Power & Transformation

1 Kings 8:1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43 | Psalm 84 | Ephesians 6:10-20 | John 6:56-69

We arrive at the height of King Solomon’s reign today, as we hear how he offers his prayer of dedication for the Temple he was destined to build. We skip over the chapters that offer exquisite detail (in archaic architectural terms) the dimensions of the temple and other things that he has built, but this . . . this is the dwelling place for God–even if it can’t fully contain God–this is going to be the place that all the faithful will come to experience the presence of God. I mentioned last week that this is why anybody goes to temple or to church: to encounter God. The ark is there, containing nothing but the two stone tablets that Moses had put in it at Horeb (1 Kings 8:9). Even as Solomon offers blessing over all the assembly of Israel, it is God who has made covenant with Solomon and all the people: so long as they are obedient and keep God’s statutes and commandments and worship no other God but God Almighty, all shall be well. Keep in mind that we are getting sight of King Solomon at his height. His prayers of dedication don’t just include petitions for the foreigners; he prays that God will hear the prayers of all the people who come to the Temple–heed their prayers and grant forgiveness. Hear the foreigners and any who would convert, but also those who sin against a neighbor, those who anger God and get defeated in battle, those begging for the heavens to open up and rain upon the Promised Land; hear them when there’s plague or famine and when they go to battle against their enemy and if they get captured. This Temple is a place for the presence of God not for God but for the people.

Psalm 84 gives us a sense of the joyful expectation they have in approaching the Temple. The pilgrims approaching the presence of God are happy and joyful. They may not know exactly what they will experience in the presence of the Almighty, but they are glad in heart to have this opportunity after have been distanced for so long. They’ve gotten what they’ve been promised, and all seems pretty good.

It’s pretty good if you’re doing everything right. For me, it all seems very transactional. If we’re good, we’re in; if we’re not, we’re out. How many times of being shut out or kept out before we’re done? You don’t want me in? Fine. I’m out.

I wonder how many people were out before Jesus entered the scene to offer the bread of life.

Jesus has an affinity for those pushed to the outside, to the margins. To the marginalized and to those in power, he invited them to eat his flesh and drink his blood to abide in him and in God the Father. It’s an equal opportunity offer.

Is this teaching difficult? The disciples are complaining. The people in power don’t get it. Jesus knows the hearts of everyone. He’s moved from a transactional mode of just filling the bellies of those who are hungry–as he did with the 5,000–to speaking of the spiritual and eternal life. The flesh, though he’s fed it, is useless.

Does he offend? Of course he does! He’s downplaying the salvation of the ancient Hebrews who were delivered in the desert by the manna from heaven. They were saved, but Jesus just emphasizes the fact that they died–in their flesh. As if being condescending about the exodus weren’t enough, Jesus is pretty offensive in his cannibalistic language (and imagery). Nobody really wants to engage in this.

Want to walk away? Yes. Jesus doesn’t associate with the best people. His concepts are radical and off the wall, if not downright offensive. To follow him is going to draw mostly likely negative attention, and any credibility, honor, or dignity we’ve accumulated in our lives is probably going to be thrown out the window. Any hope or vision of power or grandeur is gone. Nothing about what Jesus says promises the easy life, leisure or comfort. No, it’s easier to stay in our comfort zone than follow Jesus.

But after encountering Jesus Christ, if it’s something that we’ve experienced, most of us can’t deny the experience . . . or the transformation.

Jerry Blassingame was one of the speakers of the “After the Arrest Summit” on Saturday at the NWA Community College. The summit was all about different people and organizations “embracing individuals during incarceration and upon release”; it was all about reentry. Jerry didn’t have an easy life, and when he ended up in prison, he found himself hating life, hating Jesus, and just mad at the world. His sister, a recovering heroin addict, told him that if he ever needed to talk to give her a call. One day he called her. He says she had found Jesus in her life, and she was trying to get him to find Jesus, too. He didn’t want anything to do with it. But soon thereafter, he had someone come by asking if there was anyone who wanted to talk to a minister or if anyone wanted to do a Bible study. Whatever the situation was, there ended up being a minister in his same cell or pod for 10 days (because the minister had been in contempt of court while advocating for someone). In those 10 days, he engaged in Scripture and prayed with this minister. When the minister left, he continued to get up at 6:00 in the morning to study the Bible and to journal, visioning what it was that the Holy Spirit was giving him to do. He said that the whole idea for the program that he now runs was envisioned in the three and a half years of his incarceration. When he got out, he put his entrepreneurial skills to work. He said he was business savvy. Someone brought him $10 worth of dope, he split it to make $20 and kept dividing and multiplying it. At one point, he had people dropping $10k on his table as his cut of sales without him ever having to do anything. He sold dope for 10 years, and as a friend at my table said, he had to be good and smart to do it for 10 years and still be alive. All he said was, people coming out of prison have skills, too. We just have to tap into their savvy to unlock their power.

