Calling All Christians

2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a | Psalm 51:1-13 | Ephesians 4:1-16 | John 6:24-35

One of my downtime go-to’s, like many people’s, is to watch a show on Netflix. If I could, I’m sure I’d be one of those folks who binge-watches an entire season or four in a day, but my life doesn’t really allow for that. So I enjoy watching a show now and then, and I really like it when I get to share that time with my family (which is usually when I watch something). Recently, a new season of “Anne with an E” came out, and I’m delighted to watch this show with my daughter. Not only do I feel like it’s created beautifully, but it takes my love for Anne of Green Gables from when I was a child and gives me a medium to share it with at least one of my children. In this new series, they’ve taken lots of creative license to flesh out the characters and further develop the side stories that I don’t recall in the books (most likely because they’re not there). One of those stories is about Gilbert Blythe, with whom Anne has a love-hate relationship in their adolescence. The series portrays him attending a birth in a foreign land where the ship he’s working on is at port. There’s something in his presence of mind, skill, and success in that moment that plants a seed for what’s to come, that being his interest in medicine and his eventual profession as a doctor. One might say that he has a “calling” to be a doctor, just as I have a calling to be a priest, Krista a musician, others teachers, nurses, attorneys, care-providers, parents, analysts, managers, and on and on. We all have a vocational calling, whether we are able find it and live into it or not. We have gifts, talents, and skills particular to us to help fill a need in our world.

But have you ever thought about your spiritual calling, “the calling to which you have been called,” as the letter to the Ephesians says? Each of us has been called to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” and to participate and grow in the Body of Christ in love. Fortunately, this calling aligns with our mission: “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”

Chances are, we don’t sit around the dinner table and check in with each other about how we’re doing with this calling, with our mission, but that’s why we come to church–to get a Word from God and be fed by Jesus. Because we know that things are out of kilter in our world, in our lives, and as we strive to live a life centered and grounded in Christ, we know we need not only God’s continual mercy but also the help, protection, and goodness that comes from being a part of something much bigger than ourselves.

While I hope it’s not the case for any of us here, we know that there are people for whom the story of David resonates. David, as called as anyone, if not more so because he was chosen by God to be king, is a leader of nations, is beautiful, mighty, and powerful: so powerful was he that he not only had what he needed, but he took what he wanted. He did not ask God’s consent in taking Bathsheba; we don’t have account that he even asked Bathsheba’s consent. David certainly didn’t ask God about taking Uriah’s life, either. David, called and anointed to be king over Israel, in our reading today gets called out by the prophet Nathan. Perhaps it was only through a parable that David could so quickly judge, so blinded and ensnared had he become to his own wrongdoing. But when the wrong of another was understood, then Nathan held up the truth of the matter like a mirror, saying in all boldness and righteousness: “You are the man!” David admits to Nathan: “I have sinned against the LORD.”

It’s easy for us to see how David had disrupted the unity among God’s people, going against the calling of our lives lived in God. What’s done is done, but we hear in Psalm 51 the repentance, David’s turning toward God in prayer. It’s easy to imagine the voice of a king, so proud and powerful, actually taking on the posture of body and spirit with humility and gentleness. When any of us lose our way, that’s what repentance and reconciliation offer us, the means through which to acknowledge the error of our ways and the path toward a life lived worthy of our calling as children of God.

Many of us get on unstable ground when we start thinking of our worthiness of God’s grace and mercy. I attribute this largely to the fact that many of us were taught that God’s grace and mercy are conditional; only if we do or don’t do certain things are we assured to receive God’s blessing.

Fortunately, God is greater than our fragile egos and misshapen theology.

Even though Jesus seems to be getting a little irritated with the masses, his compassion never wavers. They came to Jesus in their illness, discontent, dis-ease, and/or curiosity. They were fed, and Jesus calls them out for coming back to him for more food to fill their bellies. (Maybe they’re even more like sheep than he originally thought!) But these are children of God, too, who are called to be fed and nourished by Jesus Christ. These are people for whom Jesus came to show the Way of Love; they are people called to live in unity, giving glory to God. The thing is that the people don’t know their power. They probably don’t know their worthiness, either. In a culture where only the high priests approach the altar, where sacrifices were required for atonement, where there were probably more limitations as to what one could do rather than possibilities, it’s understandable that they wouldn’t see their potential, their calling to be a vital part of the spiritual presence on earth.

I wonder how many people feel that way today. Or, if people do open up with humility and gentleness, patience and love, I wonder how many are overwhelmed and turn away from the suffering and turn toward the imaginary stories on t.v. from the comfort of our homes.

No matter what we’ve done or what we don’t know, we all now know that we are called–from our baptism–to lead a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called. We are born of the image of God to maintain the unity of Spirit in peace and to build up the Body of Christ–the Church–in love. It’s so simple that it’s hard because we might find ourselves like Paul, a prisoner in the Lord, bound in willing servitude to glorify God, freely giving our lives over to God’s will.

There’s not one right way to do this.

At the vestry retreat we had last weekend, I asked our Vestry if they had ever done a spiritual gifts inventory. They all just kind of looked at me, and our Senior Warden kindly reminded me that their vocational world isn’t necessarily like mine, where my vocational and spiritual callings are intertwined. I also asked if the Vestry had thought about their leadership strengths and weaknesses in relation to their service in the church. Most hadn’t, even though many have been using their strengths already. The first step, though, was creating an awareness of gifts and strengths that are readily available, if not already in practice. Next steps include identifying where, when, and how those gifts might be shared or required.

In all this talk of “calling,” we’re likely to miss the crucial component of listening. David’s pride could have prevented him from hearing and truly understanding Nathan’s parable. Jesus’s call to the people that he is “the bread of life,” that all who come to him will never be hungry and all who believe in him will never be thirsty, could have–and may have–turned away those who only had ears to hear promises of fast food and quick fixes.

So as you’ve listened this day and been made aware of your spiritual calling to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace and to build up the Body of Christ in love, what do you hear the Holy Spirit stirring within you? What gifts do you know that you have? Are you curious to know more? (Because we’ll do a similar spiritual gifts inventory in Christian Education within the next year.) Do you need the exercise of repentance and reconciliation to get back on track, or do you just need to engage in the knowledge that your life–each of our lives–have value and purpose in building up the Body of Christ?

God knows I don’t have all the answers for myself or for each of you, but God knows that I am a willing participant and patient shepherd, fed and nourished like you by Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God.

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Extraordinary Glory & Grace

2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a  | Psalm 51:1-13 | Ephesians 4:1-16 | John 6:24-35

Reading to our children when they were younger reminded my husband and me about our favorite stories when we were early readers. Some of my favorites included a Disney story about Goofy breaking a curse, the Amelia Bedilia stories, and one of my favorite picture books Strega Nona by Tomie DePaola. “Strega Nona” means “grandma witch,” and in the story she’s the person everyone in the Italian village goes to see when they need healing or a cure, even the priests and nuns. In this fantasy story, she uses potions and spells to work her magic. She takes on an apprentice of sorts who ends up mis-using a spell he heard her say. He wanted to be praised like Strega Nona, but he missed a key ingredient.* Fortunately, Strega Nona arrives home just in time to save the day.

My husband’s favorite story is naturally much more realistic. You’ve probably heard the folktale “Stone Soup.” Three weary travelers come to a town, and the villagers predict that they’re going to be hungry and beg for food: so they hide. But these travelers are clever, and they make a big show of preparing their special soup, for which they proclaim there will be enough for everyone. Someone brings out a big pot and firewood. They boil water and—very dramatically—drop in the three special stones.

