Trust & Lament

Genesis 15:1-12,17-18 | Psalm 27 | Philippians 3:17-4:1 | Luke 13:31-35

Maybe you, too, have an uncle or family member who has shared a similar thought: I vividly remember him telling me that the harder he tried to do good and actually did acts of kindness, the worse things got. This comes to mind in a week when I’ve invited us to reflect on gratitude this week as part of our Lenten journey. When we’ve made it through the wilderness, through times of trial, what is it we’re grateful for? What are we grateful for in this moment? Each week in our Prayers of the People, we offer thanksgivings for our blessings, and since there’s not enough time to name each one, we at least pause in a moment of thankfulness. Intensely focused on what is good, what is going well, we come to late Thursday evening or maybe Friday morning with the tragic news of the mass shootings in New Zealand. In mosques. In places of worship. An outright hate crime. 49 dead. At least 40 more wounded. What does that do to our sense of gratitude?

I suppose it depends on who we are and how we choose to react in situations of adversity, when it seems like the Adversary is making an outright attack. I made a quick decision not to click on any links to videos or manifestos so as not to feed more attention to the horrendous crimes that were intentionally set up to grab media attention and go viral. I let our Muslim community here know of our support and solidarity with them. I am genuinely thankful for them. I went to one of their Friday prayer services, where I listened to their prayers spoken and chanted in Arabic. They reminded me of the Ramadan calls to prayer I heard when I was in the holy land. I wore a scarf I bought in Israel, where tensions run high between Christian, Muslim, and Jew, yet they live side by side and have for millennia. I listened to the lecture from the leader who spoke about anger being a natural reaction but one the faithful are not inclined to embody, lest they sound like a braying donkey. I continue to be grateful for faith witnessing to peace.

What in my faith, as a Christian, led me to wear a scarf and go sit among our female Muslim neighbors and some of their children? Sincere love of neighbor. Compassion. Compassion sees suffering and shares in it. That suffering might be anger, grief, or deep sadness. With empathy, we can feel what one another feels. My faith response to trial and grief is to turn to prayer first, so in support and solidarity, I offer not only my own prayers and condolences, but I go and sit with those who are scared, angry, and/or sad.

And what of our prayers? Are they always “Lord, have mercy,” “thank you,” and “thy will be done”? They can be. That’s enough. But my experience is that life is more complicated than that. Our tradition shows us that prayers to God get challenging, but they are nothing that God can’t handle.

Take what we hear in our lesson from Genesis today. The word of the Lord comes to Abram in a vision. This is before Abram is Abraham, before he’s fathered a child, and that is the focus of this encounter. God has promised Abram that he will be the father of many descendants, but so far the only children in his household are those born to slaves, not his children (this is even before the birth of Isaac). Much time has passed since Abram first had this promise from God, so here in Chapter 15, God speaks to Abram not to be afraid because Abram is afraid that the promise isn’t going to come true. Abram fears that something isn’t right, that the promise won’t be fulfilled. Abram offers his lament to God, and God responds, renewing his promise, making a covenant with him–that’s what all that business with the animals is. The original promise is made and even more is promised, with the land being promised, too. God heard Abram’s lament and responded, not with the actual fulfillment yet but with promise for even more. And Abram believed. And the LORD reckoned it as righteousness. In faith, Abram trusted that God was remaining faithful, that the covenant made would be kept.

Most of us don’t have direct encounters with the word of God. For most of us, we have a more one-sided prayer that mirrors that of the psalmist’s, which again portrays great faith and trust in God yet is not without lament. The psalmist speaks of trouble and enemies, pleads for mercy and attention, and begs not to be forsaken and to be delivered. There is physical, emotional, and spiritual turmoil present for the psalmist, a holistic view of someone in distress, crying out to God in pain and suffering and yet with faith and trust that “the LORD is my light and my salvation,” “the strength of my life.”

This psalm speaks to me deeply, to my great faith and to times of trauma in my life when it feels nearly like an out-of-body experience. Yes, my faith is strong, but, O God, this reality can be too much to bear. The worst thing imaginable in that moment is to be forsaken even by God when all that I know and have evidence of seems to have turned against or away from me. The trust of the psalmist is that the LORD will sustain us, won’t abandon us, will be our comfort, and is our salvation.

The mosaic on the altar in Jerusalem in the chapel where the Lord wept.

I would like to think that we wouldn’t have to have times of trial and despair to experience the tremendous love of God, but in the times when we feel most abandoned, when we hunger and thirst most for fulfillment, that is the feeling that I imagine gets closest to the yearning that God has for us, the desire to share that unconditional love, the desire that Jesus expressed as a longing to gather “children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” Why could Jesus not gather the children of Jerusalem together? Because they “were not willing.” They didn’t have the trust or desire to partake in the work of God that Jesus presented, yet Jesus is entirely about doing the will of God, not bending to the powers that be or even protecting his bodily interest.

As the letter to the Philippians emphasizes, our being Christian and following the way of the cross, the way of life through Christ, is not about self-preservation, self-fulfillment, personal glory, or materialism. Our Way of Love through Christ is bigger than any one of us, and, like Paul, we experience sadness when others suffer with despair, without recourse to a broader network of faith, hope, and love.

Like the image of the good shepherd seeking out even the one lost sheep, the image of the hen gathering all the chicks under her wing gives us a glimpse at an aspect of God we might not expect or might shy away from. The image of a hen protecting her chicks is not only intimate but also vulnerable, yet is it no less vulnerable than a man hanging on a cross, an image we might also rather shy away from, preferring instead the resurrected Jesus, full of Light and Glory?

God knows our trust and our fear, our faith and our doubt, our joy and our lament, and God does not shy away from them but stands all the stronger in the midst of them, especially in our weakness. How can I continue to breathe through my racing heart and shallow breath in times of great fear? How can I continue to live in the face of great tragedy, especially if it is someone I love so deeply? Because we are so loved. Because we have been so loved, so are we called to love others, regardless of what evils we face, what persecution we experience, what fears we have in this body and this life.

There is so much we don’t know, that we can’t see, that we can’t describe. Yet we have experienced an ineffable, unexplainable presence of God working in our lives that has changed us into people who live into our faith, not without trials or doubts or suffering, but with resolve to act in ways of love. Our belief in Jesus Christ as our Savior and the understanding of our relationship with Jesus and thus with God enable us to be incredible witnesses to the love of God. How we act day to day may evangelize more than anything else we say because we never know who is paying attention. We do what we do out of love, without expecting anything in return, because we already know that we are loved by God.

But when we return the gesture of love, isn’t there great joy? When we are the stranger at the mosque and are welcomed with a smile . . . when someone replies with gratitude for a kindness offered . . . for me that seems to get close to what it feels like willingly to be gathered into mutual love, to be enfolded in the embrace of sheltering arms or wings. We need not hesitate to live into our faith and trust. We don’t need to hold back when we want to rage or lament to God, even against God. God can take it. God won’t drown in our sorrows or tears or be tossed about by the tempest and chaos of our lives and actions. As the psalmist instructs the reader to wait patiently for the LORD, trusting that God fulfills promises faithfully in God’s time, God waits for us with infinite patience and perfect love.

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Unveiled

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what do we practice?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Superpower

Genesis 45:3-11, 15 | 1 Corinthians 15:35-38,42-50 | Luke 6:27-38 | Psalm 37:1-12, 41-42

I can’t help but wonder if, when the lectionary committee was deciding which Old Testament reading to put with today’s gospel, they had to draw straws as to which story was the most gut-wrenching story of forgiving one’s enemy. Because there are loads of stories about people doing wrong by their neighbor but mostly doing wrong by their family, and not every story gives us an illustration of forgiveness, either.

