How Does Your Garden Grow?

Acts 8:26-40 | Psalm 22:24-30 | 1 John 4:7-21 | John 15:1-8


(Being the first Sunday, today we begin with a sermon particularly for the young and young at heart.)

Have you ever seen vines growing? There’s a trunk, a base for the vine, and from it the branches grow, with even more delicate tendrils curling near the leaves and–if we’re lucky–clusters of fruit. We know that plants can grow well enough on their own, but the best fruit grows from vines that have a faithful vinegrower–a gardener–to tend to the plants, prune them, and watch out for disease, bugs, and other dangers like early frosts or unseasonable droughts.

We know the health of the vine by examining its leaves, but we also know its health by the quality of its fruit. What do you notice in really good fruit? Think of a grape–what makes a really good grape?

Are grapes the only kind of fruit? Not at all! “Vine” is one way to think of a source. The source of our strength, of all the goodness we have, is God, Creator of all Creation. There are so many different kinds of fruit in the world! So all good fruit shows our cooperation with our Creator to be the best we can be, drawing from the source of everything. Just because we don’t like one kind of fruit or haven’t ever heard of something doesn’t mean it isn’t good. Our goodness is living in ways that show how we are close to the very source of Love itself, and we share that love with ourselves and with one another.

If we know anything of gardening, we’ve probably heard of folks talking to their plants, but I don’t know if anyone stops to ask the branches of a vine how hard it is to grow a perfect cluster of grapes or how the grapes themselves feel about vying for sunlight, how to swell and grow with just enough toughness to contain the juicy goodness, or how to hang on the vine while others never develop or get plucked by birds or infected by bugs. If the fruit did talk, I’m sure they would be the first to tell us that it’s not easy, that there’s pressure to be perfect, to fulfill expectations. But this is fruit, after all. It has a determined purpose (though it could become any number of things), and it has a specific source. The life of fruit isn’t really that complicated, is it?

Any gardener will tell you that it can be. Is the fruit GMO or organic? Hybrid or heirloom? Hothouse or hydroponic? Local or imported? There are lots of variations on a theme, and it’s easier for us to let the distinctions fall to the wayside and just enjoy the blueberries and apples because the fruit is good and good for us–we don’t really need to know all the details.

If we slow down and pay attention, however, we learn where the fruit comes from, what kind of care went into its production and protection, and just how ripe and delicious it is (or not). John Kabat Zinn is a long-time teacher and advocate for mindfulness, and I believe it was in one of his books that he writes about mindfully eating a raisin, noticing as much as one can. How often do we slow down long enough to appreciate how good what we consume is, let alone to appreciate the miracle of creation food is?

Loving intention helps nurture the best harvests, and there is no more loving intention than what God offered in bringing Jesus among us, to abide with us so that we might abide with God, have the very words of God in our hearts–the very seeds that would continue to manifest the fruit of the Spirit.

All the details that go into creating who we are affect how best we share our gifts with the world, what fruits of the Spirit we offer. Maybe they’re the virtues extolled by Paul in Galatians (5:22-23): love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Or maybe they’re more carefully created gifts that the vinegrower has nurtured in you. The voice you share in your song or poetry may be mentored by the influences you’ve looked to in your life, but they’re fine-tuned by your experiences, your talent. Teachers and mentors and others may have nudged and guided us along our way, lovingly guiding us and training us to grow in accord with God’s will as we live most fully into who we are created to be.

Philip, who had the tremendous experience of walking with Jesus in his life and ministry, witnessing miracle upon miracle, suffered the trauma of his teacher’s crucifixion and the wonder of the resurrection. Philip lived and breathed the scriptures, having had his mind and heart open to the word of God by the Word Incarnate. Philip had been trained in proclamation and lived oriented toward the Son of God, ready in a moment’s notice to head the call of God, to go where he was supposed to go. Philip demonstrates what living into the love of God looks like in our lives, what it looks like to abide in God. We fuss about not knowing what to do in our lives, not hearing God’s call, but do we give our attention to the Source? Do we give God a chance to be heard, or are we too busy telling God what we want to hear and when we want to hear it? Why are we surprised when things don’t happen on our schedule? Were we there when the foundations of the earth were laid, or did we cause the dawn to know its place (Job 38:4a, 12b)? Ultimately, when we surrender into the love of God, we live for God’s glory and are more willing and receptive to be and do what God asks of us.

In our reading of Acts, Philip is summoned to the Ethiopian eunuch. The eunuch has been to worship in Jerusalem and is continuing his study of the Prophet Isaiah. He’s continuing in his searching, curiosity, and work. While he has been fulfilling his role in the social order, there is something to this reading from Isaiah about injustice that speaks to him, that stirs his heart, though he doesn’t yet have full understanding. So Philip, who has the gift of proclamation, who is filled with the power of the Spirit, is able to share with the eunuch a summary of the arc of salvation, the story of life, liberation, and love. At the end of the summary, our Ethiopian friend asks to be baptized.

What do we all need to grow? Water. What do we need to begin our Christian journey? Water–the water of baptism so that we, too, may die and be born anew in spirit. And nurtured by the Love of God, abiding in God, we might grow toward the Son and bear fruit in the likeness of our Creator. We need so many things to help lead and guide us, nurture and nourish us. Thankfully we have a community in which to grow and flourish, and when we start to lose our way, we have others to help us get back on track, to help prop us up or maybe a little more forcefully help us get tied back to the fence (loving others have a way of holding us accountable)

It’s up to us to realize our vulnerability, though. It’s up to us to recognize our dependence upon the one from whom comes the source of our being, of all our goodness. It’s up to us to be trained in the way we should grow, in the way we should go. It’s up to us to choose to follow the Way of Love and bear good fruit to the glory of God.