At each taste, the soup is delicious but could do with just a little more of something–from salt and pepper, to carrots, to potatoes, fish, and barley. Each time it’s another villager who is willing to come out of hiding to contribute to this obviously mouth-watering soup. By the time the last ingredients have been added, of course there’s more than enough for everyone. The whole village has contributed to the concoction, and the strangers share the feast with everyone before the night is done.

Whether we read the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 as a fantastic miracleor as a miracle that everyone shared what they had to make for an abundant feast for all, there’s no doubt that the gift revealed something about the grace and glory of God. And it gets us right in our gut.

We all need food. If we’re too hungry, we can’t focus. We need to be fed not only spiritually but physically. Last week, Jesus taught many things to the multitudes, and this week we revisit the scene and know that he also fed the people—in body and spirit.

But he doesn’t do it alone, even though he could. Like the clever travelers with their stone soup, Jesus knows what he will do from the beginning, but he includes his disciples in the wondering. “Where are we going to get food?” What is the cost calculation? How can we make do with what we have? Ah, look what that child has. The gift of God’s grace is so often in the unexpected, among the least of these. We get to think outside the box. Like our lesson last week, we really sometimes just need to step back and let God work in our midst, let God’s will be revealed. It is God’s will that there be enough for everyone, which there is, but everyone has to participate and cooperate for there to be enough to go around, yes?

Thank God for all the food banks, pantries, kitchens, trucks, and volunteers that work to feed the masses today, especially considering that about 19% of people are food insecure in Northwest Arkansas. One in four children are hungry or food insecure right here in our communities. One.in.four.

It was a boy that the apostle Andrew spotted who had loaves and fishes. Jesus looked to the child with the five barley loaves and two fish. Jesus took the loaves and gave thanks for them and distributed them. He did the same with the fish. He gave thanks, and he gave them to all who were seated. This pattern is familiar to us, this giving thanks, which the Greeks call eucharistia, and from which we derive our word “Eucharist,” our Great Thanksgiving.

What if that boy was one of our four children who is hungry? What if that boy had been gifted those treasures when he was hungry? What if that boy had hidden like the villagers at the beginning of the stone soup story?

Fortunately for all, the boy gave his gifts to Jesus, who then took the food and multiplied it for the masses. While it’s not the same, I get a similar feeling of such a miracle when I attend the Feast of Grace at Christ the King on the fourth Wednesday (like this last week when our loaves and fishes looked like hot dogs and buns), and I know it will feel that way when we go to HomeTowne Suites this Tuesday. We give thanks to God for the gifts that have been given and shared, and we feed those who are hungry, all to the glory of God. There’s enough.

Danger lurks wherever we hoard our gifts or dare to claim the glory for ourselves. If we hide our treasures, we hurt our neighbor who suffers in hunger. If we seek glory or manipulate circumstances for our benefit, we not only hurt others but also ourselves (such was the case for the young apprentice in Strega Nona, and it’s definitely the case with David and Uriah). When Jesus realized the people were going to force him into the role they wanted, expected, or even hoped for, he withdrew. He left to the mountain. The people wanted a worldly deliverer to save them from Rome; they wanted a messiah. But the people did not yet understand God’s glory and grace revealed to them, even if they had just experienced, very tangibly, a taste of it for themselves.

In case we, too, miss the revelation of God in the feeding of the 5,000, we get another sign of the presence of God when Jesus walks on water. Is the miracle solely that he walks on water, about four miles worth? The disciples in the boat are afraid as the storm rages around them. Jesus pronounces: “It is I; do not be afraid,” recalling to mind the words of God to Moses: “I am.” Jesus declares His presence, and immediately they arrive at their destination, safely. Again, the grace and glory of God has been revealed on God’s terms and in a very tangible way. These are signs of God in the midst of the people. These are signs that Jesus is God incarnate, Word made flesh. This is Jesus living into his mission: to make God known.

These next few weeks in our lectionary, the Gospel lessons will focus on Jesus being the Bread of life. We’ll see how many ways we depend upon Jesus Christ as our source of life. But this week, we get to delight in the memorable stories of Jesus doing amazing things with grace and in glory for no other reason than for revealing God to the people who are seeking something. The beauty of these stories is that they still happen today, when we gather around a table, when we feast together, giving thanks to God. Certainly we, too, are carried through the storms in our life in ways that in hindsight we have no idea how we made it through but for the grace of God revealed to us in the kindness and help of others and strength and perseverance we didn’t know we were capable of; God is, and God is with us.

It may be easier to believe that Jesus performed miracles at a particular place and time and that they just can’t happen today; the miracles are just really great stories for us to remember Jesus in his glory. But I think that mindset severs us from divine imagination and limits our hope and possibilities. Let us not forget Paul’s prayer to the Ephesians, a prayer equally suited for us:

“I pray that . . . Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.  . . . I pray that you may . . . know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God,” for truly it is God’s “work within us (that) is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.”

Amen.

 

*The missing ingredient from Strega Nona is the three kisses the grandma blows over her clay pot to end her work.

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Holy Rest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Absolutely not. Not at all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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God’s Dream: The Way of Love

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 | Psalm 24 | Ephesians 1:3-14 | Mark 6:14-29

Wow. Coming back to you from General Convention and revisiting the beheading of John the Baptist doesn’t quite match up with the Good News I experience. I’ve spent the nearly past two weeks being surrounded by Episcopalians from all over the world, worshipping with hundreds and, at times, thousands of others. We had a revival, folks! We sang and clapped and nearly danced at our seats not just in English. We sang in Spanish and offered prayer responses guided by our chaplain who was raised in South Africa. It was a joyous, mountaintop experience, though there were times we could tell we had a mountain to climb as we pulled ourselves through long legislative sessions and voting processes guided by parliamentary procedure. It was joyful, and I felt the presence of God in our midst in our prayers, laughter, and our being mindfully present to each other.

So I understand the story of David rejoicing in the street as he and others carried the ark of God. For them, this ark contained the actual presence of God, which makes it all the more significant for who carried it and where it was located. It was a big deal, and in their music and dancing, I feel a kinship for the rejoicing taking place.

But there’s something else in that story, too. There’s one who looks on with “disdain in her heart.” Michal, daughter of Saul, is not happy. Maybe she’s bitter that it’s not her father carrying the ark and being celebrated in the streets. The darkness of her disdain contrasts sharply to the joy surrounding the ark of God.

I sense an echo of a similar disdain in Herodias, wife of Herod, former wife of Philip his brother. John the Baptist didn’t approve of their relationship, and while Herod didn’t necessarily appreciate John the Baptist’s judgment, he somewhat protected him . . . in prison. He protected him until in an evening of joyful merry-making, he promised the dancer anything she asked for. Dutiful daughter she was, she consulted her mother who seized the opportunity to quench her disdain and kill John the Baptist. As if he had been double-dog-dared in front of all his friends, Herod granted the request of his oath rather than protect the one he knew to be holy and righteous (something he repeats with Jesus).

So where’s the Good News in this?

I commend the Epistle this week for giving us a reminder of God’s blessing to us: grace and salvation through Jesus Christ. God wants for us to live into our grace and salvation, to live into the holy and blessed ones we are created to be. This state of being is already available to us, but we tend to get so inwardly-focused that we forget that we have a life centered in Christ.

That’s easy to say, but why, then, do we get bogged down with enmity, spite, and disdain, if not outright hatred? One might say we lose our way.