Recall that Joseph, beloved son of Jacob, was thrown into a well and then sold to traders by his brothers, was accused of raping an officer’s wife (because he wouldn’t have an affair with her) and imprisoned, and then because he interpreted Pharaoh’s dream, was released and rose to power, second only to the Pharaoh himself. It was Joseph’s planning through the seven years of plenty that prepared Egypt for the seven years of famine, that not only made Egypt the breadbasket of the world but also saved the people from starvation, including the very brothers who had cast him away, good as dead.

You’ll have to go back read Genesis 42-44 to get the full story of how the brothers go to Egypt for their stores, experience the dramatic irony of the brothers not realizing that it is their Joseph who is their lord, their saving grace. The recognition between the brothers does not start with our lesson today. Chapter 45 begins:

“Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, ‘Send everyone away from me.’ So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it.” (vv. 1-2)

And then we begin with today’s reading, when Joseph addresses his brothers, re-introducing himself and inquiring about his father. Is he still alive? But the brothers can’t answer him, “dismayed” at his presence. Dismayed? The Jewish Study Bible contains a more accurate description, I think: “…his brothers could not answer him, so dumbfounded were they on account of him.”

After all he has been through and all that he has done for them, Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers, and he breaks down. Breaking down doesn’t give Joseph credit, though, and perpetuates the stereotype that to show emotion is a weakness. This man who is second to the Pharaoh sobs before his brothers so loudly that everyone in the vicinity can hear him. The floodgates of emotion–of grief, loneliness, heartbreak, anger, worry, fear, anxiety–all of that and more, I’m sure, are finally released. Of course the brothers are dumbfounded. They tried to kill Joseph, and when they finally meet him again, he’s a great man of power, sobbing, and inquiring about his father’s well-being. They don’t know what to do.

They don’t recognize him. Do you think that’s because if he really was their brother, this isn’t how they expect him to react? Maybe Joseph realizes this might be the case, too, so what does he ask them to do?

“Come closer to me.”

Come closer to him so that they can see into his eyes, recognize the familiarities that persist through time. Listen to him as he says he knows they’re the ones who sold him into slavery. Listen to him as he says that he sees God’s hand at work because in all of this, it is Joseph’s presence in Egypt that has saved them. In fact, he says that it was God who sent him there, ultimately to serve as lord and ruler of the whole land of Egypt. He tells them what to do, essentially to go get their father and all their things and come live in Goshen near him, and he kisses them all, weeping with them, and only then are they able to speak with him, covered in his tears and affection.

This story takes any story we have of sibling rivalry to a whole other level, doesn’t it? And it says something about Joseph’s sense of presence, character, and faith. He could have easily recognized his brothers and had them imprisoned, as he nearly did to a different end. The Pharaoh would have his back, as he did on recognizing the brothers and assisting their move. It could have gone the other way very easily. Some decisions are like that, balanced as they are on the edge of life and death.

In our gospel lesson today, we have a mighty checklist of do’s and don’ts for disciples. Jesus tells us to love our enemies. “Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Don’t strike back, give generously, and don’t expect things to be returned. “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Be merciful. Don’t judge or condemn, and forgive.

Are these things that only the ancient Joseph, ultimately mighty in power and favored by God, could do? No. They happen every day. Only God knows the extent to which the Golden Rule helps preserve humanity itself, let alone the goodness conveyed in our true love, mercy, generosity, and forgiveness. And only God knows the strength that these actions have in moving us closer to the kingdom of God.

If you listened to Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s nearly hour-long sermon from the Yes to Jesus Revival that I posted a couple of weeks ago, you heard him share the story from the documentary about Jackie Robinson called 42. Baseball had been divided into all these different leagues to keep it segregated, but there was one man named Branch Rickey who loved baseball so much that he wanted the best of the best to play together. Now, you’ll have to watch the documentary or listen to the sermon for more details, but essentially, when Rickey, the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers made the proposition to Robinson, he acknowledged that there were going to be people who would say and maybe even do ugly things because he was a black man and that’s the way the country was in the 40’s. The man also said that he wanted Robinson not to retaliate. At this, Robinson said, “Oh you want a negro who’s afraid to fight back,” and the man said, “No, I want a great ball player who has the courage not to fight back just like our Savior Jesus Christ.” Rickey pulls from his desk a book of sayings of Jesus and reads to Robinson words that include our words from Luke today. When he put the book down, Robinson shook Rickey’s hands, and as Curry summarized, they went on to change baseball and America because they followed the Way of Jesus, the Way of Love. At our best, we have the power to change the world because of our love, because of Jesus’s love, God’s love.

You might still be thinking that all this is fine and good, but these are extraordinary circumstances with heroes from our past. I’m sorry. I’m sorry that we don’t hear more about our everyday courageous warriors who fight with love. I’m sorry that our news is filled with anger, division, fear, and violence. I’m sorry because for all the time focused on the evil of the world, there are countless others upholding the Golden Rule, doing right by their neighbors, strangers, and kin, and practicing the Way of Love, even if that’s not what they call it.

And I bet there are times in your life when that’s just your m.o., and I also bet that there’s a time in your life when you felt it more poignantly. When these words of Jesus, that have revealed themselves to be written in your heart, revealed your belief of them in your actions and proved yourself to be a warrior for love, too.

Someone I love dearly was in an abusive relationship, and she had escaped–not her first time to try to get out, but this time it was sticking. (It typically takes 7 times before a woman leaves her abuser.) I received a call from the abuser late one night. He was looking for her. He was saying things, telling me what I thought of him. And I don’t know if you’ve ever had an encounter where you felt like you were facing demons, something truly evil, but my heart was racing. I felt stunned, but I stayed on the phone, words coming out of my mouth that came from a place I didn’t know I had. At one point, I said, “No, I don’t hate you. I love the good person you can be, that you are at your core, but I do not like what you’ve done. And I won’t tell you where she is or help you get in touch with her.” There are other times in my life when I realize how much I love people, especially people I don’t like, and there’s a sadness that washes over me, a lament at the loss of what could be.

The Way of Love, following the Way of Jesus, does not make us passive doormats. It doesn’t mean that we will always be protected from danger, nor does it mean that we see everything as sunshine and roses or always see the silver lining. What it does mean is that we know that love is a powerful thing, that God’s love is our superpower when we find ourselves tapped into it.

God’s love enables us to be wholly in relationship with others, even if that person is so other that we can’t see eye to eye. God’s love enables us to act in ways of justice and mercy, to heal and seek reconciliation rather than bury ourselves in grief or anger or grudges. Most importantly, God’s love transforms us, turning us into Christian superheroes capable of amazing feats that most often won’t make the headlines but make all the difference in someone’s life. I hope this week or even today that you get the chance to share a moment when you tapped into that superpower, when you did something you didn’t think you could do but were keenly aware–if not in the moment then at least in retrospect–that it was God working through you, living through you, loving through you.

Come closer, and recognize the power of God’s love in our lives.

 

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Good News in Level Places

Jeremiah 17:5-10 | Psalm 1 1 Corinthians 15:12-20 |Luke 6:17-26

Isaiah’s call to lift valleys and lower mountains, to make the rough land level and the rugged plain so that all might see the glory of God (Isa 40:4-5) to me is about making sure everyone has equal opportunity to experience that glory, maybe even bask in it. That kind of terrain provides a level playing field. We want everyone to have equal access to God, and Isaiah gives us a vivid visual.

