“Running to Obtain Your Promises”

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22 | Psalm 124  | James 5:13-20 | Mark 9:38-50

What I love about longer road trips, be it to Little Rock or even farther to Sewanee, is the ability to ponder for greater lengths of time in relative silence. For these trips it’s often the Scripture that provides fuel for thought. First thoughts for this Sunday hovered around a question inspired by our Collect. “Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure.” “Running to obtain your promises.” Well, what “promises” are we running toward? I don’t argue that most of us are “running.” We’re always running somewhere, and more often than I like, I’m often running late. But am I running toward God’s promises?

Am I running toward eternal life and salvation in Christ? Are you? What does that even look like?

I spent time Wednesday and Thursday in the seminary setting for the annual DuBose lectures and alumni gathering. In Sewanee, the skies were characteristically gray, accompanied by rain that went from drizzle to downpour to flash flood warnings (alerting us to those who hadn’t silenced their phones). Dr. Charles Marsh’s lectures began a three-year focus on racial reconciliation for the lecture series. I confess that I marveled that I hadn’t heard of him before, though the work that he does hits all the marks of someone striving for social justice, particularly in the field of race relations and theology. After the final lecture Thursday, I didn’t really know what to ask or say to him, but I felt compelled at least to say hello and to introduce myself. I told him we have a Continuing the Conversation group that meets once a month to talk about racism and white supremacy. He wants to know more and gave me his email address so we can be in touch. I realized I wanted him to know that there are those of us outside academic settings who are doing the field work he enjoys and deems necessary as we heal and build relationships across divides.

While he spoke about Nazi Germany in the time of Dietrich Bonhoeffer or White Southern Christians in the time of Martin Luther King, Jr., I had the story from Esther in the back of my mind. The query of the king, Esther’s petition, Harbona’s advocacy, and the hanging of Haman on the gallows intended for Mordecai, all unfold around a story of a people oppressed and justice sought and served. Mordecai spreads the news, the need for remembrance and celebration. The psalm reiterates the gratitude of a chosen people helped by their God, “maker of heaven and earth.”

The story and the psalm support an us-them dichotomy. The us-them mentality fuels prejudice, oppression, racism. We’re the good ones, the chosen ones, the right ones, and THEY are outsiders. They are wrong, different, bad, unknown, and outside our understanding. Whichever side we’re coming from, we want God on our side. Surely God’s anger is abated like the king’s when the guilty party hangs on the gallows, right? Surely, justice is served. Or is it?

In our gospel lesson today, John righteously tells Jesus that he was standing up for him when there’s this “other” exorcist casting out demons in the name of Jesus. “We told him to stop,” for this “other” person isn’t one of us, a part of the disciple crowd we’re familiar with. Jesus’ response isn’t a question of “why did you do that?” Jesus simply tells him and the others not to do that, not to stop someone who is actually healing in his name. Doing good in the name of Jesus Christ bears its own reward, and that goodness can’t be reversed or gone against. Let it be.

Then our gospel lesson continues with Jesus going on to talk about when things are bad. This is one of those times when I kind of wish I had skipped reading the footnotes so I wouldn’t be reminded of what the meaning is thought to be. I want to skip it because talking about sexual morality tends to make people uncomfortable, but our study Bible calls this section “temptations to sin.” Jesus admonishes sexual misconduct against children specifically and sexual transgressions generally. There were Jewish laws familiar to his contemporaries. Jesus warns them, lest they continue in sin and go to hell, “where your worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.”

Dr. Marsh also spoke about sin, of course, in his talk about race relations. He shared one description of sin that was something like “inappropriate relationship with another for personal gain, self-fulfillment, and/or self-satisfaction.” Putting oneself first and foremost, violating the first commandment, is basically the root of sin from this perspective, which aligns with how I usually define sin (along with the way MLK, Jr., and many others do): our separation from God. If our sin is harmful to others and separates us from God and God’s will, then the description of hell being a place where your worm never dies and where the fire is never quenched, makes perfect sense. A “worm” is something that eats away at you, destroying your life, and “fire” . . . well . . .  

Like Dr. Marsh, I grew up hearing sermons of fire and brimstone describing hell. An eternally burning fire as an image of hell is likely seared into the minds of many of us. BUT, “everyone is salted with fire,” Jesus says, and “salt is good.” What do you mean, Jesus?

Salt is good. Salt preserves food and adds flavor. We actually need salt to live. But fire? Fire cooks food and can add flavor. Does fire preserve life? Actually, it does. We need the fire of the sun, the energy it provides. We need heat in the cold and heat to clarify impurities. I dare say that we need the burns from our sins to remind us of our need for God, too. Maybe that’s the salt we get from the fire. Our wounds remind us of where our failings are, what our weaknesses are, but we’re given saltiness to keep us aware of the presence of God in our lives and of our dependence upon God’s mercy to obtain any reward that is life-giving, let alone our salvation.