You’ve probably heard Presiding Bishop Michael Curry mention the Jesus Movement, how it leads us to becoming Beloved Community, which is, after all, God’s dream for us. A movement truly involves moving, changing, maybe even transforming. Lucky for us, at this General Convention, he gave us a resource for living into a Jesus-Centered Life, and he and his evangelism team simply call it “The Way of Love.” It’s appropriate, I think, that for us to live into God’s dream asks of us to walk the Way of Love. Truly, this is the Way that Jesus showed his disciples from Day 1.

We received these handouts at worship the first night, I think it was (I’ve been to a lot of services lately!). I have a few more and can order more if you don’t get one or if you’d like to have more to share with others. These little things outline the practices for Jesus-centered living. There’s no fancy acronym: just The Way of Love.

  1. Turn – PB Curry knew it wouldn’t take if we started with “Repent,” but that’s what it means. We realize we’re losing our way, and we want to turn toward Jesus in our lives so we can live into our blessed grace and salvation. So we TURN: pause, listen, and choose to follow Jesus. I think of a tune from a Richard Scarry video my kids used to watch when they were little: “Stop, look, and listen.” When we come to an intersection, crosswalk, or crossroads, we have to stop and listen, and we make a conscious decision about where we’re headed.
  2. Learn – We’re not walking blindly. We have guidance, and we get it from reflecting on Scripture each day. If we want to live like Jesus, we have to know what that looks like, sounds like, tastes like, and maybe even smells like. What did Jesus do in his life and say in his teachings that offer us instruction?
  3. Pray – We not only ask God for help and give thanks, but we listen. We set apart time each day to dwell with God, to abide in God’s presence. We might not yet be able to pray without ceasing, but we practice prayer every day.
  4. Worship – You all know the importance of gathering weekly in community to thank, praise, and dwell with God. We come to the altar for solace and strength, courage and renewal. We offer our prayers together and experience very tangibly that we are not alone. We receive the Real Presence of Christ. I tell people all the time when they are looking for a church to “go where you feel the presence of God.” (I certainly hope you all will be back next week!)
  5. Bless – Sure, it’s the priests and bishops in the church who bless in the name of the Trinity, but we all bless one another when we share our faith and when we unselfishly give and serve as so many of you do. When we experience the joy of being in the presence of God, we almost can’t help ourselves but share that with others. On the first day of walking in downtown Austin, we were approached by a homeless man (one of many there). My companion, maybe more experience at navigating larger cities, managed to walk on, but I made eye contact at the same time he was asking for money. He had joy in his bright, light blue eyes as he said, “Hey, you see me,” and gave me a fist-bump. He proceeded to walk with us to our destination and then go on his way, but I learned a bit about Ricky as we walked, though I realize it may or may not be true (especially the part about Stevie Nicks). I hope my seeing him with light and love of Christ was more of a blessing to him than the money I gave.
  6. Go – Throughout the gospels, especially after the Resurrection, the disciples are told to GO! Several of the sermons admonished us to GO! Go outside the church and do the work of the Lord. Because we have to move; we can’t stay comfortable, even if it’s within the confines of our church. In our going, we are told to “cross boundaries, to listen deeply, and to live like Jesus.” We don’t have to go far, but it is worthwhile to go where we don’t feel comfortable. Maybe that’s volunteering at the animal shelter or food pantry, where you experience sadness or smells that you’d rather avoid. Maybe it means going to the Salvadoran restaurant that you don’t go to because they speak mostly Spanish, and you’d be the minority. Jesus was always going to the other side, talking and eating with people he wasn’t supposed to. How often do we do the same?
  7. Rest – Finally, we also have to rest, to “receive the gift of God’s grace, peace, and restoration.” Jesus would go apart from the crowd. To do good work, we have to be well-rested, restored, and whole–mind, body, and soul. It also acknowledges that God is the one who’s doing the deep work; we’re not in control. We can leave for a while, and good work continues. (There’s nothing wrong with a good, long nap when it’s needed, either. I took one Saturday afternoon when I realized how much softer my bed is than the one I’ve slept on for almost two weeks!)

These practices outline The Way of Love for us, and they’re circular, not linear. They invite us to assess where we are and begin again when we feel ourselves losing our way, maybe even experiencing a hardening heart. They’re grounded in Holy Scripture and the life of Christ, but most importantly, they’re rooted in God’s blessing, God’s dream for us. God’s dream for us is ours to be had when we walk in the Way of Love, the Way of Christ, and that’s Good News for us all.

(Be sure to click on The Way of Love link for online resources and a message from the Presiding Bishop!)

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Kingdoms & Seeds

1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 | Psalm 20 | 2 Corinthians 5:6-10,[11-13],14-17 | Mark 4:26-34

Last week I spent some time talking about Saul, and this week we hear again the story of David’s anointing. We witness again the obedience of Samuel, and we hear the not-so-common phrase that the LORD was sorry that he had chosen Saul as king. We’re also reminded that God doesn’t see as humans see, that God knows our heart. This and so many other stories in our Old Testament reveal something to us of the nature of God. These stories show us how we as people relate to the Almighty, how we are in relationship with God and how God expects us to be in relationship. It’s interesting to me to read the stories paying attention to such revelation and see how it applies or how it’s changed in our current time.

In the New Testament, particularly in our gospels, it’s likewise interesting to me to learn about what God reveals to us about the kingdom of heaven. We have the person of Jesus–God incarnate–showing us in word, example, and in his very being. In particular, the Word lingers for us in these parables that reveal to us the kingdom of heaven if we have eyes to see and ears to hear.

Today, the kingdom of heaven has something to do with the seed that’s fallen to the ground and sprouts from the earth–we know not how. It grows and bears fruit, and we are there to harvest it. It’s true: we don’t exactly understand the miracle of life, but we witness it. We know when someone is living into their gift, thriving as the child of God they’re created to be. It’s not without work, germination, discernment, and time, but it’s also the most natural thing in the world.

And the kingdom of heaven is like the mustard seed, growing from the smallest of seeds to the greatest of shrubs, bearing branches that give refuge for the birds of the air to make their nests in its shade. This is a beautiful image, one of the most concise parables we get of the kingdom (and the shortest lesson in Godly Play!). The mustard seed is tiny, about ¼ of the size of a poppy seed. While in Jerusalem, walking along the sidewalk, our guide said, “Ah, here’s a mustard tree. Who is it that wanted to see a mustard tree?” “Me!” I shouted, my hand waving in the air. It was flowering with its bright yellow flowers and looked to be relatively young, though it was taller than me, and some of the flowers had died, leaving the dried seed pods behind. I plucked one off and asked my friend to hold out his hand so I could break it open; when I did, I sprinkled the tiny black seeds into his palm.

These tiny seeds grow into the greatest of shrubs, providing a refuge, a sanctuary, for birds of the air. These birds can be looking for a new home, a safer place, better living conditions, protection from other creatures that might do them harm. They seek asylum. They find this in the kingdom of heaven.

We were told recently–in defense of the practice of separating families at the border–that the laws of government should be obeyed because they are ordained by God to fulfill God’s purpose (siting Romans 13:1). Let’s be perfectly clear here: we’re given witness of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in the gospels, and the rest of the New Testament canon is showing us how we live into our commission to go forth into the world, proclaiming the Good News, baptizing and making new disciples for Christ, being the Church. Paul gives testimony to how hard this was and continues to be. Our Scripture recognizes laws that govern. Jews lived by Torah law and had to navigate within Roman rule as well. Jesus was pretty clear in rebuking both when they trespassed God’s will, when God ceased to be first and foremost and when the people failed to love their neighbors. As Stephen Colbert was quick to point out, Romans 13:10: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” The law of the land in the kingdom is what we expect: to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Are we extending our branches as sanctuary and refuge? Are we revealing the kingdom of heaven here and now?