So when I hear in today’s gospel lesson that Jesus and his disciples go down to a level place to be with the multitude of people from all over the region, I’m not surprised. Of course Jesus is going to give everyone a fair chance. He’s here to fulfill scripture, and there’s no time to waste.

But there are a few things to notice.

  1. A level place means more than geography.

The connotations for what a “level” place means, doesn’t necessarily refer to the lay of the land physically. It might well be an even place, but what it could have meant at the time was that it was an unclean place, a place for corpses. A “level place” is for the suffering, the disgraced, the mourning, misery, and hunger. The place where idols were located were often in a plain, a “level place.”

This is where Jesus goes, into the midst of the suffering, according to the Gospel of Luke, unlike that of Matthew where he goes to the mount. It is in this level place that the people come to Jesus, bringing their suffering, seeking his healing power. Jesus goes into a place where one might least expect God to be.

2. The people who were in this level place probably haven’t come from the mountaintop.

Whether the people who were coming to Jesus in this level place were probably already there or felt they had nothing to lose in being there, chances are these weren’t people of privilege who had other options. The people coming to this place likely didn’t have strict codes of conduct telling them not to be seen in certain places, not to risk their reputation, their purity, and/or their honor and dignity–not just theirs but also their family’s.

Yet this is where Jesus chooses to go and take a stand, and there’s a multitude of people who come to him.

3. Jesus looks UP at his disciples and speaks to them, probably with everyone looking on these beatitudes.

Jesus stood on a level place and still looks up at his disciples. Geographically, this isn’t a level place. He went down. He’s looking up. Maybe he’s kneeling in the middle of the crowd. Maybe he’s so far into the crowd, the disciples can’t quite bring themselves to go into the thick of it. Still, there Jesus is.

Not that we blame the disciples. Ever since I was pregnant with my first child, my nose has taken on some kind of supernatural maternal sense of smell. My husband makes me smell the milk or food and watches my face for my instant reaction. Imagining first century Israel, given its hygiene practices of the time, given the sickness of all those seeking Jesus, I almost get one of those instant reactions: that place isn’t going to smell like someplace I’d want to go. Don’t we often hear the adage, “follow your nose”?

But I remember one of those powerful moments when I was in the deep water of my discernment, trying to decipher if I would really enter into the process of discerning if I was called to ordination, Suzanne from St. Paul’s was listening and talking with me, the wonderful mentor that she is. I don’t know if she said it and I visualized it, or if something she said prompted me to see it. But in my mind’s eye, I was keenly aware of the putrescence of humanity, a cesspool of manure, so to speak, and there were people in it, going to and from it, though nobody wants to go there because it’s so awful. With tears in my eyes and speaking through my sobs, I managed to say that I feel called to go there, that I have the stomach for it–which makes no sense because I don’t think I have the nose for it! But it was a visual that I believe the Holy Spirit gave me because in that near waking dream, I saw myself being present in a way not many can or will. When I go to stand up for controversial matters or sit with someone in a hard place or hear or experience things that I don’t think anyone should have to bear witness to, I know that I am not alone, that there’s no place I can go that Christ hasn’t already been. Jesus didn’t avoid the level places, and his presence goes with us when we go there, too.

Where are our level places here in our community? Where have you been or seen that was a place of suffering? The ER? The walk-in clinic? The DMV? Walmart or the Dollar General when you meet the gaze of the person or the child with the sad eyes? The street corners not far from the Salvation Army? The cafeterias where kids are surrounded but alone, insecure? The jail, the bus depot, the camps in the woods? The gym with everyone plugged in and trying to sweat away their worries and fears? The nursing home or rehab?

If we start thinking about it too much, we might begin to think that we don’t live in such a well-off community after all, that we’re really surrounded by suffering and disease. We might be tempted to cloister ourselves in our nice little bubbles of blessedness. We might rather stay on our mountain tops.

But Jesus looked up at his disciples and proclaimed blessedness upon the poor, the hungry, the sad, and the defamed. Jesus cautioned woe to those who were already fulfilled and self-sufficient, those more likely to trust in the flesh and material world than trust in God. Jesus not only had the power to heal the sick and the diseased, but he also knew that there was more to this life, more to the story, that the suffering and death that everyone feared and knew was coming was not the end. There was hope. Hope in the kingdom of God. Hope in the fullness of time. Hope in the joy of the Lord our God. Hope in the glory of heaven. The kind of hope of believing that Christ was resurrected on the third day–beyond all our reason or comprehension but that there is Truth in that Resurrection–speaks to the triumph of life over death, of love over fear and hatred. God loved us so much that God gave the only begotten son to walk among us, to live among us, to be present in all the suffering and also the joys . . . and to die only to rise again. This is our Good News: that we are loved. That the love we know gives us life and liberation, and this blessedness is ours to share, even and especially among the suffering.

Evangelism was the focus of our diocesan convention keynote addresses. Jerusalem Greer asked us,

“Who stays up all night waiting to hear the Good News?”

We got the socio-demographic data of our area in a handout at our table, and we began looking at the map and the numbers, but we didn’t have enough time to get at the heart of the question. We didn’t go quickly to seek out the level places in our midst or brainstorm ways we are particularly suited to meet the suffering and share our Good News with them. And that’s okay. A handful of us from All Saints’ aren’t going to figure out exactly how we evangelize to our community in 15-20 minutes.

But if you love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and you have an experience of knowing where the story of Jesus intersects with your life at least on one occasion (and hopefully time and time again), then you have something to share with your friend and neighbor, something to share even with a stranger, if they look like they’re hungry for some good news, especially if they look like they’re alone and are hungry for the kind of love that only God gives.

We might not want to follow Jesus into the “level places,” but what does Jesus often remind us? “Do not be afraid.” If we love the Lord with all our being, we are also invited to trust in the Lord. Rather than imagining cesspools of suffering, we start imagining pictures of trees planted by rolling streams. Trees strong in their roots, nourished by the life-giving water. Trees green with leaves, not anxious, not fearful, continually bearing fruit. Trees extending a branch to those in need, offering good news in their level place, showing the way of love.

 

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Prepare the Way of Love

Baruch 5:1-9 | Philippians 1:3-11 | Luke 3:1-6 | Canticle 16

“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee (i.e. King of the Jews), and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas” when this was the time of all these people of power, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”

John, from the beautiful, verdant hill country, born to the faithful Zechariah and Elizabeth, left the comforts of his home to wander in the wilderness, where the word of God came to him. The wilderness, a scarce and desolate place, is also a place of safety and divine protection. However dark the wilderness, it’s not a place without the presence of God.

In fact, in the 4th century during the reign of Emperor Constantine, when the Christian church transitioned into the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, there were Christians who also fled to the wilderness to stay closer to God. These people became known as the desert fathers and mothers–the abbas and ammas–to whom people would seek for their wisdom, wisdom acquired from their time in prayer and solitude apart from the political/social scene. These people who fled intentionally decided not to practice their beliefs within a system that offered reward for their affiliation. Where there is favor, there’s tendency toward corruption. The folks who fled to the desert weren’t having any part of it.

I don’t think it’s a far stretch to see John the Baptist as someone who wouldn’t have any part of it, either, as we’ll be reminded next week. But he didn’t stay isolated.

