only a time of acknowledging one’s own wrongdoing, such as unfulfilled vows to God, but also a time to seek forgiveness. Every time we come together for corporate worship–whether it’s the Daily Office or the Holy Eucharist–we can pray our general confession as well as the Lord’s prayer. Twice in our worship today, we ask forgiveness not only for what we’ve done in thought, word, and deed but also for what we’ve left undone and for forgiveness of our trespasses, where we’ve crossed a line or committed an offense against someone else . . . as well as forgiving their trespasses toward us. We do this not to live in perpetual guilt but so we remain awake, fully aware of what is going on in our whole lives, mind, body, and spirit. We do this because when we make our baptismal vows, we promise that when we sin (not if but when), we will repent; we will re-orient ourselves toward God. We do this because we are not perfect, because on our own, we don’t have the ability to fulfill the yearning for a life lived fully, authentically, rich with wonder and purpose.

Throughout Scripture, time and time again, we get the message that it’s not us who can solve things alone.

In Exodus, again we hear the people raising their voices at Moses. They “quarreled” with him. If they didn’t have water to drink–in the desert of all places–I cannot imagine this is a lighthearted disagreement, and we get clarification when Moses tells the Lord that the people “are almost ready to stone (him).” Not only are they quarreling with Moses, but Moses says they are testing the LORD. All the things the LORD has done, now they test Him again, questioning as Moses said, “Is the LORD among us or not?” Yet God provides. Here in Exodus, Moses and Aaron do what the LORD says. The same story in Numbers (Chapter 20) has Moses strike the rock and take credit for what God has provided, receiving the promise that he will not make it to the promised land. It wasn’t Moses alone who provided water for the people of God.

In the Gospel according to Matthew, the chief priests and elders deceitfully prompt Jesus with a trick question, one they hope will incriminate himself. Jesus, however, turns the table with full transparency, unveiling the very criteria to which they themselves are held accountable. In their unwillingness to state their own position about where John the Baptist came from, they showed themselves unworthy before Jesus to receive the Truth. How different the moment in the gospel would have been if the elders had been honest about their struggle, given ear to Jesus as the Philippians did to Paul about what constituted righteousness, about what mattered. If they had, Jesus could have shared with them what Paul shares to the Philippians, what Jesus shared with his disciples: that there is complete joy to be had in love of one another through Christ who comes from the Father, that abiding in love with love of God is the utmost fulfillment we can attain this side of Glory.

Presumably written from prison, Paul shares his letter to the Philippians with love and affection, including in our reading today what may have been a “Christ hymn,” something familiar to the community. What truly matters to the welfare of the people is having the same mind, love, and agreement–rooted in Christ. This was to be their work, to “work out (their) own salvation with fear and trembling” since it “is God who is at work in you.” Reading this correspondence, it doesn’t take a great stretch of imagination to hear how the Holy Spirit might speak to us from the Word. Are we as a people of one mind? Are we willing to let God work through us, in us, for the sake of love of God alone? For love? For joy?

There’s an article titled “America Wasn’t Built for Humans” by Andrew Sullivan, noted to be a conservative political commentator. In it, the whole premise is that because humans are tribal creatures, America isn’t the best set-up. From the beginning of humanity, tribalism was a good thing, necessary for survival. You know who your people are, you’re working toward the same goals, you share the same myths to understand the world and the supernatural. I want nothing more for my daughter at college than for her to find her tribe, because our tribes can be a good thing. But tribes of around 50 are quite different than a tribe of 323 million. Naturally, we have many tribes within America, and we want to sort and classify everyone so we can understand not only others but also ourselves. From the beginning of our nation, Sullivan figures, “Tribalism was an urge our Founding Fathers assumed we could overcome. And so it has become our greatest vulnerability.” Surely they must have thought that common values rooted in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness would be enough to keep us united. Sullivan himself hopes that America can find common ground under one president.