The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival believes that as a people united across the spectrum, we can find true center and manifest in our communities something that looks more like the kingdom of heaven and less like societies built with walls, clearly marking the haves and have-nots. The kingdom of heaven grows we know not how but has a great Love at the center of its power, and that love knows no bounds. Last week at the campaign, we rallied to the theme that “Everybody’s Got a Right to Live!” Everybody’s got a right to education, affordable housing, living wage jobs, and income. Everybody has a right to a quality of life worth living. In 30 states, folks rallied, and in Arkansas, we gathered at the steps of the capital, having been denied permission inside because of previous guideline violations. After the rally was over, there was a conscious decision made by some to stand at the capital and chant and sing, to take the message into the people’s house. We knew this wouldn’t happen. We knew that after the third warning we would likely be arrested. Ironically, it was after we were arrested that we were actually able to go into the capital and sing a song: “Somebody’s hurtin’ my brother, and it’s gone on far too long . . . and we won’t be silent any more.”

“What good does this do?” people have asked me. What point did you make? Major news media outlets weren’t there. If you aren’t on Facebook or don’t get the online newspaper articles, chances are you didn’t even know about it (unless you read our newsletter on Wednesday). For me, as a person of power and privilege in society, it’s my call out to say that I’m paying attention, to say that I’m willing to put myself out there for the least of these, to disrupt the typical order of things to point out that something isn’t right. “They’re arresting clergy now?” a friend asked me. Since the first week of the campaign; I’m not alone in this.

Still, this isn’t the way for some. At the Continuing the Conversation on Wednesday, I got the same response, similar questions, but I also shared this story I read about on Blavity:

This was one woman’s response in a situation that could have gone entirely different. Further in her feed and comments, she said she looked at the security guard who was watching them, and she shook her head as if to say: “Not today. You don’t get them today.” Instead of letting them get caught or turning them in, sending them right on down the pipeline, she spoke to them. She asked them questions. They are 13 and 14 years old. They needed the deodorant for practice but didn’t want to burden their fixed-income grandmother, who is their guardian since their mother died. They hugged Nanasia and cried. She gave them her name and phone number in case they ever needed a Big Sis or Auntie again.

This is an example of a different kind of direct action, an act of kindness made at a very personal, intimate level. You still don’t know what the long-term effects are: maybe one of those kids will grow up to be president or a Big Brother. Maybe when he’s older he’ll see a kid in distress and give him a hand up.

We’re always scattering seeds. We can’t know exactly how they’ll grow. We won’t all be mustard trees, thankfully. Creation shows us great diversity that provides sanctuary in all kinds of ways. But we’re all given gifts, talents, treasures, and choice. How we use them makes all the difference. If you’re struggling to know whether you’re on the right track, set your mind on the kingdom of heaven, and in prayer, ask yourself if it rings true of love of God and love of neighbor.

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How’s Your Heart?

1 Samuel 8:4-20, 11:14-15 | Psalm 138 | 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1 | Mark 3:20-35

When someone asks, “How are you doing?” or more likely, “How ya doin’?” What’s the common response? . . . It’s usually “Fine,” right? Maybe we even return the question to make sure everything’s “fine” for them, too. Do we really believe them? Chances are we don’t believe them because we know full well we’re not telling the full truth; we’re just giving them the short, socially acceptable response so we can save the full answer for our next counseling session. And that’s okay and actually preferred because we’re all carrying around our stuff. (I think that’s why we like our pets so much because their lives remind us to remember the basics of what keep us alive.)

If we think about it, we’re simultaneously functioning at many levels: within Creation, as part of humanity, in a nation, as part of community/work/tribe, within our family, and as ourselves, as an individual. So when someone asks us if we’re fine, it might take a while to do a thorough reality check. Maybe when we say “fine,” what we really mean is that we’re coping alright with everything we’re dealing with. Maybe that’s what I mean. 😉

Our gospel reading for today captures these levels pretty well. At least as a reader of Mark’s gospel, we somewhat have an understanding of who Jesus is. He is born in the flesh as human. As a Jew, we know he’s part of the nation of Israel. He’s surrounded by community of his choosing and those who have chosen him, either as friend or foe. He is associated with a particular family, though as a person it gets complicated, being the Son of God and all.

Do you notice that it’s not recorded that anyone ever asks Jesus how he’s doing?

He does get a lot of accusations thrown his way, though, among those that he’s aligned with Satan, using the power of the devil to cast out demons.

Jesus, as part of his response, says that a kingdom, a house divided against itself cannot stand. I know he says more, but let’s take that right there: “if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.”

Jesus gives us a good rule here by which to measure ourselves with a sincere reality check. How’s our house doing? On all levels.

Creation: Our stewardship is showing weakness as ecology groans under our constant demand and pressure.

Humanity: All God’s children. We’re not all doing okay. We’re only as strong as the weakest link, so we have work to do. I’m going to the Poor People’s Campaign: A Call for Moral Revival on Monday, and the theme is “Everybody’s Got a Right to Live.” It’s a reminder that education, a living wage job, housing, and income are things everyone needs to live. This is going to look differently around the world, but it’s how we express it here. I think we can all agree that education is power, and empowering people to live whole lives in their environs is transformational.

Nation: I just got back from traveling between nations, touching ground in England (albeit briefly), and traveling between Israel and Palestine. Coming home, I smell the sweet air and enjoy my place of privilege and power in the world. Yet within our nation, we’re wrestling with other nations, with peoples from other nations. As a US citizen, my leaders are identifiable by others. Are we a house united? How strong are we? Who do we consider allies? What motives govern us?

Community/work/tribe: So readily do we identify with people like ourselves, that our sense of community is often defined by where we live, with whom we work and associate. This is pretty selective, so this can be where we feel strongest. North of Nazareth is a place called Nazareth Ilit (i-l-i-t). Any time I had heard it mentioned, I thought they were saying “Nazareth Elite.” In a way, they were. I asked a cab driver what “ilit” meant. He didn’t define it for me, seeming to wrestle with the translation, but he told me it’s where the religious orthodox live, so where the rabbis and more conservative would live. It feels safe to surround hunker down in the security of “our people,” doesn’t it?

Family: God help us. Our families are complicated before we are born, so let’s just trust that dysfunction is the norm, and we all need Jesus in this department . . . and his family calls him the one who’s out of his mind!

Ourselves: Be gentle here. How’s your house, your self doing? Have you even checked in lately because there’s been so much attention at all the other levels? Ultimately, for each of us, all of the levels come to a fine point within us. How’s your heart? How’s your will? How firm is the foundation of your house? How great is your faith?

God bless you if you’re at 100%: I’ll sit down and listen at your feet. But I’m guessing that right now, we’re listening and praying together.

We see Jesus, followed by a crowd because he’s got it all together, and we want what he’s got. He’s showing us the way. At the leadership talk given this past week through the Head & Heart luncheon for the women’s shelter, Alex Cottrell from Milestone Leadership said the only way to break our own pattern of thinking, our perpetuation of our prejudices, is to surround ourselves with people different from ourselves. I don’t think Jesus had to worry about his prejudices much, but I think being surrounded by the imperfect, the disenfranchised–and seeking them out–kept our imperfection, our absolute need for grace ever-present. And we want/ need to keep seeing God’s work manifest before us. Jesus makes the whole unconditional-love-follow-God’s-will look easy. Everyone’s a beloved child of God, without boundary; they just have to believe to experience the love, liberation, and life God promises. All the levels are perfectly contained within the heart of Christ, the heart of God.