John went all around the River Jordan in the midst of everyone he met along the way, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This wasn’t anything new. The Jewish people had a ritual cleansing signifying a return to God with expectation of forgiveness. His methodology might have been unconventional. I don’t think any of us would go up to a roadside preacher or someone wearing a sandwich board (let alone camel hair), telling us to get baptized in a muddy river. Even the synagogues then had their baths for the ritual cleansings.

But John is intent and hearkens to the Prophet Isaiah, as he conveys the traditional hopes for Israel’s restoration into a place of favor as God’s people. These are their hopes; this is what Baruch offers words of encouragement for; even Zechariah’s song places John in a position to proclaim the goodness to come. There is hope for God’s people.

Valleys shall be filled. Mountains made low. The crooked made straight, and the rough made smooth. And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

John believed it with all his heart and all his life, even if he couldn’t fully comprehend what it meant that such a promise is open to everyone, to all. Still, he lived it. I don’t see John asking a lot of questions at the border of the river. I don’t see him playing favorites with those in positions of power. He does what the word of God guided him to do, and when he comes face to face with Jesus, he continues to do what God tells him to do and baptizes Jesus, then fading into the background, even with his tragic death, knowing that as he decreases, Jesus will increase, even if he doesn’t know exactly how. It will be done. All this in the midst of the people.

We have a president and a governor. We have rule-makers for our regions, counties, cities, and towns. We have priests and pastors of all kinds, who similarly have their systems of governance. We rejoice that we have a system of governance in both our nation and our church that gives voice to many so that decisions aren’t made by a top few or even a top one. But there are powers at play that have fallen prey to corruption in the name of what is right or even Christian. Even as people flock into metropolises to plug into a system of bigger, better, more, there are people simultaneously saying no and moving off the grid or into communities that work together for a common good. It seems that it’s all or nothing.

Those of us who had the honor and privilege of listening to Bryan Stevenson last night at Crystal Bridges heard directly from one who has heard the word of God.

Disillusioned by law school, Stevenson told us he went into government policy. But there he said they were studying how to maximize benefits and cut costs, regardless of whose benefits and costs were affected. As someone who knew it was a privilege to be in college and knew the plight of those who lived in struggle, he returned to law school determined that he could make a difference, even if he didn’t know how. In his book Just Mercy, he details events of his work in the South that one could describe as wilderness experiences but also account for all the difference he has and continues to make.

His lifetime of experiences, starting with his mom and grandma and going on to today with all the people he encounters in his endeavors, teaches and affirms that while we could isolate ourselves or ignore the world around us as we pursue personal gain, that lifestyle won’t change the brokenness that is. And when he really hit the core of his own suffering and grief, typically when sitting in the midst of someone else’s suffering–like the pending death of an inmate whom he had tried to save–he realized that not only had that person’s life been broken, but he himself was a broken person, too. Not only that, but he worked within a broken system. But brokenness revealed makes way for mercy. What are we all called to do but to do justice (what he called the opposite of poverty), love mercy, and walk humbly? (Micah 6:8)

It sounds a lot like filling valleys of poverty, addiction, and despair and lowering mountains of pride, gluttony, and greed. It sounds like clearing a way through the twist and turns of bureaucratic, convoluted systems and calming storms of anger, fear, and distrust to get straight to the heart of matters and work efficiently. Rather than focus on what’s broken and what needs to be done, though, Stevenson provided four characteristics on how to meet the challenges we face when we are preparing the way for the kingdom:

> Get close to those who are marginalized,

> Change false narratives that are out there,

> Stay hopeful, and

> Do things that are uncomfortable and inconvenient.

Oh, Bryan John-the-Baptist Stevenson, you’re gonna get a lot of people beheaded. But for this man who still feels the hugs of his grandmother, speaks truth to those who face death, and won’t back down from his charge from a civil rights veteran to keep beating the drum of justice, he knows what it means to be in proximity to those who are pushed down and beaten back. He hears the stories we tell that some people are worth fighting for or defending while some people–some of our neighbors–are disposable. He has sat in the shadow of the valley of death and wanted to give up, but he learned that we can either be hopeful or be part of the problem. So he does what he’s gotta do. He’s found his vocation, his purpose in life. He’s living out the prophecy.

And I sat in that crowded room of people, and I slouched back in my chair, angry. Angry because I was sad, and I realize it’s a selfish sadness because I’m sure many of these people are doing good and great things in their own time, but I can’t see it and don’t know about it. Maybe someone else was sitting across the room thinking the same thing about me. But for this sold out lecture, I don’t know who is also beating that drum for justice with hope, guiding us toward a future where our neighbors don’t have to worry about being wrongfully imprisoned, profiled, discriminated against for housing or work, fed a story that convinces them that they are the ones who need to apologize and be grateful for the so-called worthless life they have.

Advent is about preparing the way for the Lord to break into our lives. Not just our own blessed life but the lives of all. How willing are we to go into the midst of the oppressed, to speak up when false narratives are told about us or even of strangers, to keep faith and hope alive in the darkness, and to do that which is uncomfortable and inconvenient?

From prison Paul wrote to the Philippians who had disagreement among themselves and doubts and struggles. Paul reminded them of his joy for all of them. When he thought of them all, of sharing in God’s grace with all of them, he was even more inspired to pray for them all. All of them, he keeps repeating. His prayer: “that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that come through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” For Paul, faith in Jesus Christ was more important than following the letter of the law. Determining “what is best,” I found, actually translates better as determining “things that matter.”

Paul’s prayer for his companions in faith is that they love one another and have wisdom to discern what matters most. Without love we are but a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal, right? (That’s what he told the Corinthians.) John’s love for God opened him to hear the word of God in the wilderness that called him back into the midst of the people to kindle in them hope in their forgiveness. Bryan Stevenson, fueled for love of justice and mercy, works in the trenches of law and everywhere that takes him to confront the narratives that we’ve misshapen to the detriment and brokenness of one another.

We’re called to wake up. We’re called to heed the voice and voices of those crying out in the wilderness. The Word of God is coming to us all. May we be grounded in Love for God and one another so that we don’t miss what matters most.

 

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On Being Provocative

1 Samuel 1:4-20 | 1 Samuel 2:1-10 | Hebrews 10:11-25 | Mark 13:1-8

We now draw toward the end of this Season after Pentecost, often called “ordinary time.” Ready or not, Advent is only two weeks away. It is in this “green” Season after Pentecost that we also often call it a “growing time.” Not only is it in the summer months, wrapping up at the harvest, but it is also a time when we hear and learn about Israel and her kings and about the faithful people of God, imperfect as they may be. Any time we engage in scripture, to hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest–as our collect says–we are invited to step into the story wholeheartedly to understand how it relates to us now, even though the distance between then and now, let alone between here and there, is so great. Our learning shapes and grows us, too, in our understanding. While we may be growing on the outside, more likely than not there is also growth and formation happening within us.

As much as people seem surprised to encounter women in the Bible, we do so more often than we might realize. Today’s story of Hannah exhibits this internal and external growth quite well. While it is the conception story of the child who would become King Samuel, it’s not told through the lens of his father or even of the high priest of the time, though both make an appearance. It’s the plight of Hannah, Samuel’s mother that draws us into the tale. Hannah, second wife of Elkanah, is faithful yet barren. Even though she’s childless, she has the love of her husband, who makes no effort to hide his favoritism and seems shocked that his love alone doesn’t satisfy her (as if all she should need is a good man to make her happy, right?!?). Not only does her husband not fully understand her distress, but she is also constantly provoked by Penninah, Elkanah’s first wife who has sons and daughters. In case we’ve forgotten, fertility was considered a gift from God, and even though Penninah provokes her severely, irritates her because she hasn’t borne children, Hannah doesn’t rebuke her. Hannah internalizes her grief. She weeps and fasts, and one day she goes to the temple to pray.