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From Home to Tomorrow

Proper 24 ~ Year A

Isaiah 45:1-7 | Psalm 96:1-13 | 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 | Matthew 22:15-22


Where do you come from? From whence do you come? (for the grammarians out there) If we’re traveling, we’ll likely say we’re from Arkansas, and if others actually know anything about Arkansas, they might ask us where, to which we’d reply Bentonville, Rogers, Bella Vista, etc. Even if they don’t ask us which city, isn’t it funny when, let’s say you’re in Chicago, you tell someone you’re from Arkansas; they light up, saying they have a cousin so-in-so in Arkansas, and surely you know them, right? 😊 We try hard to establish connection, don’t we? To share what we know, especially what we love. Perhaps we’re even trying to establish that sense of belonging together.

This week while I was taking some time to rest and reflect, I did a lot of reading. In one of the books, the author wrote about coming home. While taking time away, I admit that when I thought about returning home, I started thinking about dishes and laundry, responsibilities, and obligations. But that’s not what she described. Instead, she described exactly what I was doing: enjoying a cup of coffee/wine, listening, praying, playing, taking a hike, resting, etc. She described being at peace in the moment, being who I am, nourishing myself in the ways I know I need to be nourished, recognized for who I am, and she called this “coming home.”

Now why on earth would someone from Bentonville “come home” to a cabin in the woods? I’ll tell you why: at that place, I have been nourished as a woman sensitive to the presence of Spirit. Since I was a child, I have loved being among the trees. As a quiet creative, I have a mind that needs silence to hear what’s being said in my conscious and subconscious. I need to hear the ocean through the leaves of the trees in the wind, the crackle of the fire, and the symphony of the birds and the bugs. As someone who has never lived alone, I need time to experience the holy solitude of being alone, which, the author points out, derives from “all one.” Whether we’re surrounded with family or living by ourselves, taking time to be all one means we take time to figure out what we need to feel and be whole. Coming home means to me, returning to the place—even if it’s a moment’s state of mind—where I am fed mind, body, and soul for who I am, for whom I’m created to be, not who I think I am or for what I’m expected to be.

 There’s a danger, isn’t there, in living too much into expectation? Those expectations stack up like precarious building blocks from childhood (and maybe that’s precisely when the expectations were given to us), and they can surround us, walling us in until they—or we—tumble and crumble into a mess. It’s okay to have expectations; roles and responsibilities are built with them, and they provide solid accountability when they are within reason, reality, and respect.

Paul, in his address to the churches, sounds like he is calling the people home to be the Church they were called to be, to be the Christians they truly are. We can read this epistle or any of the others with an anxiety of what a wreck the church has become and with a snicker of what a smooth talker Paul was. OR, we can read this with the compassion we would hope for ourselves, a summons to remember who we are and whose we are and by what power we are able to do what we do. Yes, we’ll get worried when our beliefs and aspirations don’t match our reality. (Christians are still prone to sin and make bad choices, and Jesus still hasn’t returned before faithful people have died. The problems of the Thessalonians aren’t all that different from ours today.) Still today, we make our choices, doing the best we can.

 I wrote but then erased “we cannot change our reality.” It is true that we cannot change what has been done. “It is what it is,” is a common phrase these days. I hear so many people so fed up with this present moment here in the States. It’s divided and hateful. It’s a cluster of epic proportions. The systems are unjust, and the people in power are more interested in keeping their power than in serving the people. Does this resonate with you? Sound familiar? Perhaps you’ve also heard frustration about healthcare, employment, education, the cost of and access to food. The frustrations are institutional and personal—all-pervasive, affecting our waking and, unfortunately, our sleeping (or lack thereof).

I erased “we cannot change the reality” because in truth, we can change or shape the reality of our future. What can we do to be the change, as Gandhi would suggest? Do we take to the ballot or to the streets? Yes, and perhaps. But before we act, before we do anything, we must know where we’re coming from.

When’s the last time we came home to ourselves, were nurtured with the divine voice that assures us of our belovedness and worth, our gifts and our call? Not everyone is called to exhortation and prophecy, just as not everyone is called to teach and to heal. But we all need these in our lives, which is why we give thanks to the many member of the one Body. Can I get an “Amen!”?

Forgive me if this triggers unpleasant memories for you, but there’s a hymn from my Baptist upbringing that came to mind. “Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling” it’s called, and the refrain yearningly sings, “Come home . . . come home . . . Ye who are weary, come home . . .” There’s a bit about sinners, too, which made this particularly common at funerals and as an altar call, but Jesus calling the weary home is on point. We’re tired. We’re tired because we’ve been too far from home for too long. God’s Beloved Community, God’s dream for us isn’t this hot mess we’re in. God’s dream for us isn’t anything I could describe because it’s too great for me to understand.

What I believe with all my heart, however, is that if we’ve ever been home, been all one, then we have an inkling of what we need more of to change the reality of now to create a better tomorrow. Baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, gifted to persevere in faith, hope, and love, we don’t have an excuse. We may have sin—turning away from God—but we also have repentance, the constant invitation to turn or return to God.