More often than not, Saul is more familiar to me. For him, I imagine, the notion of a human family is pretty abstract, as it’s easier to focus on God’s chosen people as the only ones who matter. We’re united as a people in one nation; our tribes are our community, identified in our work and where we live; and our birth families are so entwined with who we are in our place in our tribe that who I am as a person is pretty insignificant, unless I bring shame to my family. If something happens to disrupt the order in which I understand the world to work, it might be too much for me. I might hold onto my ego, my agenda, my worldview, even if God’s will and way are being revealed to me, and I might interpret my consequences as God’s punishment and disfavor. It’s easier to blame God and everyone and everything else than it is honestly to face the error of my ways.

Between Saul and Jesus Christ, we have the words of Paul coming to us: “do not lose heart.”

God gives Saul a new heart after he was anointed king, before he was proclaimed king to the people. On Saul’s way back home, we’re told in Ch. 10 that “As he turned away to leave Samuel, God gave him another heart” (1Sam 10:9). Don’t you know God knew Saul would need all the help he could get. Saul needed the power of God within him. Psalm 51 (v. 11) comes to mind for me: “Create in me a clean heart, O God,/and renew a right spirit within me.” If I’m going to do the work God has given me to do, I need a new, clean heart and a right spirit. I need to check myself to make sure my way forward isn’t obstructed by all the things I want or by all the things I don’t want to do.

What we don’t want to do is just as significant as what we don’t want. When Saul is going to be identified by Samuel to the tribes, he actually hides among the baggage or equipment. He’s tall, so for him not to be seen, he has to be crouching down, literally hiding. We do this, right: hide from that which we know we can do?

And I want to say that after his initial hesitation and rough start that Saul turned out to be a great king, thanks be to God, but that’s not how it goes. Saul never really gets out of his own way, never fully heeds the directions given him by God, and ultimately he loses God’s favor and grows in his jealousy of David. Maybe you know, too, that he takes his own life after being wounded in battle so that he doesn’t die at the hand of the enemy; at least, that’s what the text and commentary says.

In a week when suicides stream across headlines and tv banners, we must be cautioned not to over-simplify reasons why someone takes their own life. What we do know is that we have free will, and we don’t always choose the best path for ourselves. Paul’s words ring true to us, reminding us of the life, the house of grace we have through Christ that is unseen by our temporal sight but is eternal in our spiritual nature. That grace extends to all, “so we do not lose heart.”

If each of us have a heart touched by God and a conscience intent to align our will with God’s, that new world ordered by Love will be revealed, justice will roll down like water, and valleys will be made high and mountains low. That worldview from the heart of Christ will give us the mind of Christ, and we’ll be too busy loving our neighbor, blessing one another, sharing in our abundance, empowering one another to reduce ourselves creating barriers to stop the flow of God’s grace and love.

I can imagine this. I have hope. If I can imagine it, remember, then there’s still reason for hope. If I have love of God and neighbor at the front and center, then I can pretty sure that my will is aligned with God’s, and where there’s a will, God help us, there’s a way. Amen? It’s going to seem complicated at all levels, and it’s going to be disruptive. This is how we know we’re praying well, when the plans we make get caught up in the wind of Spirit and land back to us all disrupted and aligned with God’s will. But grounded in the presence of Christ, nothing feels stronger or more right, and we do not lose heart–it’s been given to us with grace and love.

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Come, Holy Spirit!

Acts 2:1-21 | Romans 8:22-27 | Psalm 104:25-35, 37 | John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Blaise Pascal, I’m reminded, “was a (17th century) French mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer, and Catholic theologian,” as described on Wikipedia. I sought the refresher on a familiar name because I read a little story about him that said he “kept a folded piece of paper with him, a note sewn into a hidden pocket in his coat. Scribbled on the page were intimate truths about God, including this line: ‘Christ will be in agony until the end of the world.’” The author, Isaac Villegas, a pastor of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, adds “that (Christ’s) agony is love.” Pascal titled the note: The Mystery of Jesus.

Last week I emphasized that at the Last Supper that stretches out in the Gospel of John (also containing today’s reading), Jesus pours out his love for the disciples, and that he had to leave them was not without all the emotions and sentiments of self-sacrificing love–like a loving mother not wanting to be separated from her child. Villegas says that what Pascal identified as truth was that though Christ was glorified, ascended to the throne of God, he bears the agony, the anguish of “an unbearable separation from his beloved, his life straining toward his disciples on earth, his body pressing through eternity and reaching for communion with us.” Apparently the mystery of Jesus is his enduring love for us. And that love has no boundaries. Thanks to the Holy Spirit, this mysterious love is brought to us, be it in a violent wind or sighs too deep for words.

You know I’m not going to get through this without mentioning the Royal Wedding. I hope you watched at least the sermon offered by Presiding Bishop Michael Curry (or at least listened to the music). Truly, I hoped you watched the whole thing, as it was a glorious celebration in our tradition, and it was full of faith, hope, and love. In a week marked by tragedy again in our schools, a horrible plane crash, and any number of tragic turn of events, for a little while we’re reminded of something more than death and suffering. Bishop Curry seized the moment for the glory of God by shining his light on Love, love that has the power to heal the world, to bring about a new world. Knowing he’s preaching to leaders and the powerful, he asks them and the commoners listening from afar if we can think of or imagine neighborhoods ruled by love, communities governed by love, corporations, institutions, nations leading in the way of love. He spoke about the power humans obtained when we learned to harness fire and how when we truly discover love and the power it holds, it will be the second greatest discovery for humankind. It makes sense that so often love is compared to fire: love is as powerful, burns as brightly, and can be all-consuming.

Love is powerful, and perhaps love, like fire, needs room to breathe.

Had Jesus stayed in one place for all time in one form, how constrictive would that be to the Gospel? In Jesus’s leaving and promise of sending the Advocate, what was accomplished? Jesus said he would be betrayed and die and rise again, and he did. Jesus said he would be going to the Father but would send an Advocate, and he did. Jesus promises not to leave us comfortless, and here we are . . . wondering, doubting, not knowing. We hear the familiar story of the wind and the languages, but maybe we think it’s just that: a story.

Fortunately, our tradition is full of stories; it’s our narrative. From this narrative, our tradition pulls the great Truths, especially how we understand God’s love.

And God’s love is disruptive, especially in its full power, especially when two or three are gathered in the name of Jesus Christ.

Martin Luther King, Jr., knew it; it’s him that Bp. Curry quoted. The black and white men and women who gathered at Azusa Street in 1906 that birthed American Pentecostalism, so overwhelmed with Spirit they were that the nation’s segregated order fell away to a “holy, insurgent communion.” These revolutionaries rose up. They found a power that even if they couldn’t harness, they could tap into the power. The power was love, fueled by the fire of Holy Spirit. And it might look like we’re drunk on new wine, so disorienting can the holy experience of divine love and spirit be, even at 9 in the morning. And when we get caught up in the Holy Spirit, we might get really excited and be going ninety-to-nothing toward something we don’t know for certain. But we’re tethered to Jesus Christ in a solid relationship. We’re firm in our foundation as a child of God, bound to God in love. And so Spirit can come and blow like a mighty wind and bestow upon us gifts that help us build beloved community, a new world . . . even if it disrupts the status quo.