But I warrant that placing our hopes upon any one person or even a group of persons alone is not enough. This is hard work, this working out of our survival, especially our salvation. It’s okay for it to be a struggle. Our tradition provides many examples of people wrestling physically, verbally, and emotionally with God or God’s messengers. Think of Jacob, Jonah, and Paul. Like them, if we truly engage, we are not the same person after a genuine encounter with God. Most of the time, if our endeavor is entered whole-heartedly, we are transformed by the experience because the struggle moves us deeper into relationship with God. The closer we are to God, the clearer it can be to see how we’ve lost our way, how much we need God and one another to be fully restored.

The key to a full restoration, the hope for us all is that our humanity can be transformed by the life of Christ, by an understanding and practice of life that restores us to unity in God.

It’s true that we don’t have to be Christian to be good people, but as Christians, we have a unique responsibility to bring about reconciliation and restoration to unity to God through Jesus Christ. How do we do that? As Paul told the Philippians, we have to be of one mind in Christ. This might sound idealistic, but I believe it gets at the core of what a Beloved Community is. It’s neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female: it’s here and now, inclusive of all. But it’s going to be hard, admitting when we’re wrong and losing our lives–especially losing perceived control of our lives–for the sake of true salvation in God. If we can make this sacrifice, then we might be able to taste the exquisite beauty and ultimate freedom in a life given over to God . . . our best opportunity to experience joy made complete.

All this is easy to talk about, especially in context of characters of the past. But the Holy Spirit speaks to us through our Scripture now as then. The clarion call for us all to have the mind of Christ rings loudly and earnestly today, but how do we get it? As Episcopalians, we do engage in Scripture; we have Bible studies. I challenge you to take this reading from Philippians, to take it and read it at least two to three times per day this week. When the Bishop comes next week, see how you hear his message, notice how you welcome our newly confirmed and received, observe how you listen to the news. Will it have changed with a constant focus on who Christ is? Can we put on the mind of Christ and “be the change we wish to see in the world” (to borrow a quote from Gandhi)? We won’t know if we don’t try, and this is the work we must do.

 

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We Are Saved

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 | Psalm 105, 1-6, 16-22, 45b | Romans 10:5-15 | Matthew 14:22-33

(Asking for a show of hands) How many of you have ever been asked or heard the question asked: “Are you saved?” This isn’t a judgment of you, just a poll to see if its prevalence is what I think it is, especially here in Arkansas. Now, without raising your hand, did you feel like you could respond to this question? Do you feel like you can respond to this question now? Chances are, if you’re a lifelong Episcopalian, you’re a little iffy on this. If you were raised Baptist or something more evangelical, chances are you remember the moment you were saved and maybe more than once when you were baptized. Just so no one gets a nervous sweat going, I’ll offer you a major spoiler: you’re already saved. I know you’re saved because Jesus Christ lived, died, and rose again for us all. But do you know that? Where are you in your life of faith, your understanding of salvation?

Because we can be young in our faith, naive even. We can take for granted the faith and beliefs that we are born into, that are spoon-fed or indoctrinated into us. We can take everything at face value and ask no questions because everything is just fine as it is. We can be like Joseph, confident, self-assured, and gifted. We can have the favor of our father (and/or mother) and just do what we think is right because it’s what we’re told to do or say, even if to others it looks like tattling. We can wear our beautiful garments because they are lovely, unaware of the jealousy we might be inciting in others. We can show up when we are summoned and go where we are sent because obedience comes naturally in our innocence and untested faith. Surely others are as good as we are; surely everyone else means well; surely no one would do anything out of ill will or out of line from God’s will. If someone asked Joseph if he was saved in his youth, prior to his 17th year when his life took a drastic turn, I can imagine him saying, “Saved from what? I am safe. I am part of a Chosen people. I am protected by God.” Would he really have a concept of being “saved”?