I emphasize this coming home and knowing ourselves as God’s beloved because we need this solid footing in our lives, this firm foundation. When someone comes along, or sends someone along, to flatter and try to trick us in some snare, we need a pause, to take a moment. We don’t know how long Jesus took to look into the young eyes of the Pharisees’ disciples and the Herodians, people aspiring to the powers of the world in that moment. We don’t know how long it took for him to know their heart and their intent, to discern that they were too insensitive to subtleties and had to be told outright what hypocrites they were. Jesus called out the thing they were most concerned with: the coin, the money itself. The emperor could have the coins, but what should be given to God? His challengers were stunned, and why is that?

 What is God’s?

 If we’ve been too far from home for too long, we’re likely to have forgotten. Too far from home, we may have fortified those precarious, unrealistic expectations. Too far from home, we may think that alone means all on our own, and on our own we work within the powers and principalities that give us the materials and money to piece together the identity we think we need and some semblance of power in the reality of this moment. Too far from home for too long, we forget that in the beginning, there was a Word, spoken with a breath of love, in Spirit of Wisdom, and from there all came into being.

 What is God’s? Everything.

Before we make our next move, before we cast our vote, before we declare whose side we’re on, it’s worthwhile to pause, to take a moment or as long as we need, to come home a minute and remember whose child we are. Tell her our woes, our concerns. Share our fears and despair. Let her feed us and give us drink. Let her bathe us, washing away the grime and restore our radiance. Let her whisper, “There, there,” and then whisper the words we long to hear . . . and maybe even the words we didn’t want but needed to hear. We can take what we need from home, and stepping out the doors into the wide world around us, sure . . . we give to the emperor what’s due, but we mustn’t forget what is God’s.

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All About the Posture

Jeremiah 31:27-34 | Psalm 119:97-104 | 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5 | Luke 18:1-8

When we talk with one another about our experience of first coming to The Episcopal Church, often we’ll say or hear “we felt at home,” “it just felt right,” or “we loved the experience of worship.” This is particularly true if we are not from a Roman Catholic background, when we haven’t experienced liturgy before. I commend to you the glossary entry for “liturgy” on The Episcopal Church’s website, but I’ll sum it up for you: liturgy is the work we, the people of the church, do in public worship of God. We who follow the rubrics or instructions of The Book of Common Prayer (from which our printed bulletin is derived) have a predetermined, set liturgy. This consistent structure gives us the comfort of going to any Episcopal Church and experiencing the same thing, for the most part. There are, of course, cultural variations. ; )

That we experience comfort in the liturgy or that we miss it if we’ve been away from it for an extended period of time doesn’t strike me as odd. When conditions are right, we are at ease. When we know what to expect, we are comforted. Even when we are relaxed, there are ways to experience challenge without being threatened, to do hard work without being afraid, and to take risks even repeatedly. It occurs to me that this is what we do week in and week out. We gather in this space and are, through the structure of our worship, given time to assume postures ready to receive, to learn, and to serve, encompassed in an environment and posture of praise and thanksgiving, whether that’s standing on our feet or kneeling on our knees. Have you ever thought of it that way before?

If you go back to the beginning of the bulletin, you’ll see we start with song, with praise and recognition of God. Charlie Rigsby, former organist at St. Paul’s always said when you sing you pray twice, so we give more than just a nod toward our praise of God, especially in our Gloria. And we stand through this. You don’t stand because I’m processing toward the altar. We stand with the cross entering the room; many bow or reverence the cross as it moves toward the altar, drawing our eyes and intention toward the even larger cross we have on the wall, behind the altar, our common table, God’s table. We stand as a sign of respect and attention. Here we are, gathered together to do something so counter-cultural. We come to focus on something other than ourselves, to praise the one whose name is above all else, our almighty and everlasting God. Our hearts and voices open and bodies oriented toward that altar, we are in a posture to receive. “All hearts are open, all desires known.” Here we are in our fullness, and with words of praise still lingering in the air, we are ready to receive.

Open to receive, we then turn to learn from God’s Word. It’s so intentional, our liturgy. We open with praise, ready to receive, and then we intentionally receive the Word, ready to learn. We don’t sit and open our skulls like they’re on a hinge to be crammed full and then shut tight. With the Lord with us, we pray to set our intention for this day. Our Collect does just that–let us pray it again together:

“Almighty and everlasting God, in Christ you have revealed your glory among the nations: Preserve the works of your mercy, that your Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

From here we go on to learn from the Word directly. From the Old Testament through the prophet Jeremiah, we learn again how God is on track to lead the people toward a time of building and planting. Whereas before the people had fallen short on following the Mosaic Law (the law of Moses), God is giving them the law in their heart, not just in their mind. There’s a new sense of intimacy between God and God’s people. This is important not just for the people individually following God’s commandments, but it also plays a part in realizing that the presence of the law is not solely kept in the Temple. For a people pulled away from their homeland, where the presence of God is thought to be kept, isn’t it significant that there is a story of God placing the law directly in your heart? If something is written on your heart, isn’t it there forever and always? The words of the psalmist affirm the positive attitude toward God’s law, the significance of obedience and the gift of understanding that comes from God’s commandments.

The second letter of Paul to Timothy is our Epistle reading, epistle being a fancy word for letter. These readings, remember, come after the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. These letters are generally given toward people living in faith after Jesus’ ascension, which is why they are so often applicable to our lives, given contextualization. I find this applicability very much the case today, as Paul commends to Timothy the importance of scripture and the fulfillment of ministry, particularly as it relates to teaching and training the followers of Christ with perseverance. The work of an evangelist is not to go get more people to come to your church or believe what you believe–that’s proselytizing. To evangelize is to share the Good News, the story of Jesus’  life, death, and resurrection.