It wasn’t the custom, apparently, to whisper one’s prayers or to pray silently. (Remember the scribes who say long prayers? They probably say them just loud enough to be heard over everyone else so people can make sure they are there.) Hannah is saying her prayers much like I say morning prayer, mouthing the words but not making much noise. Some days my prayers are more fervent than others, and I can only imagine the intensity in which Hannah prayed to God.  And Eli, the priest nearby, sees her and accuses her of being drunk, making a spectacle of herself. Hannah fills in the blanks for him. She knows he thinks her a worthless woman. But with the strength of a hemorrhaging woman seeking healing, with the persistence of a woman seeking an exorcism for her dying daughter, with the audacity of the woman at the well to speak out for herself, Hannah confesses her trouble and grief. She has “been pouring out (her) soul before the LORD.” If Eli is anything like most men I know, when faced with a woman pouring out her soul, her truth, he faces his own inadequacy and knows there isn’t a thing he can do aside from get out of the way or empower her in her own strength. Eli, in his blessedness, offers her a blessing, that God might grant her her petition. He doesn’t need to know what it is. When we are agents of God’s work in the world, we often don’t and most of the time can’t know toward what end we are working.  Whether it’s from Eli or God or both, Hannah seeks favor and goes on her way.

“And her countenance was sad no longer.”

A change has occurred in Hannah even before she conceived. Like Job Hannah persists in her faith. Like many who want something so dearly, she bargains with God, promising her would-be child to be a faithful Nazirite. In keeping with tradition, she names the child so that his story, her story, would be remembered: Samuel, meaning “asked of the LORD.” Instead of a psalm today, we get what’s often called “Hannah’s song,” though it was likely written later and put into her story because it has the exaltation of God and the attribution of might to God, the kind that takes what is and makes it what God would have it be. It’s an inner transformation that also had outward signs. It wasn’t just the growth of a baby bump but also the change in Hannah’s countenance that showed a change had taken place, that some kind of grace had been internalized.

As Episcopalians who believe in sacraments, this is not unfamiliar to us. Sacraments by nature are outward and visible signs of inward, invisible grace. Holy Eucharist and Baptism are our two Sacraments, but we have other sacramental rites, like marriage, confirmation, unction, ordination, and reconciliation. I venture that we have sacramental moments in our lives, especially at births and deaths, when we perceive something of grace a little more tangibly than at other times, when we sense that what is holy has made itself known, if not visible. Even if we want to ignore the sacramental experiences of our lives, we can’t unknow them. It’s a hard thing to deny when the holy breaks into our lives, and I venture to say that it’s a beautiful thing when we facilitate that occurrence.

So what if instead of being provocative like Penninah, irritating those who are already drowning in grief and woundedness, we became provocative like Hannah, extolling the greatness of God? What if we become provocative like the preacher in Hebrews suggests: provoking “one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.” See, there’s a little tongue-in-cheek there, still the chance to irritate one another in a negative way, but there’s a way to provoke one another to gladness, to laughter, to joy, to companionship, toward Christ.

Bp. Tom Breidenthal from Southern Ohio, who was our speaker at clergy conference this year, spoke about the church reclaiming its role in the center of public life, as being part of the body politic in a Christian way, not in a powers and principalities kind of way. He spoke about the early house churches that became basilicas, how the open space in the middle was where everyone gathered for corporate worship, how the side chapels were like the markets and offices that lined the open space. He mentioned Philander Chase, the first bishop of the Ohio Mission Territory and how he agreed with the importance of having the church at the center of public life. I mention this because Pastor Clint Schnekloth mentioned to me that urban planners often don’t have churches in their master plans any more. It’s not part of the grid. When I brought this up to Bp. Breidenthal, he said it just emphasizes the importance of doing work outside of four walls, or even without walls. (Yeah, he didn’t know our story.)

Well, we still have churches in our town, in our community. We have ours now, too. How provocative are we? Are we irritating, arousing anger in others out of spite or to put others down? Are we Penninah-provocative?

Or are we Hannah-provocative? Through our suffering and prayers, do we seek God’s guidance to transform us into agents of God’s will? Do we do the work necessary to change our outlook on life so that rather than put others down we can lift one another up, challenging each other in good deeds and love? So when we see another church doing good work, maybe we can help them reach even more by joining in on their effort, as we’re doing with the Thanksgiving boxes with Community Church (the Nazarene church downtown).

Can we remember all that we’ve learned through the stories of those who have gone before and remember the words of Jesus who continually shows us the exemplar way to be provocative for the will of God? The disciples marveled at the grandeur of the stones of the temple and surrounding buildings, but Jesus told them it would all be thrown down. The disciples hadn’t internalized what Jesus said about the temple having been built by the money taken from the widows’ houses. Jesus may have had to slip through the crowd to escape capture a few times, but he didn’t shy away from proclaiming truth to all who would listen. He would stand in the temple, in a boat, in a cave, on a hill, in the field, in the marketplace, and he would provoke his listeners, inciting in them an emotional response. If they didn’t like what he said, wasn’t it usually because they had something to lose, some attachment, possession, or power they didn’t want to sacrifice. If they were already weak, oppressed, or downtrodden or maybe even open-hearted and adventurous, the words of Jesus had a way of landing in their heart and mind and drawing them nearer to him, encouraging them to follow him along the Way.

How do the words of God provoke us today? How does the Eucharist speak to us? How are we empowered to go forth and incite the love of God in the world around us? Even if we, like Hannah, offer our prayers in silence, our actions will speak loudly to our faith and hopefully provoke others in a good way, too.

 

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Giving with Meaning

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17 | Psalm 127 | Hebrews 9:24-28 | Mark 12:38-44

When presented with text that gives us the story of marginalized people, I love to see where God is in the midst of the struggle and hear what it is that Jesus sees as he encounters those whom others might otherwise not see. Such is the case today the story of Naomi and Ruth and in the story of the poor widow and the treasury.

You know me well enough by now to know that my heart goes out to these poor women in our lectionary today. It is easy for me to have compassion for those who are undergoing extreme suffering and hardship. In the Old Testament and the New, people of God are called to care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger–those people who were most at risk in society. We get a sense of how desperate Naomi is when she sends the only one who is left to left to care for her to the tent of a man she is hoping will do right by Ruth. If all goes well for Ruth, Naomi will be cared for, too.

I do struggle with the fact that Ruth is in fact having giving herself to a man in a patriarchal society, obediently giving of herself because her mother-in-law has said she will look out for her and give her a better life. A good life for our children, for future generations is what we all want. But with my 21st-century mindset that hears so much of the evil and horrors in sex trafficking, prostitution, and the #metoo movement, this is a hard story for me to understand. How could the family be in a place where this was their best option, if not their only option? It was a different time a different age, though, and as hard as that is to comprehend, if I had lived that time and if I have been Naomi, this may have been my wish for my daughter-in-law–maybe even for my daughter. Fortunately, it does work out. Boaz marries Ruth, and the LORD sees that they conceive a son, which in turn blesses Naomi with family.