About nine years ago, and for a few years thereafter, I would go over to a friend’s house in the afternoons for coffee and conversation, and we would let the kids play. The summer months were especially great because they could play in the pool and would come home exhausted. One afternoon while we were at the kitchen counter right by the backyard door, my friend raced around and ran out the open door, coming back in just a moment later completely soaked and carrying an equally wet Autumn on her hip. Autumn seemed fine. My friend was wide-eyed. “What just happened?” I asked. What happened was that Autumn had just walked down the steps into the pool. My friend noticed her missing from the fray and ran out to find her standing, open-eyed, underwater at the bottom of the pool, right there in the shallow end. She wasn’t afraid. Was she saved? Yes. Did she think she needed to be saved? She had no concept of what she needed saving from.

As we experience more of life, we learn more about consequences of our own decisions and of the decisions of others. We learn more about what might be “out there” that might do us harm. Joseph learned a thing or two about his brothers and how politics work. My daughter has learned a lot about the importance of water safety. We grow and mature in our understanding of life, just as we grow and mature in our life of faith.

Peter and the disciples were learning and growing with Jesus when the five thousand were fed, which precedes our gospel today. The disciples were sent ahead in a boat while Jesus took some time apart. When he was ready, Jesus returned to the boat, walking on the water as he did on the land. This disturbed and terrified the disciples until Jesus assured them, and then, of course, Peter offers a little test of Jesus, who calls him on it.

“Come,” Jesus says to Peter. Come out of your boat to walk across the sea. Come out of your shelter and into the wild. Come away from your fear and toward your hope. Come. Peter sets out, and things were great. Peter got caught up in the moment like Peter does, and he didn’t think things through, like Peter does. He soon notices the wind and gets scared.

We understand this, right? We’re not perfectly aware all the time. We get excited and caught up, and no matter how mature in our faith we are, we can take things for granted. No matter how focused on doing right we are, how devoutly we have our sights set on following Jesus, the winds can blow, pricking our ears toward our fears, reminding us of all the what-ifs. Jesus, as divine as he was human, could walk on water. Our faith so set upon him, what couldn’t we do? But our doubt binds us to our physical confines, the confines of physics in our material world.

To the one standing on water, Peter cries out, “Save me!” and the witness of Jesus saving Peter stirs the hearts of the disciples to worship him as the Son of God. (Out of one person’s experience, eleven other lives were touched.)

Why was Peter sinking? His fear crept in with the wind. The risk of it all. It didn’t make sense to be doing it. He wasn’t prepared for a swim; if he sank into the water, he was going to drown. He was going to die. And he was afraid.

His hand holding mine

Waist-deep in the stormy sea

Faith and doubt collide.

Was Peter saved? Yes. Did he know what he was saved from? Yes, from drowning in the sea. Is that all? Could Jesus have been measuring Peter’s faith in a discernible way? Do we doubt the extent to which Jesus is our savior? Do we doubt God or ourselves? Jesus trusted Peter to come and to make it, but Peter had a choice to make. Jesus knew whatever Peter chose, he was safe. Jesus wasn’t going anywhere.

When we ask someone if they are saved, aren’t we really asking if they are safe? Mind, body, and spirit, do you know you are a beloved child of God?

When we are sheltered like Joseph and Autumn, we are safe. We abide in love. We’re entrusted to our elders, steeped in faith and tradition. Yet we can be unaware of the dangers lurking outside our door or in the hearts of our neighbors. This puts us especially at risk, this vulnerability of innocence.

We’ve seen enough of the world to know what is good and bad, especially what is good for us or not in relationship to God. And we know what we love and cherish. Truth be told, we love and cherish our material world quite a bit. We find it hard to let go of things and people. We get attached. Maybe these others just make us feel good, or maybe we do send a deeper, truer Love that gives us a glimpse of Christ.