To be able to share the story, to be an evangelist like Paul and Timothy, we have to know the stories, and so we turn to the gospel. Today we hear Jesus offer a parable to his disciples about the widow and the unjust judge. Lucky for us, we’re told straight out of the gate that this parable is about “their need to pray always and not to lose heart” (Luke 18:1). We could learn all day long about Jesus’ life and teachings, but eventually your eyes will glaze over (if they haven’t already). How does this relate to you? To us? 

One thing I find fascinating about our scripture is that at any moment, this literature, inspired by God, speaks to us in our place and time just as it describes another time and place. This is why we call it the Living Word. By the power of Holy Spirit, we continue to receive the Word and learn from it as it impacts our lives today. We don’t have to look far to find one who is oppressed, seeking justice against their opponent, nor do we have to look far to find those in positions of power who have no love or fear of God and no respect for others. The enormity of both lists, actually, is enough to send me into a state of anxiety or paralysis. But I return to what the parable is about: the need to pray always and not to lose heart. Last week I mentioned that faith involves perseverance. Even when it seems our prayers are not answered in the way we would have them be answered, it doesn’t mean we aren’t being heard. At the time of the Last Judgment, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Will Jesus Christ find those of us who continue to pray with perseverance, to endure all the trials and tribulations with a faithful heart? (Remember that even doubt points to a yearning to seek God, so that’s an act of faith, too.) Jesus sharing this parable, these words with his disciples, is meant for our learning, too. Whether we are new to this faith or long-time believers, we come to this Lord’s day to learn again, as if for the first time, that God hears our prayers, that God is a just God, full of mercy. We know that God is merciful because of the very life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Perhaps our greatest act of faith is believing that whatever pain or suffering we endure, joy comes in the morning. Believing the story of Jesus is believing that sin, suffering, and death are not the end, that there is hope in everlasting life, that the moments of joy we taste and know on this side of glory are but glimpses of the joy and life of the kingdom of heaven, where sin and suffering are no more. This message of Jesus Christ is our Good News, which I am given to proclaim and expound upon not just on Sunday mornings. If you want to wrestle with it, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest it some more, come to Tuesday Bible study, read a little each day, do the Daily Office, talk with me about what it means or doesn’t mean to you. As Epsicopalians, we love the Word of God so much we spend half our service dedicated to it in a posture of learning because we need to know it. The Godly Play curriculum we share with the little kids offers it to them in a way they can engage with it to know it deeply as the wonder what’s important about these ancient stories and how it relates to their lives.

And what do we do with this knowledge? We profess it. We don’t have everything figured out, but this is what our tradition has to offer as a base line, as scaffolding to hold us together. So with our voices it’s like we hold hands, even if they’re too hot or too cold, sweaty or dry, shaky or calm. We create a net of common faith to hold us together as move forward, and then we offer our prayers for all people, today focused on hunger as we share in Bread for the World Sunday. And then we confess for not following God in thought, word, and deed, for not loving God with our whole heart or our neighbors as ourselves. Because God is just and merciful and truly knows our hearts, we seek God’s forgiveness and renewal. And we move forward in peace to greet one another and put into action our gratitude. We bring forth the Presence of Christ in our Holy Communion. We take, bless, break, and share, full of praise and proclamation. We do this prayerfully, intentionally, and gratefully. Together we partake in this holy meal, and then we go to love and serve the Lord.

We, who have received, and learned, been nourished and blessed, posture ourselves again to follow the cross and go out into the world. We go to live lives that speak louder than our words of our deep love of God. We offer a ride to a neighbor, check in on the sick, tend to our families, greet strangers, feed the poor, advocate for the vulnerable, laugh with our friends, cry with the weak and the strong, and do all the things we do because God has continually revealed God’s mercy through the presence of Christ in our lives, through the power of the Holy Spirit that gives us strength to continue when we think there’s no way, no how. And we come back next week, God willing, again given the opportunity to receive, to learn, and to serve. Sometimes we make that net of faith stronger, and sometimes we rely on the faith of others to hold us. Always, we do this work together, in a posture of gratitude in the liturgy of our Holy Eucharist.

 

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Work in Progress

Jeremiah 18:1-11 | Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17 | Philemon 1-21 | Luke 14:25-33

God tells his prophet Jeremiah to go down to the potter’s house. Before God says anything more, Jeremiah watches the potter working at the wheel. If you’ve ever worked with clay, you know it’s more intense than watching.

This clay that you’ve kneaded and pushed and shoved is slammed onto the wheel. Then you dribble some water from a sponge onto it to get it more workable, easier to move. The goal at the early stage is to get it centered in the wheel. If it’s not centered just right, the whole thing will be difficult and likely turn out lop-sided, which is more often than not what happened to me when I worked with clay as a hobby years ago. 

But when you watch someone who has developed their practice, they make it look easy. With strong and certain arms and hands, they center the clay on the wheel, and the clay spins like an ice skater, balanced and fast, slowing at will, ready for the next move without falling over.

This doesn’t mean that a perfectly centered piece won’t go awry. An imperfection in the clay, being too wet or too dry . . . anything can cause the piece instantly to wobble into a mess. So the potter begins again to collect it into a centered mass to be reshaped, reworked, still working with the same clay with which he began, hopefully with patience. 