And when we lose our saltiness? Maybe that’s when we’ve become numb to the burn. Maybe we’ve relied on ourselves for so long that we lose our sense of taste for what is truly good. We let our selfish desires eat away at us unceasingly, and our selfish yearnings burn unquenchably because we’ve turned away from the one relationship that actually gives us life and fulfillment. Is there no hope if this is where we find ourselves? Of course not.

“Have salt in yourself,” Jesus says. Recognize our own sins and shortcoming. We’ve all got them, some of us more than others, perhaps. In the reconciliation work being done to try to build up the kingdom of God, we have to be self-aware and do our own healing before we can build relationships or reconcile relationships with others. Only when we’ve been healed by the mercy and grace of God can we then have peace with one another because then we’ll realize that there is no “other.” We can have peace. Period.

Like James reads, if you’re suffering, pray; if you’re happy, sing; if you’re sick, call for healing and prayer; and if you’ve sinned, confess.

How many times are our wrongdoings swept under the rug to fester in the subconscious or in the shadows of our mind? Consider the harm that does to us who do wrong, carrying the weight of the carnage left by the worm that eats away at our authenticity, our Christ-light and life. Consider the victims of those to whom a wrong or injustice has been done. It’s something outside the victim’s realm of control. Most of the time it’s also nearly inconceivable or so “inappropriate” that they don’t want to risk shame, accusation, disbelief, or social ostracization. The victim, too, might suppress the trauma–be it physical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual. The victim might be left to wonder why this happened, and if left all alone might fall into despair, forgetting that God is there–the right relationships waiting to be restored. Dr. Marsh described this as the question of the spectator, asking where God is in times of trial, and the request of the believer, the desire for God to show the way forward.

Maybe that’s what we’re running toward: the life of grace and mercy. We may be running toward life in eternity, but we have our relationships here on this side of the Kingdom tagging along. Lord knows we need grace and mercy, and God can pity us. We’ve created a mess for ourselves. We don’t trust one another to have our best interest at heart because we know we put ourselves first, too. If we truly put God first, we would already be living out the reality of the beloved community, the kingdom of heaven. We don’t need the news to tell us how far from the kingdom we are, but I look forward to a time when the news reflects a people united actually running toward God’s promises, when the news reflects us upholding and protecting those who have been victimized and traumatized, when the news reflects a people who value integrity, when the news–no matter what channel you’re on–shares a vision of a common goal we all share. Call it “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness;” call it “beloved community;” call it “God’s dream for us” or the “kingdom of heaven”; but call it and name it as one goal for us all to unite in so we can run this race together and practice outdoing one another in goodness, giving everything we have to restore one another and all of creation into wholeness to God through Christ.

We don’t have to go anywhere to figure out what it looks like to run toward God’s promises. We recognize our own sins, realize our need for God, and turn to our neighbor in peace. The kingdom of heaven can be here and now, but we’ve still got a long way to go.

 

Continue Reading

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.

 

Continue Reading

Words to Live By

Exodus 20:1-17 | Psalm 19 | 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 | John 2:13-22

Back when we had the Works of Light series in Epiphany during Christian Education, Cathy Luck came and spoke to us about a local program modeled after the Magdalene House (Oasis NWA), and Deacon John Reese spoke to us about efforts to get an Oxford House started. Both of these programs helps people who might otherwise be homeless. The Oxford Houses are specifically geared to be homes for those in recovery. They’re not halfway houses or transition homes: they’re an Oxford House, which brings with it nationwide credibility and accountability. Places like this are desperately needed not only because affordable housing is a critical need but also because addicts who are striving each day to stay in recovery are among a very vulnerable population. If ever a time we needed to step in and offer assistance, it’s now. I learned just this weekend that as far as mortality rates go, the mortality rate in working-age adults has actually risen, in large part due to the opioid crisis. We need homes like these to help people who are pushed to the margins, forgotten about, and sometimes even left to die. I’m reminded of the Collect for the Day: “we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.”

The Oxford House is a successful model in large part because they have a 43-year history of refining details that work to help. About 80% of their folks stay clean, and they never remove someone from a house unless they break one of the three rules. The basic rules are: 1) participate in the democratically-run house; 2) stay clean–zero tolerance for relapse; 3) share in chores and expenses. That’s it, and the houses are financially self-sustaining by the rent the residents pay per week. Now, they probably also have further charters or agreements particular to each house, depending on where they live, but the ground rules are set, rooted in the nine traditions of the Oxford House program. These rules and requirements create a safety net and an accountability network that helps people stay clean–in body and house (they really are particular about keeping a clean home!).

Likewise, in the Magdalene House model, the are 24 Principles that the women of the house follow, things like “cry with your Creator,” “find your place in the circle,” “forgive and feel freedom,” and “laugh at yourself.” These principles shape the sense of who each woman is in the house community but also helps form the important Circle with consistency and intention, deeply rooted in listening to self and other around a single candle.