When we know we are saved, when we believe in our hearts and confess with our lips, we are saying we know what dangers lurk about us and that we know we are safe. We know that the greatest hell there is to live a life separate from God, for a life lived in sin is a life lived apart from God, outside of God’s will for us. We don’t have to fear an eternity of hell; there are plenty of “hells” this side of eternity–just ask someone living in dire poverty, struggling with addiction, living in war-torn communities, living in fear fueled by ignorance. Whatever storm threatens us, there is a constant that God is in our midst with an understanding of everything that surpasses anything we could even imagine understanding. There is a love we are called to live in that’s easy when when we’re not tested but that is deeper and richer when we know what is at stake.

We are saved. Let that belief be strengthened in your heart so that others don’t need to ask you–they just know in your being. If they don’t just know then may we all have the courage to say that we know a love that passes all understanding through Jesus Christ. This salvation kindles a hope in me for the world. A hope that assures me that love triumphs fear and that we do have good news to share, that we must share not only with our neighbors but with the world.

With blessed feet may we go proclaim the Good News. We are saved.

 

Post-script: 

Believing in our hearts that we are saved, what do we confess with our whole lives, not just the words of our mouth? The violence in Charlottesville–not just the outright fights but also the rally promoting a people divided against “other”–begs the question of who is paying attention? Who is awake? Who will stand up for a way of love of neighbor, truly showing a love for God and self? Let us not sit idly by or take a seat of complacency. Let us discern our way forward together, not fueling a path of fear and violence but growing the way of Love with a fierce dedication to what is truly right and good.

 

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Life Partner & Savior

 

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67 | Song of Solomon 2:8-13 | Romans 7:15-25a

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30


I don’t know about you, but I needed this Gospel message this week. “Come to me all who are weary and carrying heavy burdens.” Thank you, Jesus!

Earlier this week I posted on Facebook: “You know you love your vocation when you’re willing to go through all that moving requires.” This week has been the climax of the Milford Family Move, and I’m happy to report that we are 99.8% complete, to be 100% by tomorrow night. Both our movers and my family can attest that we are–quite literally–heavy laden. The driver and head mover said he actually thought about weighing the trailer holding our belongings because he was certain it was one of his heavier loads. (Apparently we have a lot of books.) He kept saying we didn’t have a lot of furniture, but we had a lot of “stuff.” So these last couple of weeks especially, we’ve been busy packing all of our stuff. So busy, in fact, that we’ve had epic to-do lists and plans that start from first thing in the morning until we can’t stay awake any longer at night. Moves can be stressful and all-occupying like that, putting us in a kind of crisis mode, but there’s the tendency to live life that that, isn’t there? Cram as much into a day as it can hold, fill every moment with actionable items, even good deeds, and check every item off as the day turns to night, moving unaccomplished tasks to the next day’s list, if the opportunity still exists. Even when we’re on vacation, the tendency is to pack our itinerary as full of adventures as our bodies and budgets can hold. And we can do pretty well, being the self-reliant busy-bodies we are, but spinning at this breakneck speed isn’t sustainable. Eventually, balls start to drop, and things get off kilter. Suddenly we realize we’ve gotten too self-reliant and maybe even too self-absorbed. Maybe we’re just sharing with others the good deeds we manage to pull off or the highlights of the trip, editing out of our timelines how weary and heavy laden we are. We are as loaded down as my mover’s trailer, holding all the boxes filled to the brim with the stuff of life.

Fortunately, we don’t have to contend with life on our own: we have a life partner and savior in Jesus Christ.

Now, don’t think I’m saying that we all have to consider ourselves married to Jesus; rather, consider a life lived in relationship with Jesus. In God’s triune nature, God shows us that a life fully lived is in relationship, and we are commanded to love God and one another as ourselves. So, we get through life in relationship–not in isolation. I said we didn’t have to think of ourselves as married to Jesus, but there are benefits to thinking about an intimate relationship to Jesus, intimate in a whole-hearted devotion kind of way. Can we dare to be in a loving relationship with God, living with Jesus as our true life partner?