I don’t know how often I thought about this passage from Jeremiah while sitting at the wheel, looking down at my hands, trying to will the clay to be centered. It was a euphoric feeling when the clay got centered, spinning perfectly in the middle. I hoped my life was centered, spinning in alignment with God’s will. Interestingly, Casey and I were working with pottery right before I went to seminary. As I worked with the clay, I was very aware of how much like clay I was, vulnerable, navigating through forces unseen, being shaped along with my own discernment into something yet unknown to me. I still feel this way, as I’m sure we all do as Christians because our journey isn’t one from birth to baptism to perfection and then to death. Created as perfectly as we are, just as we are, we get wobbly along this journey through life. We get off-center, too greedy, too self-righteous, and often self-destructive. We might be an uncentered mess, but we’re not without the hope of repentance, of being rebuilt, reshaped, reformed, and restored. We can be re-created, even resurrected, into the whole person God intends us to be from before we were born.

Richard Rohr talks about “order, dis-order, and re-order” as the process through which we go to experience transformation and reach true change in our life. Gone through intentionally, the re-order can be done oriented toward God, granting us resurrection experience, new life. We rise to be shaped as someone good and useful for the kingdom here and now. We can hear the words from Jeremiah as very dark, with God promising destruction for God’s people, but we can also hear the hope in the people’s option to repent and turn toward God. The people can turn away from the abandonment of God and turn to walk in God’s way. They have the opportunity to be reworked and transformed. 

This theme of transformation continues in Paul’s letter to Philemon. What starts out as a very complimentary letter turns into a serious request and expectation. Philemon and his household and home church are asked to receive Onesimus back to the house not as a slave but as a brother. I imagine Philemon’s heart sinking, the wheel coming to a screeching halt. We witness a moment of decision in slow motion. Scholars presume that Onesimus fled as a slave and was captured. Paul, who probably encountered Onesimus in prison, adopted him as a child in faith, and, knowing the man’s story, Paul writes Philemon to propose that he receive Onesimus back into the household as an equal in Christ. Talk about opportunity for transformation! Scholars can’t affirm that Paul wanted Onesimus to be granted complete freedom, which is what we would want him to mean. Slavery was a social construct of the time that we cannot deny, but our faith and tradition has certainly come to interpret a life lived fully in God through Christ to be one of freedom and true love of God and neighbor, which leads us to uphold the freedom, rights, and dignity of all. Paul affirms that Onesimus has been transformed by his belief in Christ, and now Philemon has a decision to make which will reveal how much his life has been transformed by Christian love: does it indeed transform all his relationships, including those with whom he has enslaved.

In our gospel lesson, where do we see things being reworked and transformed? This lesson can be challenging. Jesus uses the word we translate as “hate,” and if you’re like me, that’s not a word we use lightly.

Jesus lays out what is required to be a disciple. Speaking to the crowd, he says that if they want to be a disciple, they have to “hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters” and “even life itself.” Also, a disciple has to carry the cross and follow Jesus. The crowd at the time didn’t know what we know now. What we know is that to carry the cross and follow Jesus means to carry a great burden even unto death. We end this lesson with Jesus saying that to become a disciple, we have to give up all our possessions. 

What we really need is a transformation of this lesson into good news!

Thankfully, the good news for us is that we have everything we need to be disciples. Our collet says, “Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts.” Our psalm reminds us that we are “marvelously made” and that God has knit us together in our mother’s womb. God has searched us out and knows us–our sitting down and our rising up, our thoughts and our ways; God knows us altogether.

So also does Jesus know the crowd to whom he speaks. Remember that he has just left the dinner with the Pharisees, where he was among the invited guests, likely the privileged people in the community. Perhaps these people are among those who follow him, but maybe others from the community also follow him, people who have a lot, people like Philemon who have households and the ability to hold church in their home and provide hospitality to those gathered. Jesus tells these people to “hate” those whom they would hold near and dear and even life itself if they really want to be disciples. If we hate something, we completely detest it, are almost if not completely repulsed by it. Maybe we don’t realize how much we hate something until we encounter it and feel physically sickened by it. Maybe Jesus wants the crowd to hate their attachment to the way things are, their attachment to protect and preserve “me and mine.” Rather than all the stuff we think we need in our lives, what Jesus knows we need is our whole heart, our whole self, without extra baggage. 

Like Paul telling Philemon to exercise Christian love in receiving Onesimus into his home, Jesus is telling the crowd and even us to let go of all our superficial attachments so that our life might truly be centered in Christ. Yes, we navigate in our familial relationships and society, but our Christian family is so much bigger. The human family is likewise our family, deserving and worthy of our love as siblings, as children of God.

Our very life as we think it should be, when it is reworked to be aligned with God, is no longer our own. We are not coerced into obedience to God, but because we love God so much, love one another, we want to be obedient to God. We want to reach out to our neighbors in Christian charity, in true love, and share what God has graciously provided. We want to carry the cross we are given to bear and to follow Jesus even to the grave.

Jesus uses strong language that definitely gets our attention, but it’s not our attention that Jesus wants. Jesus desires a transformation and sincere disciples. If we allow his words to rework our thinking, our perspective, we realize that if we detest the social structures that make us overly protective of what we think is ours alone, then we can transform our worldview to see the great human family, all of God’s children, wonderfully and marvelously made. With Christian love, we want everyone to have access to that which helps them thrive, and we will reach out to our neighbors, even strangers, to uplift them, even if it challenges what we thought we knew or understood.