We don’t always know what will happen when we’re feeling faithful and brave and sincerely pray, “Come, Holy Spirit! God’s will be done.” Yet we can be assured that more often than not the next thoughts are, “What have I done?” We get caught up in the power of God’s love, the momentum of the power of the Holy Spirit and lose ourselves, maybe, for a bit.

Maybe that’s the point: to lose ourselves in love of God, to let go of our certainty long enough to give Spirit a little breathing room and some space to flourish without trying to fit into the constraints of our realm of what is safe, practical, and not terribly uncomfortable. As Bishop Curry and Archbishop Welby said in an interview after the Royal Wedding, there’s nothing conventional about Christianity. If it seems so disruptive, maybe we need to think of what’s happened to the power of love in our tradition. Where do we feel it stirring today? Is it your own love and yearning for Christ that guides you now? Or is there something burning within, something only you can do? It could be that you’re given the language someone else needs to hear . . . or the idea, or task, or witness. But rest assured, God is with us. God loves us, and all of our beating hearts here today were made for this: we’re made to love, fiercely and fearlessly.

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On Hope

Acts 3:12-19 | Psalm 4 | 1 John 3:1-7 | Luke 24:36b-48

Have you ever noticed how long it takes you to really ingest the meaning of something? At home, we’re super fond of The Series of Unfortunate Events, and the author Lemony Snickett, narrates throughout the story, and is prone to providing not only definitions of more sophisticated words but also the meanings of idioms like being in “the belly of the beast.” Snickett always forewarns how horrible the story is and how we should really look away rather than watch the tragedy unfold, and in the last episode of the second season, he says that the phrase “the belly of the beast” will be repeated three times, which it is.

On a far different note, what I’ve heard distinctly at least three times here of late, has to do with hope. I know, it’s Easter, the season of Resurrection: of course I’ve heard about hope.

But listen with me.

When I was at the Cultivating an Interfaith Mindset in Rural Arkansas gathering in Conway, Teri Daily, the priest now at All Saints’ in Russellville, shared again the story of how St. Peter’s in Conway got involved in a project in Syria, supporting a school there through The Wisdom House Project primarily under the leadership of Mouaz Moustafa. Through his contacts in Syria, he was able to get supplies to the teachers and thus the students, and they were actually able to video conference so they could communicate as directly as possible with the donors here in Arkansas. It’s amazing, really, and Teri shared how meaningful it was and is that they were able to do something so directly impactful on a horrible situation that we know has only gotten worse. In fact, the school the group supported had to close in its previous location due to bombing, yet they regrouped, meeting in various smaller locations and homes, very much an underground system. In all of this, what stands out to me most is this: Teri said that the Syrians were most grateful to know that someone in the West cared. She said they repeatedly said, “Thank you. Thank you.” They so emphatically thanked them because they had been told by the regime that no one cared, that they were forgotten by those on the outside, by the Western world (a hub of civilization and affluence). The regime was attempting to extinguish their hope, going as far as dropping flyers that told them as much. If the people fell into despair, they would lose all hope, and they would stop trying to resist. But … if they had signs that someone cared, tokens of recognition, then there was still hope, still a chance that things could be different, that they might survive the present horror.

That was during Lent that I heard the story again. Then comes Holy Week and Easter.

All the hope of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, that Jesus was the one that would completely turn the tables of oppression, was crucified with Jesus on the cross. “Here’s your king,” the sign above Jesus mocked to those who had been “foolish” enough to follow him, to hope for the kingdom of which he spoke. Throughout Jesus’ life, he met people where they were, in their pain and suffering, their oppression or ostracization, and he saw them and ignited that spark of hope that there could be another way, a way that empowered them, too, with a role in manifesting a society, a world, where they mattered, where they were valued. In this scriptural raising the valleys and lowering mountains, it also meant that those in power were also called out on their hypocrisy and complicity. It stung those in power when Jesus addressed them, and we get a sense of the discomfort again in Peter’s words to those who advocated for Jesus’s crucifixion. But that’s not the end of the story, even for those who shouted “Crucify him!” There’s hope because death was not the end of Jesus Christ. There truly is a way to life everlasting. The images Jesus painted of the kingdom of heaven reveal for us–in a way we can understand it–of God’s dream for humanity. And the powers that be in this world are not strong enough to annihilate that dream for us.

And then there’s the lecture at Crystal Bridges, where Patrisse Kahn-Cullors, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, addresses a full audience. I went because Black lives do matter. I went because I’m so increasingly aware of the inequity in our society. I went because I see so many Episcopalians there, even ones who may not be here at services. Her 45 minutes went too quickly. She spoke briefly about being an artist. She spoke mostly about working with others to make viral and public what was happening to black-skinned folks at the hands of the people who are supposed to protect and serve them or what’s happening to them once they’re within the not-so-seemingly just justice system. She spoke again about art and imagination. And she said that if you want to annihilate a people, if you want to dehumanize a person, you kill their imagination . . . because without imagination they have no hope. They see no other way. The way things are become the way things are, and the stop and frisk and shouting and yelling and drug war and violence and innocent murders and invisibility are normalized.

As if this wouldn’t have been enough of a moving presentation, I bought her book on impulse and have been engrossed in it, in her life. The book’s called When They Call You a Terrorist. As I read and remember and think on the way things are, I realize that most people would understand if Patrisse had lost hope, if she were numb or immobilized. But thank God for her persistent imagination, her persistent faith, her dedication to love. Her hope endures, and because she can imagine a different future, she has goals that give her actions. In Ethics of Hope Jürgen Moltmann says, “If we hope for an alternative future, we shall already change things now as far as possible in accord with that.” Patrisse, who has studied not only art but also theology and community organizing, knows this. She knows it in her very being.

And so do we, as Easter people. We know there will be times or powers that be that try our souls, but we have hope. Sometimes it’s harder to sustain, but it’s in our very being. It’s ignited when we’re in the presence of that which reminds us of the presence of Christ. Like when the disciples realized that their hearts burned within them as the risen yet unrecognized Jesus opened the Scripture to them as they walked toward Emmaus. Like when we stand in the midst of our friends and neighbors, united in a common cause for a greater good–be that a march or rally or at a bedside in the hospital. Hope is a part of the very air we breathe as I think of Jesus giving the breath of the Holy Spirit to the disciples as described in the Gospel according to John. Jesus brought forth a new Way and gives us the power to carry on to fulfill God’s dream for us.

Even if we find ourselves in “the belly of the beast,” we have our Christian hope–the same today as it was for the martyrs of old. While we–I pray–don’t have to worry about the threat of the horrors of the arena, we are at risk of being consumed by injustice, lethargy, and apathy, the things that may very well be direct opposites of faith, hope, and love. But our Christian hope, grounded in our bond and affection with and for the divine imagination, yearns for beloved community in which all abide in love, where righteousness and peace kiss each other, and where love meets our fears, anxieties, and worries, and with full faith says, “Peace be with you,” the same words Jesus greets the disciples with and still speaks in our hearts and minds today.

 

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Written on our Hearts

Jeremiah 31:31-34 | Psalm 51:1-13 | Hebrews 5:5-10 | John 12:20-33

On this fifth Sunday in Lent, it seems like being so far into the wilderness journey that I should be bowing my head parched in penitence, wearing my sackcloth and ashes. Especially revisiting Psalm 51, the same psalm we recite as we receive the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday. But I got to attend an ordination this weekend, and to me those services are nearly as joyful as baptisms. I get giddy with joy, even though I know the life in ministry is full of its own trials and tribulations. The bishop ordained six new deacons into the church, one of whom was our own Greg Warren, and it was a delight, honor, and privilege to serve as one of his presenters, alongside Mark. This solemn-joyful contrast reminded me of the video I sent out along with the newsletter this week, the one where Jesus needs some time alone and embarks on the forty days in the desert. Along his way, halfway through, he finds a flower, another day he chases birds, gazes at the sunset, or whistles with a bird. These are portrayed as pleasant experiences, in sharp contrast to the circling vultures, chapped lips, and tests of Satan.