It is easier for me to relate to the poor widow at the treasury who had two coins to rub together but only just. It was all she had to live on, Jesus says, and she’s giving it to the treasury. We don’t know the details of her life, but we know she’s not living without a care in the world. Jesus knows her heart, sees her sacrificial giving, and tells the disciples–without giving the details of her life–that she has given more than everyone else combined. The widows–all three of them–in both of our stories act in great faith. Despite their dire and desperate situations, they can imagine a different way and thus hope for the future. They know there must be something more, and they keep their faith as children of God. Ruth and Naomi didn’t know they would be foremothers of Jesus. The widow at the treasury didn’t know she would be immortalized as a woman who gave all she had that day she went to the treasury, her devotion seen by Jesus even if she didn’t see him.

I want to stay with these women on the margins. My mother was widowed at a young age. I’ve been in a place where I’ve barely had to pennies to rub together. I can’t know what it was like to navigate life as a woman in the first century, but I know something about being a woman in our modern society. As much as I want to go deeper into the stories of our widows, I haven’t been able to shake the tug to look at this from a different perspective.

I am compelled to look at it differently because of the way I feel when Jesus talks about the wealthy giving out of their abundance. The wealthy, giving out of their abundance, come and go, checking of their to-do list for the day. It sounds familiar to me as one who can automate my monthly giving to All Saints’. I can click and give and not really think about it anymore because I live a privileged life. I have freedom to work and travel great distances because I have a care. We actually have two cars in our household. We have a house, too, for that matter–a place where we have our own beds night after night and where we have cabinets and a refrigerator with food to eat. We come to church because we want to, because it does something for us–not because we have to. We can think about spiritual, lofty, and esoteric things because as far as the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are concerned, ours are being met and exceeded. But is my giving out of my abundance really not as meaningful in the eyes of Jesus as the widow who gave everything she had?

I know we’re wrapping up our stewardship season, and you may be thinking, “Um, Mother Sara, shouldn’t you be lifting our spirits about being generous, grateful givers?” The easy answer would be “yes,” but I rarely take the easy road, as much as I may try. What I am more interested in today is how to make our giving truly  valuable, truly meaningful. That’s why we’ve been asking when we talking about giving to All Saints’: “Why All Saints’?” Why do we give to All Saints’? Why do we choose this place as the place we give our time, talent, and treasure to build up the kingdom of God?

I hope that when we give to All Saints’, we are giving in meaningful ways that catch the eye of Jesus through the people in our community. Sure, we may automate our giving, but it doesn’t stop there. We have a vision for the future, too, a hope that we imagine, even if we don’t exactly know how to get there or what it will look like. I know when the dream of a building was being cast, this wasn’t exactly what you had in mind, but here we are. And it is good. There were many All Saints’ folks involved in getting the food pantry and Feast of Grace at Christ the King started, and think of how many lives have been touched. We have neighbors who through the imagination of their daughter started sending art supplies to children who might not otherwise have opportunity for creative expression (I hope we’ll hear more about this in the future!). So many of us give to All Saints’ because we know that there is a sense of welcome in this place that reminds everyone that we are all beloved children of God. Unfortunately, that’s a message most people don’t hear on a regular basis. If you leave this place not feeling that, I’m not doing my job–WE aren’t doing what we’re here to do.

Maybe some of us are giving out of desperation, hoping that by giving to God, the nightmare of our reality will be transformed into God’s dream. Whether or not we’re desperate–and you can certainly be privileged and desperate, don’t get me wrong–we all give for hope of transformation. That whatever material possession we give for the work of God would be transformed into something that conveys the love of God and the presence of Christ at work in the world around us by the power of the Holy Spirit. That’s part of our mission, our work as a church, and it takes all of us. It takes each of us giving with hope and expectation. It takes each of us seeing one another and knowing that we are working together to build something great and good, even if we don’t know exactly what it is God has in store.

God blesses us all with imagination, planting seeds for all the thoughts and ideas that will manifest God’s dream for us. This is our hope for the future, and giving with the hope that we’re nourishing God’s dream makes my giving meaningful enough for me.

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You Are Called . . . Take Heart

Job 42:1-6, 10-17 | Psalm 34:1-8 | Hebrews 7:23-28 | Mark 10:46-52

If thinking about the suffering of Job these past weeks has you feeling more anxious than normal, you can take a deep breath as we conclude his suffering and see his trial over and his fortune restored. Rather than feeling anxious, I find myself more aware of how often I allude to the suffering of Job when I encounter someone with what seems like rotten luck, someone who can’t seem to catch a break. God’s man Job triumphs, remaining blameless and upright, but while we get this lavish description of all that is restored to him–double what he had before in some cases, including his lifetime–we aren’t told–and I don’t see–Job standing triumphant on a pedestal.

Job encountered God in the whirlwind last week and received God’s voice as God described the cosmos and all creation as God created it to be. This wasn’t a divine knockdown; this was God stating what is, revealing creation as seen from God’s perspective. In today’s lesson we hear Job’s response and hopefully can sympathize with him as he realizes that he had spoken without understanding. Now . . . now that he has heard the voice of God with his ears, he has a direct knowledge of God. Now his eyes “see” God as God has been revealed to him, and his new understanding leads him not to “despise himself” as it’s translated or even to “repent,” but to “recant and relent” being but dust and ashes. Job, as blameless and upright as he is, is humbled before God. All that he had said prior to his new understanding of God, he recants: he no longer holds onto his old beliefs. His whole worldview has changed as he relents, giving way to God and accepting his mortality and feeble understanding of the world. For all the riches and extended lifetime he receives, the true beauty of this story is not only Job’s faithfulness to God but also God’s faithfulness to those who believe.

Job’s faithfulness seemed to come easy for him, but we’ve seen in the past weeks that that’s not the case for everyone. The rich man, remember, wanted eternal life and asked Jesus how he could obtain it. When Jesus told him, he balked and turned away. Even the disciples, James and John in particular, said they wanted the best seats in glory, but they were speaking without understanding and knew not what they were asking. Bartimaeus, on the other hand, is a different story.

A blind beggar on the roadside isn’t hard for us to imagine. I can picture the flat, dusty road in Jericho with mountains in the distance, and I can also see in my mind’s eye the crowd surrounding Jesus making their way out of town, heading back toward Jerusalem. The poor, blind man of course heard the approaching crowd and caught the name of Jesus, and he knew him. At least, he knew stories of him, enough to call him out as the Son of David. He had heard of all that Jesus had been doing, and that recognition couldn’t be contained. From his position at the side of the road, “he began to shout and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’”

In typical fashion, those in a more favorable position suppressed the voice from the margin. “Many sternly ordered him to be quiet,” and it’s quite possible that those who didn’t say anything that the man could hear were probably casting him disdainful looks or ignoring him altogether, as was their custom. But the man persisted, crying “out even more loudly” for Jesus’s mercy.

We don’t get a whirlwind here. Jesus stands still, and then he turns the tables when he says, “Call him here.” Notice that? Jesus involves those who are keeping the blind man at bay. You want to follow me? You’re going to do what I say? Practice.

And they do! Maybe with a grimace, maybe a little embarrassed, maybe with a fake smile they say to Bartimaeus, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” Jesus has a way of helping us see one another on a level field. Just as the disciples have been called, so now is Jesus calling Bartimaeus. Whether they’re telling Bartimaeus to take heart or reminding themselves, I see the phrase as one reminding them all to be courageous. Those come-to-Jesus moments take courage, do they not?

Bartimaeus throws off his cloak and springs up to come to Jesus. I’m not exaggerating; this is what it says! He’s excited and doesn’t take a moment to hesitate. When Jesus asks Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus replied, “My teacher, let me see again.” And Jesus tells him his faith has made him well. Immediately Bartimaeus regains sight and follows Jesus on the way.