All Jesus asks of us is ourselves. Love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love our neighbors as ourselves. “Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts.” Sometimes we need a transformation of our own ways of thinking, and God knows this, too. We are enough. Centered in the love of God through Jesus Christ, we have all the perspective we need to live a life that is transformed by that love. When we encounter those moments in our life when we are conscious that the decisions we make have the opportunity to reflect our love of God, we have immense power to give witness to our life as a disciple. Thanks to God’s infinite mercy, God keeps us on the wheel even when we mess up, guiding and shaping us when we listen and allow it, holding us in infinite love and strength.

The human vocation is to be true co-workers with God and stewards of creation. 

~Denis Edwards

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Humble Work

Jeremiah 2:4-13 | Psalm 81:1, 10-16 | Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 | Luke 14:1, 7-14

This weekend, many enjoy the celebration of Labor Day, extending the time to re-create into Monday, offering a final farewell to summer with one more picnic, barbecue, or blow-out sale. Labor Day is another one of those holidays I take for granted, so I did a quick Wikipedia review of the origins of Labor Day. I was reminded that it is, indeed, a holiday for the working class, its origins in the early 1880s (about 1882) meant to benefit the labor unions and celebrate the labor laws. Unions aren’t what they could be around here, but we definitely benefit from federal labor laws they advocated for and achieved. Interestingly, there was an effort to make “Labor Sunday” a thing–a day to focus on spiritual and educational aspects of the labor movement. Obviously the effort didn’t work out, maybe because it lacked the more appealing parades and picnics. Fortunately for us, we have processionals, food, and fellowship, and we have the opportunity to think about our Christian work and labor from spiritual and educational perspectives.

In our readings today, we can think about our spiritual work from a “what-not-to-do” perspective. The prophet Jeremiah, who has accepted the call to share the Word of God even if it means sharing God’s judgment on the people, plainly states two evils the people have committed:

  1. They have forsaken God.
  2. They have dug out cisterns for themselves.

The people have abandoned God, deserted the Almighty. Despite all that God has done for them, despite God being the eternal, living water, the people have turned away from God. AND, they have sought to be self-sufficient. These people of the desert think they can create their own containers for the water that sustains them, but God says their cisterns are cracked and can hold no water. Do we as humans have anything that can contain all the life that God gives us? Even if we put someone on life support, can we restore the life that we know? To abandon God and to presume that we can hold what truly gives us life, these are evil acts, according to God through the prophet Jeremiah.

Similarly, in our gospel lesson, we get words of caution from Jesus, more what-not-to-do’s. Jesus offers a parable to illustrate what is a familiar quote from Proverbs: “for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble” (25:7). Jesus cautions against our arrogance and conceit, for he knows we are susceptible to pride. Jesus also warns us not to give expecting return. Don’t invite someone to your party or give someone a fancy gift and then expect the same invitation or “generosity” to be returned. True generosity is when what we give is a blessing, filled with grace, and absent any expectation except that it might glorify God.

Sometimes some of us need to be told, “Don’t do this or that!” Other times we need direction on what to do. This is what we get in the life of Jesus when we pay attention, as he did. He was invited to a meal, and he watched others scramble to get the best seats. His own power and authority didn’t come from wealth, but he had enough privilege to make the guest list. In his person, in his being, the Son of God lived humbly, with great humility. He knew that with his privilege there is great responsibility. For the Son of God this meant ultimately sacrificing his life, but while he lived it also meant walking every day with the intention to proclaim the love of God and to pursue peace, justice, and love. With every step, every story, every meal, and every prayer, Jesus perpetually reveals to us the presence of God in every moment AND shows us how we can, too, if we put God first.

In our psalm today, the voice of God says, “Oh, that my people would listen to me.” If they had been listening, they would have known God’s promise: “Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it.” It wasn’t intended to be a one-time manna in the desert experience. God’s promise to provide nourishment, daily bread, living water, and all good things is continual. This promise continues today. There is enough. There is plenty for everyone. God will and does provide.

What do we do to show that we haven’t forsaken God, that we don’t rely on ourselves exclusively or seek our own glory?

The lesson in Hebrews offers guidance, even some helpful suggestions. “Let mutual love continue.” If we love God as much as we profess we do, then by extension, we love our neighbor, too. We love God, we believe in God, we are nourished by our God, and we show others that we are God-loving Christians in our work: work of showing hospitality to strangers, trusting that there truly is enough, even an abundance–again, not expecting anything in return; work of remembering those in prison or being tortured–spiritually, emotionally, or physically–having empathy and compassion for them so that their human dignity is maintained, that they are not forgotten, and that as a child of God they are entitled to repentance, reconciliation, and restoration. We do the work of upholding our relationships, our marriages and friendships, keeping God in our midst and as our greatest love so that we don’t lose ourselves or become too full of ourselves. We keep free from the love of money and work to be content with what we have. All this is summed up: “do good” and “share what you have.” This will be a sacrifice–we have to let go of something we think solely to be ours–but “such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” Pleasing God is work toward which we can all aspire.

Our collect reminds us how we can remain focused in our work as Christians:

  • Have the love of God’s name in our heart–not superficially but permanently written;
  • Grow in true religion, religion that puts God first, not ourselves;
  • Let God provide us with all goodness and recognize the goodness we receive from God; and
  • Pay attention to the fruit of good works we accomplish in God’s name.