Just because we’re going through a season of acknowledging our sins, of recounting the commandments, of bowing before the Lord in prayer . . . this doesn’t mean that there won’t also be moments of wonder, delight, awe, and even joy. This is life, right? If you’ve ever gone on a strict diet or done a cleanse (I’ve only really done it once or twice), after the first three days of feeling really yucky, there’s a sense of clarity that arrives with being more healthy.

Having let go of that which we don’t need, there’s a lightness and new perspective that’s especially focused around that which we really need.

The Greeks on their way to a festival decided they needed to see Jesus. They did what any of us would do: they go up to someone like them who has a connection to the one they seek. Philip then goes to Andrew, and then they go to Jesus who then says the time has come and again remarks about the kind of death he would die. We don’t know if the Greeks got to see Jesus, but something about their seeking was enough to signify to Jesus that the time was ripe, that his mission was drawing near to completion. For no longer was it just the inner circles who were hearing the message of Jesus; news about the new Way was touching the hearts and minds of others. There was a desire to see Jesus.

When I think about where desire comes from, I think it comes from somewhere deep within. I think of desire as a yearning of the heart. For those of us who just can’t stay away from the church even when we’ve gotten mad or doubted or just wanted to be lazy on Sunday morning, maybe we feel a connection to the Israelites upon whose hearts the LORD had written the law so that God would ever be their God and they God’s people. This was a new covenant for the Israelites because it focused on an internal knowing and God’s forgiveness–not a new law but a new covenant, one that indicated an inward transformation of the human heart that (would) allow the people to know God intimately and to be obedient to the commandments.” This sounds strikingly familiar to us Christians who believe God sent Jesus Christ to bring us a new covenant that transforms the lives of those who believe and commands us to love.

If only we could read what was written on each of our hearts, what the mark of our Creator has spoken to each of us.  How many layers of barriers do you think we need to peel away before we get to a place where we not only recognize with our minds but truly know in our heart, in our being, that we are not only created with love, commanded to love but also worthy of love?

How different do you think our society would be if we lived into what is written upon our hearts?

We’re wrapping up Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy this week in our Lenten Soup and Study (so if you haven’t been and want to see what that’s like, this is your last chance!). Last week we discussed the chapter titled “Mother, Mother,” which shared stories of women who had been incarcerated, separated from their children. This is tough, painful material. Particularly we focused on the story of Marsha. Marsha and her husband both worked but still didn’t have enough to make ends meet. They lived with their six children in a FEMA trailer, their house having been destroyed by a hurricane. The trailer was right by their ruined home so they could keep the kids in the same schools, for these are devoted parents, determined not to fall back into a life destroyed by addiction. Stevenson captures beautifully the love and devotion Marsha has for her children: what she can’t provide for them monetarily, she makes up for in her love and affection, spending time with the children, reading and playing with them, staying clean and sober. When she finds out that she is pregnant, she does what many a poor mother has done and sacrificed her healthcare rather than deprive the rest of the family. She figures she’s been pregnant many times before and pretty much knows what to expect. She would love this child as much as her others. Without prenatal care, however, she missed or ignored the warning signs that her pregnancy showed complications. On a particularly tiresome day she went to soak in the tub of their previous home that still had water . . . only she was met with a fierce and quick preterm labor, and she birthed her stillborn child. She loved the baby instantly and grieved its loss. The family mourned together and held a burial for it at their home. But we know there’s no rest for the weary. Life marched on for them.

But a neighbor . . . a neighbor noticed that Marsha, who had been pregnant, was no longer pregnant, and there wasn’t an infant in sight.

If this were the case for one of our neighbors, mightn’t we wonder what had happened? Wouldn’t we take a deep breath to fortify ourselves and approach our neighbor to gently ask how she’s doing, what happened? I certainly hope I’d be brave enough to ask directly.

But that’s not what the neighbor did. The neighbor reported her to the authorities who came out and searched the place, took pictures of an unflushed toilet and a beer can which was used to testify to the improper, unclean living environment. The baby’s body was exhumed and examined by a fraud of a pathologist who declared that had there been medical attention at the birth, the child would have lived (this wasn’t the case, as determined by credible doctors who testified). But Marsha ended up serving ten years in prison before Stevenson helped her get released. Ten years of being separated from her children. (Children of incarcerated parents are so much more likely to end up drug addicted and/or incarcerated themselves.) One of our study group questions was “who was the most guilty one in Marsha’s case?” We unanimously agreed that it was the neighbor. Instead of showing an ounce of concern or compassion, she had made a judgment that ended up dividing a family, sending them into a wilderness more harsh than the one they were already traversing. She didn’t bother to ask what happened, to know Marsha’s story, to even get a glimpse at what was written on her heart. Lest we be quick to decide that this neighbor was just one of those gossipy women who has her nose in everyone’s business, we don’t know her story, either, what pains and hurts she carries that has blinded her to the call for compassion and love of neighbor. Maybe she thought what she needed to do was make sure that someone else was following the law of the land, blind to the command on her own heart that comes from God.

How well are we listening to the true desire of our heart–not the superficial ones that we mask with whatever makes us feel good in the moment but the deep desire that pulls us in the direction of Christ? Following this desire will definitely lead us into the wilderness where we will have to make choices on whether we hide and build up more barriers or let go and persist along the Way, calling out to God to “Create in me a clean heart . . . and renew a right spirit within me” (Ps. 51:11). It is the clean heart and right spirit that guides us with clarity toward what is written on our heart, that delights in the joyful even amidst the darkness, and that keeps us tethered on our way to seeing Jesus in everyone around us. It’s also this clean heart and right spirit that we’re refining throughout Lent that painfully become part of the crowd who shout, “Crucify him!” in the Passion Narrative. We’re working so hard, dear Christians, to seek Jesus, to see him in our neighbors. Let us not forget how easy it is to slip into darkness and judgment and be the mob quick to crucify and to deny the message of love written on our heart.

 

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His Mercy Endures Forever

Numbers 21:4-9 | Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 | Ephesians 2:1-10 | John 3:14-21

Our Fourth Sunday in Lent finds us drawing nearer to the Passion of our Lord, when he will, inevitably, be lifted up on a cross. In our Gospel, Jesus foretells his end and purpose by recalling the familiar-to-the-Jews story of the Israelites in the wilderness who were struck by the snakes but saved by God through belief in God, demonstrated by their belief in the bronze serpent on the staff.

“Moses and the Brazen Serpent on a Pole” by Hoet (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

This might be confusing to us because we’re fairly certain God prohibited false images of God. Rest assured that the bronze image wasn’t of God but of a snake Moses cast at God’s command. God once again gave an instruction to the people, and those who heeded the words did something in particular–in this case, looked upon the staff–and were healed of their malady. Once again, it’s God’s word that’s at work here. Neither Moses nor the staff are doing the healing; it’s God who is doing the work. The people are given the opportunity to heed God’s word, given the opportunity to believe in God and thus remain in covenant with God. Now, in this case, their life is literally on the line. If they don’t look upon the staff, they’re going to die from their bites. One might say they’re not really given any option, but their decision carries a lot of weight, making it a powerful story of survival. When the Jews are recounting the journey through the wilderness, when Paul recounts it to his audience, the failure of the people at this point in the story remains one of those vivid moments when they failed in their obeisance to God. “There’s no food or water,” they complain, “along with “We detest this miserable food.” Ah, so there is food; you just don’t like it. (There’s a distinct shortage of short-order chef gods in the desert, apparently.) What did they expect? They’ve been delivered from slavery, released from their bondage under pharoah, and now they’re discovering deeper levels of their bondage, the many ways they can displease God. But all is not lost because they are given a way to be healed, to be saved from death.