I’m reminded of the hemorrhaging woman who had nothing to lose and works her way through the crowd to touch the fringe Jesus’s garment. I’m reminded of the Syrophoenician woman with a possessed daughter who also asked the Son of David for mercy and persisted until she got it. These women, like Bartimaeus, knew where society placed them, how it devalued them, yet in their humility, they were persistent and were healed by their faith. But Bartimaeus asked for sight and is the one who is healed and goes on to follow Jesus on the way. He doesn’t look back. He doesn’t even go back to get his cloak, probably one of the few possessions he had. With his new sight, he sees the way forward through Jesus, even if he doesn’t know for certain where that leads. He probably had no idea he was following Jesus and the crowd toward Jerusalem and toward the Passion. Like Job, he has vision revealed through God, which gives insight that exceeds our human understanding.

Does this kind of revelation or restoration still happen today? Of course. It’s why we read the Bible, why we pray, why we gather in community. Because this doesn’t just happen on its own. There has to be intentional effort to give way to this kind of transformation.

Anne Lamott shares a bit of her journey and struggle in a recent Facebook post. She says she often thinks about writing a book called All The People I Still Hate: A Christian Perspective. She hasn’t written it yet, mind you, and in this post she shares why. Anne speaks from her experience in recovery quite openly–recovery from drugs, alcohol, eating disorders, and I think also codependency. She was reminded of her friends who talk about Step Zero, the step before the 12 Steps, the step when you realize “this s*** has GOT to stop.” She realized that since the election she had let herself go into rage mode and be angry until she was reaching a level of toxicity that was bordering on explosive. Focusing on her self-care, she asked herself about her mortality. If she only had one year left, is this the way she’d want to live? No, she’d want to be a “Love bug,” she says, and “if you want to have loving feelings, you have to do loving things.” A huge part of being a loving person is realizing that everyone, even the person you think you despise the most, is a precious child of God.

So she thinks she’s ruined her chances of writing a book about all the people she hates because her whole perspective, her worldview has changed. Taking wisdom from 8-year olds, she’s okay with leaning into the 80% that believes God is there and is good and is within us all the time. Except she flips it to give herself 20% of that goodness, which she thinks is a miracle. The lens through which she views the world has changed; she has new insight, new vision. Like Job and Bartimaeus, she has been restored in a way that only Love can make happen.

And we need that kind of restoration and transformation happening today. When the news is full of two innocent African American people shot and killed in Kroger by a white supremacist, yet another bomb mailed to critics of the president, and a place of worship becoming a scene of terror, cutting short the lives of 11 faithful Jewish people. A CNN story came across my phone this morning: 72 hours in America: Three hate-filled crimes. Three hate-filled suspects. I’ve heard all these stories, and they’re like background music to our lives these days.

This has got to stop. Step Zero.

We can call out for Jesus to have mercy on us, and he already has. It’s up to us to open our eyes, hearts, and minds to see clearly what is happening and follow Jesus on the way of love–a love that doesn’t make peace with injustice and is greater than hate, fear, and even death, if we have eyes to see.

 

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One Thing

Job 23:1-9, 16-17 | Psalm 22:1-15 | Hebrews 4:12-16 | Mark 10:17-31

This week we continue with the story of Job, a man who is blameless and upright, the epitome of righteousness, and who suffers the unimaginable. The main question posed by Satan, the Adversary in the heavenly court, was “Would Job be so faithful if he had nothing?” Is Job’s faith just because he’s such a richly blessed man? As Job is tested, he remains faithful, neither cursing nor sinning against God. Even this week when we find Job amidst his bitter complaint, he struggles mightily in his depths of suffering, but he remains faithful. Like Dr. Marsh said, the prayer of the believer in times of trouble is a request for the way through, the way forward. Job is sure that if only God would hear his prayer, God would rescue him. Job isn’t giving up. Job knows who he is and whose he is. Even when his friends are offering their unhelpful advice and commentary, Job doesn’t falter, even though we must admit he sounds awfully miserable.

Curiously enough, we encounter a different rich man in today’s gospel lesson. This blessed man runs up to kneel before Jesus in a righteous quest, asking our Lord: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus’s response is quick and to the point, reminding the man that no one is good save God alone, and he also tells the man that he knows the commandments. In case he’s forgotten them, Jesus gives him an abbreviated version. The man is probably nodding along, saying “yeah, yeah” until he’s finally saying, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth!” He’s been doing what he’s been taught his whole life, but what does Jesus say he needs to do to inherit eternal life?

“…go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

The man is shocked and goes away grieving, for he has many possessions. We understand his disappointment. There are few of us who would willingly give up everything we have to follow Christ, especially if it meant putting ourselves in way of danger or in especially vulnerable circumstances. But Jesus doesn’t seem terribly surprised or shocked at the man’s response.

Did you catch what Jesus does and says before he gives the man instructions? He looks at him and loved him, and then he tells him that he lacks “one thing.” Only he doesn’t say, as far as I can tell, what that “one thing” is.

If we were to ask the rich man before his encounter with Jesus what he lacks, what might his response have been? He’s rich? He lacks nothing, except maybe the finest wine press, crown jewels, or the latest breed of camel?

But Jesus–in looking at the man and loving him–can easily identify the one thing he lacks.

  • Could it be that he lacks the ability to detach from his possessions? He doesn’t want to let go of his accumulated wealth.
  • Could it be that he doesn’t was to distribute his wealth to the poor, who haven’t worked as hard as he has for his status? Does he lack compassion for their plight?
  • Could it be that he lacks the ability to let go of the security, stability, and sense of control in his life that his wealth and position afford him? I think with this last one we’re getting closer to the heart of the matter.

If we consider the two wealthy men of today–Job and the unnamed rich man–Job represents an ideal, but Job wasn’t given a choice of giving up everything in his life. Everything Job knew and loved were taken from him, and still he remained faithful and righteous. The rich man in our reading today comes seeking–he thinks–to follow Jesus to eternal life, yet when Jesus tells him what’s required, the man turns away, unwilling to do what Jesus says must be done. If only the man had that one thing.

Maybe three years from now when we encounter this lesson again in the lectionary I might have a different inclination, but today I see that what the rich man lacks is belief. The man keeps the law, is obedient, successful, and just knows that there is something to this man Jesus that draws him to him. In the gaze of Jesus, our hearts are known, our strengths and our weaknesses.

Did you notice the commandments that Jesus recites for the rich man? All the ones he mentioned have to do with our duty to our neighbors. As our children who are familiar with the “Ten Best Ways” lesson in Godly Play and our folks who are going to be learning more about The Episcopal Church in our newcomers and confirmation class will soon recall, we can break down the ten commandments into two sections: 1) our duty to God and 2) our duty to our neighbor.

What if in the rich man’s life of comfort, his obeisance to religion had become perfunctory? He was doing all he had to do on the surface, but as he accumulated wealth and possessions, his duty to God might have fallen to the edge as the duty to maintain his wealth, position, and power depended more and more on him accomplishing his worldly tasks. When we become masters of our personal agendas, we are extremely prone to becoming functioning atheists because we know how things need to be done and don’t need any help, thank you very much. Maybe the man’s self-reliance had obscured the need for God in his life and relationships.