We certainly don’t go waving the Bible in people’s faces or putting a cross around everyone’s neck, but we can speak loudly for the love of God in the work that we do . . . if we understand what it means. Do we know the stories and lessons of our faith? Do we realize how they still manifest to this day?

The story of the loaves and fish feeding the multitudes speaks clearly to the abundance God provides. There were loaves and fish leftover, right? Last week there was an article released by the Episcopal News Service about a vicar in North Carolina who leads a small 20-member congregation in English and also meets in a home to celebrate Holy Eucharist in Spanish with about 9 people. The congregation wanted to help the under-served neighbors get health care they needed, so they facilitate a health access ministry where a nurse meets with neighbors to talk about diagnoses and facilitate resources for treatment. While people wait, the congregation decided to offer a free meal also. Over 40 people participate in the ministry, benefitting from the medical attention and a strong sense of community. It’s not about what the people provide or even what they can do: it’s about what God does through and for God’s people when they listen.

Our lives as faithful Christians will always be about putting God first and realizing that everything we think we have or think we’ve accomplished is really all thanks to God. When we’re doing really well and thinking we’re deserving of that front row seat, it’s probably a good time to step back and triple check our priorities–double check that to-do list from Hebrews–and ask ourselves if in our work we labor humbly for love of God and for the benefit of our neighbor, for the good of all. And if it seems like we’re trying to keep a cracked cistern full of water, if for all the work we’re busy doing we feel like we’re running ourselves ragged in a hamster wheel, maybe it’s time for us to pause and listen and reorient ourselves. A holiday, a holy day, can give us the moment we need to pause and do just that.

*For a podcast that deeply reflects about listening: https://onbeing.org/programs/gordon-hempton-silence-and-the-presence-of-everything/

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What Are We Begging For?

1 Kings 19:1-4, (5-7), 8-15a | Psalm 42 and 43 | Galatians 3:23-29 | Luke 8:26-39

Leave it to the gospel to alert us when things are not okay, when there’s something we’re called to notice and maybe even wrestle with. Surely your ears perked up when we’re told a man with demons met Jesus, a naked man at that, one who lives in the tombs. As if that weren’t “interesting” enough, the demon(s) speak to Jesus, naming him as “Jesus, Son of the Most High God” and begging not to be tormented, which results in Jesus casting out Legion into a herd of swine that then rushes off to drown in a lake. This is our Holy Scripture. This is one of many stories that can give us pause as we wonder, “But what does it mean? What is God saying to God’s people?” As we reaffirm nearly every time we engage in scriptural study, the Word of God can mean many things to different people in various contexts. An important question to ask–and faithfully discern–is where does this holy story intersect with our lives? Before we can match anything up, we have to look closely at what we’re given from as many angles as possible. I’m not going to get to all of them, but there are three in particular that offer a greater depth of understanding.

The spiritual aspect of this story takes main stage, for the focus here is on an exorcism. We don’t talk a lot about exorcisms in The Episcopal Church, but we, too, have exorcists, and the bishops know who their diocesan go-to person is. (It’s not me!) Even though the disciples grapple with understanding who Jesus is, this man possessed by Legion knows right away who Jesus is. (A Roman legion was about 5,000-6,000 men.) The demon knows the command Jesus has over the realm of spirit, which exceeds any physical power as neither chains nor shackles could contain the man before. The demons must also know something of the compassion Jesus has, appealing to the Son of God not to torment them, leaving the demons to their inherent destruction even to the point of self-destruction, for even though they begged not to be ordered to go back into the abyss, when the swine drowned, the demons ended up in the abyss anyway.

The personal or individual aspect of this story is inherently spiritual, too, but in a different way. Focus for a moment on one man possessed but then exorcised and healed by Jesus. We’re told that he sits “at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.” This man, in his right mind, speaking for himself and not for the demons, begs of Jesus to let him go with him basically to become another one of his disciples following him on his way. But Jesus sends him away, to return to his home. In his home he is to “declare how much God has done for (him).” Jesus will give the demons what they want but not the man who’s been restored? Yes. It’s not hard to imagine his disappointment, as we’ve all had prayers that were, at least to us, unanswered (we didn’t get what we said we wanted). And yet. . . The man went to his home and proclaimed what Jesus had done for him and became, along with the disciples, a prominent voice for the Gospel among the Gentiles. This man was himself a Gentile. This man had been transformed by his encounter with Jesus, and what is more powerful than hearing about the transformation of someone who is like you? Transformation is a powerful thing.

Which brings me to the third aspect of understanding this story: the corporate or collective level. What happen with the masses? The swineherds saw what happened and ran off and told everyone in the city and the country. All the people who could came to see for themselves and saw one of their own–whom they had cast out, remember, whom they had chained and shackled and left naked and in the tombs–healed (in his right mind), clothed, and sitting at the feet of Jesus. Did they rejoice in the man’s healing? Did they now beg of Jesus as the demons and then the man had? They did not rejoice; in fact, we’re told they were afraid. They didn’t beg, but we are told they asked Jesus to leave “for they were seized with great fear.” It’s actually after the people ask Jesus to leave that the healed man begs to go with Jesus, and I don’t blame him one bit. The man knows what these people are capable of, and now he sees them afraid. When people are scared, it generally doesn’t make them act any better. I overheard one son ask the other what he would do first in the case of a zombie apocalypse, and after his brother’s response he said that the first thing he would do is try to calm down because he would be freaking out and would need to calm down to think clearly. Our former demoniac is thinking clearly; he’s in his right mind. And he wants to go with Jesus and his crew, not stay with these people who are afraid of staying in the presence of the power and mystery of Jesus, Son of the Most High God.