So when I hear about Moses receiving the words of the Ten Commandments (and I have to try hard not to just picture Charlton Heston with his white beard and outstretched arms holding stone tablets!), I absolutely hear them as law coming to the people of Israel as a means of helping them survive so that they’ll make it to and through the Promised Land to live out their lives and that of their descendents as faithful chosen ones. These are their rules to live by, though they’re not the only ones. They begin with “I am the LORD your God.” God is making sure God’s people know that it is He who has delivered them from Egypt, and it is only God who will keep the covenants with them. God is the only God they’re to worship–not that there weren’t other gods to contend with in the polytheistic culture they lived in–but that this God is the only one for them. These Ten Commandments are basically broken down into the first four being about duty to God, in believing and trusting in God, and about duty to neighbors, in loving them as ourselves and doing to them as we would have them do to us. The Catechism in our Book of Common Prayer offers more of a present-day read on the Commandments, because it turns out that these laws remain valid in our Christian life. As the Jews did, we’ve done, too: we’ve added a lot of charters, agreements, and even unspoken rules and cultural norms.

But at the Interfaith workshop at Hendrix I went to yesterday (“Cultivating an Interfaith Mindset in Rural Arkansas”), Dr. Jay McDaniel pointed out that when we’re trying to understand people from different faith traditions, we don’t go up to them and ask them what their 10 guiding principles are; we don’t say, “What are your 10 Rules for being x?” If we do, we might get a sense of why the do/don’t do what they do, but we lose sight of who they are in relationship with others around them.

When Jesus entered the temple and fashioned a whip bound by his righteous anger, he cleared the place and overturned the tables. It was all wrong, apparently. Often we hear that Jesus was angry because people who come to make sacrifices have been taken advantage of, being forced to pay inflated prices for whatever it is they needed. (I liken it to having to pay for gas at the only gas station for 50 miles; convenience comes at a price.) But this year I read this as Jesus clearing it all out. All the material, all the consumerism, all the stuff that also includes the ridiculously complicated laws/rules/requirements for living and practicing a faithful Jewish life. I say this because Jesus clears the temple and then draws the attention to the true House of God in their midst, his own Body, the Temple that will be destroyed and risen again in three days. This doesn’t make sense to anyone, and they would rather have a miraculous sign now. But Jesus has given them a sign, told them what to look for. When they look back on this moment, the disciples remember his words. Jesus’s whole ministry has been about providing signs, working miracles, showing the incredible power in their midst–if only they had eyes to see and ears to hear, if only they weren’t so jaded in their self-perceived wisdom.

In the human body the Divine worked to break down the boundaries and barriers that all the laws and rules and regulations had created. Jesus supped with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus defended the accused, healed the leperous, spoke with the outcast even if it was the opposite sex, and never turns away anyone who recognized the Life and Love he offered. Jesus tells them and us what the most important commandment is: to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. We’re also to love our neighbors as ourselves. It really hasn’t changed, though everything changed with Christ. In Jesus Christ, God gives us our new covenant that knows no boundaries. In Jesus Christ, the new word that God gives God’s people is Love, Love revealed to us in the Word made flesh.

And how are we doing with that?

In Northwest Arkansas we have a child poverty rate of 27%. While homelessness in Arkansas statistically had dropped 10% since 2010, there are still just over 2,400 homeless in Arkansas, if the counts have collected everyone. The nation-wide Poor People’s Campaign–and we have the Arkansas Poor People’s Campaign in our state–there’s a call for a moral revival because the sins we’re living with now aren’t market extortion for sheep and cattle and doves but the sins of hunger, fear, and poverty. And if we look to the children, about one in three reflect that we’ve fallen behind in duty to our neighbor, and we’ve fallen behind on that because we’re obviously having a hard time with our duty to believe and trust in God. We’ve become pretty good at being self-sufficient at the surface level; most days the market’s going just fine. But the currents of fear that ripple through are eating away at our hearts. For all the measures of success, we’re having to turn a blind eye to more and more of the signs we have now that we’re forgetting our greatest Word: Love. We’re forgetting Jesus Christ.

Maybe we’re waiting for Jesus to come back with a great whip and clear the marketplace and make all things new in a great dramatic show. But in three weeks, we get to recount the Passion that Jesus underwent. If our heart, souls, and minds have been marked by Jesus Christ, when we experience the Passion, we don’t want anything like that to happen again. We certainly don’t want to be an advocate for it. Yet each fatal shooting, each overdose, each homeless, each hallowed face from hunger, each chronically ill and uninsured, each uneducated mind is a sign to us that we’ve put other gods before our God and that the Word God gave us in the Body of the Son, well, there are more important things that have to be done. That’s not the love Jesus brought to our awareness. That “take care of me first” kind of love actually reduces God’s place, and, again, we see signs of that at every corner, in every report about society and environment.

“We have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.” Thankfully God gives us the power through Christ and the Holy Spirit. But first we have to open our hearts and minds and souls to receive the Love that God gave and continues to give and have to courage to change everything because of that Word, that Love.

Continue Reading