When we think of our marriage vows in the church, mutual joy and respect are big ticket items. There’s no force or coercion but mutual consent, as in Rebekah’s apparent willingness to be Isaac’s wife. Even with God’s favor, she’s given a choice, and we have her words of consent, something we don’t always hear from women in our narratives. Mutuality, devotion, and affection play a tremendous role in successful relationships, as does open and honest communication.

Reading my friend Jerusalem Greer’s book At Home in This Life, I came across the story she shares about her and her husband’s vision of what their hoped-for future farm would look like. Really, it focused on the barn and the hill behind the barn. She pictured a hill covered in wildflowers and a barn renovated to entertain, complete with a huge farm table and a dance floor. He pictured a hill covered in crops, abundant with fruits and veggies, and a barn full of tractor and tools for the work of the land. Both visions and hopes were equally valid but at complete odds and resulted in an epic battle of the wills that they took right on into their marital therapist’s office. Their ideas weren’t on the same page or even in the same book, but the therapist asked them an important question: “Would you want this farm if you weren’t married? Would you want to go for it alone?” What they both realized, even if for different reasons, was that they wouldn’t make the move if they weren’t together. They realized what might sound cliché but what many of us find to be true in our long-term relationships: that they were actually better together.

But it’s hard to be in relationship, even with ourselves, let alone with God and everyone else, and it doesn’t always work out. I think Paul pretty much nails it when he says that he does what he shouldn’t do and can’t do what he should, even when it’s what he wants to do. Basically, it’s easier to do bad than good. Talking with people who are incarcerated, any time we talked about getting on the right path, the folks would talk about how hard it was, and how much easier it is just to do what most likely got them in jail in the first place. I read a review of the Despicable Me 3 movie, and the author mentions that her 5-year-old child wondered whether the main character Gru was a good guy or a bad guy because our lives are often sorted into the good-evil dichotomy. Gru is a villain, but apparently in this movie (which I haven’t seen yet), he’s actually trying to do good, to be a good family guy however dysfunctional the family is, even as he’s planning a robbery. Lives are complicated, and since our perspectives can be skewed, it’s best to focus on ourselves, leaving off the judgment and focusing on the loving others bit . . . because their lives are just as complicated as ours are.

When we realize that we’re becoming awfully judgmental, overly cranky, or completely imbalanced–or whatever your symptoms are when life is out of whack–it’s helpful to remember that we already have a Savior who has not only invited us into an eternal relationship but who also gives us the grace to save us from ourselves. God knows we can’t do everything on our own, but we don’t always know it. When life gets busy, it’s easy to crowd out the prayer time that’s set aside. When there are a million things to do, sitting down to read or write a note or make a phone call or gaze out the window seem like frivolous tasks. They seem “frivolous” when my life isn’t grounded in prayer, when I’ve lost touch of the stillness at the center of my being that resounds loudly with the importance of maintaining my relationship with God and others. Only when I take my focus off of some of the spinning plates and breathe deeply and gaze into the eyes of others or off into the distance, only then do I take time to value my own well-being enough to cherish fully those around me. With this sense of being, when life does get overly full, I hear the words of my Savior calling to me, reminding me, promising me.

The “yoke” is often a rabbinic metaphor for the difficult yet joyous task of obedience to the Torah. I think of the yoke of Christ as being the command to love, to delight in His will and walk in His way–something easy and natural for the Son of God and made easier for us when we are oriented toward God and fully surrendered into a life of obedience to God’s will. Therein lies our salvation.

So, if like me, you were starting to get a little off balance with your expectations or self-imposed demands, remember that God hasn’t called us to save the world with our love or deeds because Jesus Christ has already done that. We have to love God and one another as ourselves with deep devotion and pure affection. Jesus Christ is with us as our eternal life partner and Savior to help us and show us the way. Especially when we need it–and even when we don’t know how much we need it–Jesus calls us to come to him and find rest for our souls, and that is Good News, indeed.

 

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