As I see it, it is just as scary now as it was then to live within the realm of Jesus Christ. It’s a place where power as we understand it can be overturned, where life as we know it can be changed forever, and where resistance in the form of fear battles forces of supreme love. If we’ve been in that battle ground and emerged transformed, with greater understanding, we want to stay in that place. Yet so often that’s not where we’re called to be. God may send us back to the battleground to proclaim how much God has done for us, to share our transformation story with others. We may, like Elijah, be sent back to the wilderness, to carry on until our work is truly done. We may, like Paul, be sent ever outward, travelling as far and wide as we can to proclaim the Good News that through faith in Jesus Christ we are children of God, wholly and inclusively. 

It may be hard, but the healing we know from our deepest wounds reveals the power of God in ways that only wisdom of experience can convey. It’s why outreach workers in the Oxford Houses are supposed to be people who have been through the Oxford House model themselves. It’s why the best counselors have done the personal work themselves. It’s why the voices of those living in poverty are the most powerful testimonies to why we need to advocate for change. It’s why those who have immigrated and those who have fled their countries of origin as refugees are the only ones who can help people in power understand how to fix what is fundamentally missing or broken in our current systems and institutions.

Faced with Truth, we understand real, liberated, restored power, and for those of us functioning with temporal, materialistic power, we realize our weakness, our lack of understanding, and some of the depths of what is unknown. Only when we’ve swam in those depths and came ashore with a tale to tale do we have any idea of te power at play, the grandeur and greatness of God. Evan Garner, the rector at St. Paul’s in Fayetteville contributed to the “Reflections on the Lectionary” in Christian Century on this passage from Luke (June 5, 2019, p. 21). He very astutely writes,

“Sometimes the terror we know is more tolerable than the peace we cannot imagine.”

Our demons are still legion. Addiction of all kinds, mental health issues, poverty, racism, fear, and hatred . . . there are many. And when we get closer to knowing the peace, love, and liberation through Christ, it can seem like if not be that we are confronted with our own demonic cocktail, made specifically for us to chain and shackle us in the tombs. But I don’t think this is where we’re left in our understanding of this story.

The question becomes, “What are we begging for?” What are we asking for that will truly satiate us? What are we asking God of that no matter how it gets answered, when we hear the voice of God in the silence, we’re willing to go where God leads? Most often the spiritual journey doesn’t take us any farther than our own home but takes us to great depths in spiritual maturity.

Vulnerable, shackled by all the societal norms that surround us, with the freedom from the tombs of death promised by our faith in Jesus Christ, what is it that we beg for to experience true liberation? In our Noon Bible Study, we’re reading Rachel Held Evans’ Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again. She writes about Jacob wrestling with the angel until he gets what he asks for, even if his encounter leaves him with a limp. In the reading guide provide on the website, we’re invited to consider what we would be willing to wrestle God about through the Bible. What is it that we long for? What would we be willing to beg of God, or are we too afraid of what God can do? Eternal life in God through Christ or destruction empowered by our limited self? The life lived in Christ is not an easy one, but our joy and gladness are inextricably tied to the light and truth of God. Therein lies our ultimate liberation, something worth begging for.

 

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They

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31 | Psalm 8 | Romans 5:1-5 | John 16:12-15

(a draft of the homiletical moment)

I speak to you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sharing these words with you before I preach centers me and brings me to a sense of presence that I know I don’t have on my own. This Trinity Sunday, it gives me extra pause to contemplate how grateful I am that we have a Triune God–God in three persons–and what it means to me in practice of my faith.

If you want to know what we mean by the Trinity, you could flip back to the back of The Book of Common Prayer (pages 864-865) to the Historical Documents section and read through “The Creed of Saint Athanasius.” From the first lines you see that one’s very salvation depends upon adherence to the “Catholic Faith,” the universal faith, which is “That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance” (BCP 864). There’s also a bit about believing rightly in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, most of which we convey in our Nicean Creed. Fortunately, we’re not tested over this. I don’t even recall an incident of someone returning from a near death experience asking what was meant by the true Catholic Faith.

Am I grateful for the Athanasian Creed when I say I’m grateful for a Triune God? I appreciate that people have wrestled with what it means, its implications, and have tried to make sense of 1+1+1=1. Mainly, I am grateful for a God whose very being is relational–our God in three persons, blessed trinity. The God who in the beginning said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness” (Gen 1:26). The God who visited Abraham, manifest as three strangers, and inspires what I consider one of the most inviting icons, Rubliev’s Hospitality of Abraham. 

There’s so much about God that we can’t understand. Abraham and Sarah didn’t understand how they would have a child in their old age. The disciples didn’t understand everything Jesus was telling them about the kingdom, about the Advocate, about the Father in whom he said we all abide.

Thank goodness we’re justified by our faith and not by our complete understanding, yes?

We believe in a relational God who values love above all else–a selfless, rich, all-encompassing love. We believe in a God who defies all boundaries, despite our attempts to draw lines around what God is/isn’t. When for so long we call God “He,” we might be inclined to forget that God is so much more than any masculine image we might conjure.

I appreciate what our transgender community is teaching us about getting outside our solely binary way of thinking. At the parade this weekend, a friend drew my