Even when people anger God, as our psalmist proclaims, “His mercy endures forever.” Even when the Israelites have gone astray again, “He sent forth his word and healed them/and saved them from the grave.” Do we realize the profundity of the fact that God’s “mercy endures forever”? Mercy, dear folks, isn’t forgiving with a blind eye or foolish love. Mercy is seeing what the trespass is, naming it, seeing the suffering that both led to the trespass and resulted from it, and still recognizing the person as a beloved child of God, worthy of grace and redemption. We humans aren’t always good at it, but God’s mercy endures forever.

I say we humans are bad at it because there’s a small group of us who have been reading Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy during Lent. I’ve mentioned before that my faith in Christ is way up there, but my faith in humanity struggles to stay on the chart: this book reminds me why my view of humanity gets low. The discriminatory and sometimes outright illegal way certain folks get channeled into the prison system appalls me: pray for those who have various shades of brown skin and those who are poor. That we confine people behind walls and bars because we don’t know how to deal with them and then continue to punish them because they don’t understand or physically can’t follow the “rules” appalls me: pray for those who struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health illnesses. That we say we value the sanctity of life yet tear families apart, inadequately provide physical and mental healthcare, and execute people . . . that appalls me: pray for the human family.

That God knew the Word made flesh would walk among us and ultimately be crucified by us and for us . . . that amazes me. “His mercy endures forever.”

The Son of Man must “be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life, . . . that the world might be saved through him.”

God didn’t have to send serpents when Jesus walked the earth. We were already destroying ourselves. We needed a beacon of light bright enough to shed light upon the error of our ways and save us from our self-destruction, evil’s favorite way to work. Either set us up for self-destruction or set us up to think we’ve got it all under control and don’t need God: either way works to get us off track and turned away from God and on the path of sin. Forget about love of God, of neighbor, and true love of self. Let’s just focus on what we want to do and what works best for me, gives me power, makes me feel good. This kind of thinking led to Jesus getting mad enough to overturn the tables in the temple. This way of life affirmed to Jesus that his life would have to be lifted up on a cross to save us from our way of sin, our disobedience to God. The way of sin leads to death, and Jesus brought to us the way of life.

We know that Jesus triumphs over death and makes sure the way of reconciliation and redemption is open to all who believe in him. (Thank God!) In our tradition we have the cross alone and not the crucifix because we focus on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus: Jesus doesn’t stay on the cross forever. But we can’t ignore that part of the Paschal mystery. That Jesus died by crucifixion is part of our story. Without the Love and all its mercy and grace embodied in the death of Christ, we on our own would be swallowed in darkness. Left on our own, we’re not all that different from the Israelites in the wilderness, being attacked by all manner of toxicity, certain to die.

Last week, the collect said we have no power within ourselves to save ourselves. This week, it’s the belief in Jesus Christ that saves us, that feed us to give us life–his life in us and ours in him. I don’t know if you sense the urgency of the imperative we have to get out of our “me-first” thinking. Fifteen years ago it seemed almost new-agey, speaking of the ego and the True Self, and then even in terms of Christian spirituality it seems kind of mystical or elitist to think of being one with God or to embody the Christ-mind. But here’s where I’m at with this . . . and it’s not even monetary greed that I’m thinking of today, though it’s still at the back of my mind. I read an article in The New York Times (“Suicides, Drug Addiction and High School Football”). Please note that this contains material that is both violent and heart-wrenching.

In the article, it describes an idyllic town of about 12,000 on the National Historic Register with a lovely Main Street. Tourists come and go. But this journalist was approached by a waitress who heard him giving an interview.

She checked over her shoulder to see if anyone was listening. There was an urgency in her whisper as she said: “I lost my son last month. He hung himself from a tree in our yard and shot himself in the head. I cut him down myself, with my own hands. So many suicides.” She wiped away tears. “We need your help,” she said.

The shadow that’s coming to light is that this pretty little town is drowning in suicide, depression, drug abuse and addiction (remember, the opioid crisis has been declared a national emergency), and child neglect. Of course, all these are inter-related. Of course, no one really wants these things to come into full light. It might hurt tourism and businesses. And really, everything seems like it should be fine on the surface because people are working and employed (if they’re not in rehab or prison). They live in a nice place and have work. Kids are in school . . . but they’re killing themselves.

The article highlights that the football team, that hasn’t garnered a trophy in over 20 years, is an oasis for the players. The football team gives them a family when most of the time the parents are working one or two jobs (if they’re not in rehab or prison). It gives them something to focus on when they’re struggling with the grief of losing a sibling or friend to drugs or death. The coach of the team says it’s not the wins he’s focused on as much as it is staying a role model and a contact for the kids. The coach’s brother had been a heroin addict.

This is a sad, sad article. It’s a sad article because it portrays what is in Madison, Indiana. It’s sad because it reveals the suffering of our neighbors. It’s sad to me, mostly, because it ends without resolution. A light is shone on a crime scene, and all the death, evil, despair is in full view.

This is a sad article because I feel like it could have been written here. If we’re honest. With serpents of stress and anxiety nipping at everyone’s heels to perform their best, look their best, do their best “or else” be cast aside . . . or maybe there’s not even a chance of living up to expectations or getting out of the cycle of pain, so why not use whatever it is that numbs the pain this time and a little more next time . . . and if I’ve given up on myself, I can’t stand to think about the kids, so I’ll neglect them, too, and there’s not even a shred of evidence of God in my life, so why should I bother?

If you wake up with an inkling of purpose or joy or hope in your life, blessed one, give thanks and stay strong. And if you believe in Jesus Christ, then you better give God a wink of thanks and get to work not only shining the light in the darkness but sharing that which sustains you. Share the bread that feeds you. You come to this altar and are fed with the Bread of Life. You believe you have received grace upon grace, that God’s mercy endures forever, that the Holy Spirit has given you the power to share the love of God in this time and place. Some part of you believes that, or you wouldn’t be here. And a friend of mine said recently that we should be exhausted and panting as we race back to church on Sunday because we are so depleted from sharing Jesus with others that we can’t wait to be refilled and renewed, receiving more of the Word of God and the Bread of Life so that we can go back out and share some more. “If we’re not, then what are we doing?” she asked, almost sadly.

The critical point is this: the whole “me-first” thinking isn’t working for us; it didn’t for the Israelites, and it isn’t working for us now. As Christian monotheists, we put God first, and we believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior. As people who walk a way of Life, Light, and Love, we have the power to share that with others, not to abuse them with it but to shine the Light their way and see if and how Christ might work in the midst of those gathered in that moment. Look in your pew. Anyone missing? Maybe reach out to them, or let me know to reach out to them. Have you talked to your neighbor lately? Have you voted? Have you called your relative out of state? Are you praying for the nation and the world? You have Jesus in your life. We know the pain and suffering he endured for us, and it was no match for his mercy . . .

 . . . for his mercy endures forever.

 

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