Given the choice, maybe Job, too, would have laughed at the option of giving up everything to follow God–we don’t know. But having lost everything, Job doesn’t question God’s existence–God’s whereabouts maybe, but not God’s existence. Job’s belief is steadfast, his faith secure, and we know and will be reminded soon that his faith is rewarded. Peter and the disciples who believe Jesus even if they don’t completely understand him, are reminded that yes, Jesus knows they’ve already given up everything, and they, too, will be rewarded. But the rich man of today lacks that belief in God that in turn fuels the faith, trust, and love of God that would see him through any loss of worldly status.

It’s hard to take that risk, though. As much as we might say, “Awwww, if only he had taken Jesus up on that offer, he would have known the joy of eternal life!” Would we have done differently? Do we know the rewards Jesus has in store for us? Are we certain of the glory of the kingdom of God and what that looks like?

A woman in Conway yesterday spoke to the ECW about a ministry she and her husband helped found called Harbor Home, which is very similar to the Magdalene program. When they were just getting started she said they spoke to a small rural church with about 13 members, all 70 years old or older, to share their ministry with them. It wasn’t very long after she spoke with them that they called her and told her that they wanted to donate their church to the ministry, to be a home for the women seeking safe harbor. Now, she said, a place that saw 13 folks on Wednesday night and Sundays is teeming with life seven days a week, full of kids on the weekend when the little ones come to see their mothers, and there’s still church on Wednesday and Sunday. The original church members, save the one who has since died, have become the grandparents to these women who may have never had such caring, nurturing people in their lives.

Don’t you know it was a huge risk for a church to give up what it’s always been, to take a risk on a new ministry that didn’t even originate in their church, and to even do something different when they’re at a stage of life that is typically resistant to change? Take such a risk, such a leap of faith, illustrates how we can put God first in our lives and trust that whatever outcome arises, God will be there, too.

Certainty isn’t ours to have, and any time we make a choice, we might be taking a risk. But we do know that God alone is good and that the Paschal Mystery–the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ–is ours to ponder and to believe in. Let us do maintain our confession–our belief in God and of God’s son Jesus Christ–so that when we are told to “go,” to follow the way of Christ, it’s not because we lack anything but because we have one thing to gain: eternal life in God.

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Persist

Job 1:1; 2:1-10 | Psalm 26  | Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12 | Mark 10:2-16

Knowing Jesus’ perfection, maybe rather than asking ourselves “What would Jesus do?” we should ask ourselves “What would Job do?” We wouldn’t have to change the acronym or anything. WWJD still applies. Job, unlike Jesus, doesn’t have divinity in his being; Job is just–like us–fully human. Yet, in times that tried his soul to his very core, Job persisted as one whose actions mirrored his beliefs. Job remained blameless and upright, full of integrity and obedience to God.

If we aren’t careful, we might miss that while we start with the first verse of the Book of Job, we skip right on over to the second chapter. There’s this meeting of the heavenly beings like in the first chapter, and there’s Satan. Let’s check ourselves here, too, before we get carried away in our imaginations. “Satan” is better translated here as the “Adversary” or the “Accuser.” Notes in the Jewish Study Bible say that it’s more like a heavenly prosecutor, like a prosecuting attorney. That makes sense. Because in the Book of Job, one of the basic questions is: Would Job be so faithful even if he weren’t so blessed? Does he fear God, obey God, for nothing or only because he has something to gain? God grants the Adversary permission to try Job . . . but not take his life. All that’s in the first heavenly court meeting or pre-trial chambers.

The rest of Chapter One continues with the Adversary systematically removing Job’s wealth and possessions and even his children. Truly, it’s a horrific account, even with the lone witness coming to tell Job of his loss, the haunting refrain repeated four times: “I alone have escaped to tell you.” In response to these calamities, Job tore his robe, shaved his head, fell to the ground, and worshipped. He neither sinned nor charged God with wrongdoing. Job remains blameless and upright, even prostrate before the LORD in the midst of his devastation.

What we have in our lesson today, then, is the second heavenly council. God is pleased to confirm that Job still persists in his integrity, and I prefer the Jewish Study Bible translation that reads like God says the Adversary incited God against Job “to destroy him for no good reason.” We agree, don’t we? Job didn’t–doesn’t–deserve to suffer this way or in ways to come. Like the people of Job’s day, we tend to have a worldview where if you do good, you get rewarded: calamity befalls those who are bad. This worldview fuels the question of theodicy: why do bad things happen to good people? It doesn’t make sense. We can’t see the reason for it–at least, no good reason. As we encounter Job over the next few weeks, we’ll go along with him as he struggles to find order in his world, in the events happening to him, and like me, you may marvel at his ability to remain blameless and upright.

But Job isn’t perfect. Job isn’t Jesus. Job’s wife isn’t perfect, either.

Job’s wife, who–keep in mind–has also lost her children, is in despair and cannot believe Job’s faithfulness. She taunts him to curse or blaspheme God and die. We sense her desperation and longing to escape misery. Job’s response?

“You speak as any foolish woman would speak.”

That’s a hard line for me to hear this week, when the voices of many women have been minimized, mocked, ignored, or silence . . . as has been common for millenia. And our translation, again per the Jewish Study Bible, is actually more tame than the original Hebrew in just calling the woman “foolish,” losing the sexual promiscuity associated with the Hebrew word. Basically, Job is telling her–his wife–she speaks as any prostitute would speak.

“Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” Job goes on to say to his wife.

In all this, we’re told, Job said nothing sinful. Because Job is blameless and upright, embodying the righteous one before God.

I want to give Job credit for staying with his wife and not casting her aside. By Jewish law, Job could divorce his wife for any cause (Deut 24), releasing her. By Jewish law, she could not do the same. Marital relations in antiquity were no less stressful (and probably were more so) than they are today. But in the time of Jesus, as in some places in our world, women by and large were considered property of their fathers or husbands. Women, unquestionably, were inferior to their male counterparts in society.

So when Jesus defends the sanctity of marriage to the Pharisees and then goes on to use the same language for both the husband and wife in his further response to the disciples, he’s just being Jesus, transgressing those social norms, rocking their worldview.

Thanks to Jesus, we recognize that in a healthy marriage, there is strong emphasis on mutuality. A healthy marriage is one of mutual affection, respect, and joy. The marriage is life-giving for each partner and maybe even life-bearing if it works out that way, though that’s not always the case, nor does it have to be. The two are an embodiment of who God created us to be in God’s image, a harmonious union.

And in case we miss what Jesus was doing there regarding elevating the role of the woman, he reaches out to the very least of those in his society, the children. He gathers them in his arms, lays hands upon them, and blesses them, for they have what it takes to receive the blessing, to receive the kingdom of God.

What does a child have?

Until it’s been taught, children have an unobstructed worldview. They exist, and they need. Children are completely dependent upon their care provider(s). Whether that provider does everything perfectly or not, the child is attached to their source of nourishment, of life.

In times of trial, heaven forbid it ever be like Job’s, we are vulnerable–as vulnerable as a child. We might, like Job’s wife, rather die than endure endless suffering. But that we could be like Job, who maybe in his prostration was curled into the fetal position–as we often are in times of distress–returning to a most child-like state, vulnerable and dependent on the mercy and grace of God, yet persisting in our righteousness and obedience.

So when we hear or read a psalm like Psalm 26, which is a prayer for divine justice, we read it not solely with the voice of David or Job in our head. We read it with the voice of the mistreated wife, the mother in despair, the son not living up to society expectations, the child kicked out of their home. We read it with our own voice as we struggle to make sense of our world. Even if we know we’ve sinned and faltered, we’ve returned to God as a faithful child who delights in the glory of God and stands on level ground–blameless and upright. We, too, bless the LORD, persisting in what is good and true.

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