So what do we do with an encounter with God? After having experienced Christ? Do we hide it under a bushel? Do we let all the ways we’ve gone wrong in our life let us diminish the abilities we have to do good? After our mountain top experience, we might find that the long haul is hard and uncomfortable, and maybe we would rather walk away. But, we’ve tasted and seen that God is good. We’ve experienced the presence of Christ and the peace that washes over us when we’re on our knees in doubt and despair. Or maybe we’ve encountered God even in the midst of a horrific death or maybe in the most holy of deaths. In moments of grace and generosity and hospitality, maybe we’ve witnessed a love that knows no bounds, and we can’t explain how or why, but we know that the presence of God, the love of Christ, is all entwined in that very moment.

Having experienced those moments, we’re like Peter. Jesus might ask us if we’d like to walk away, but we’re like: “Where would we go? To whom would we turn?”

The power of Spirit compels us to hold our ground, to do the unimaginable thing — whatever it is. Right now it looks like maybe we’ve reached a tipping point in the  community ethic because right now more than every, we are working together as one Body to benefit the common good. The “After the Arrest Summit” was a collaborative effort of many organizations, people, and organizations, and the faith traditions of the people–though Christian–spanned the spectrum. Coming up on Sept. 6th, HARK is holding an all-faiths summit to spread information on how we can all work together to benefit our neighbors. I was talking to the warden from Fayetteville, and she said this was the first event in Arkansas that we’ve held but that now was the time. I wondered with her if maybe we’ve just reached a tipping point. When 11,000 people are being released from jail or prison in Arkansas each year, we have a critical mass at play. When 53% of those end up being incarcerated again, I’d say we have a failing system that needs to change. Something’s not working.

Some might say that the evil powers that be are winning, that the forces of good can’t keep up. I disagree. We’re still standing, those of us who put on the armor of God and do our best to do the good work, to stand for our neighbors and to give glory to God. We might not be glamorous, but we’re not dead yet . . . nor will we ever be so long as we keep coming back to Christ, like Jerry feeding on the Word every morning or every day. All the time we remember that whatever we face is not our battle alone.

We don’t rely on the wisdom of Solomon or any one person to see us through this life and into eternity. We seek out the peace and love that passes all understanding in the presence of God. We take it in in the only way we know how: through the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation. We tap into the power given to us through the water of our baptism to claim the power the Holy Spirit has given us. We don’t realize how strong we are, how powerful we are, until we rise to the challenges before us and pray that God lead us through. There’s no place we’ll go that God hasn’t already seen a way through. And if, like Peter, we’ve come to believe and know that Jesus Christ is the Holy One of God, then who else would we rather follow to lead us along our way? No matter how little we feel we understand, how offended we get with our fragile egos, how much we want to call it quits, we know the power of a life transformed by the presence of Christ. With that, where else would we go but toward the light and love of Christ.

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Being Filled

1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14 | Psalm 111 | Ephesians 5:15-20 | John 6:51-58

One of my favorite stories that I remember reading about Zen Buddhism is the story of the student who finally gets the chance to go to the master teacher so he can “get” it. Whatever books he’s read or classes he’s taken or meditations he’s done, this is his chance to learn from the Master. So the teacher invites the student serve the tea, and he’ll tell him when to stop. As the student pours the tea, he slows as he nears the top of the cup, but he keeps pouring as he is an obedient student. As the tea overflows the cup and spills onto the table and floor, he can’t take it anymore. “Teacher, the cup overflows; it’s making a mess.” (I’m completely paraphrasing this story!) The teacher looks intently at the student. “How can you learn anything when your mind is so full? There is no room for anything else.” I imagine the teacher pouring the tea onto the floor, placing the empty cup on the table and saying something like: “Now, we begin.” This empty cup is like the “beginner’s mind” that you might have heard of before. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind is the title of Shunryu Suzuki’s book of collected talks (because Zen Buddhists don’t give sermons or homilies; they give dharma talks or just talks; this one is particularly about Buddhist practice). The beginner’s mind, like the empty cup, is ready to be filled.

I thought of this story in the midst of our “Bread of Life” section of the lectionary because it seems like Jesus is absolutely trying to fill us with the Good News that he is the Bread of Life. Each week, as we read a different section of the gospel, we’ve poured out our cup to be ready for a new lesson, but we’ve kept a little from the previous week, a rich flavorful bit.

But we don’t really have a beginner’s mind, even if we have forgotten all we heard last week. Like the Jews last week who thought they knew where and who Jesus was from and even the Jews this week who think they know what it means to eat flesh and drink blood, we, too, know a lot–or at least think we know a lot–about religion, life, and everything else. Our cups, our minds, are pretty full. Or, our minds can be full of figurative scar tissue or barricades, so damaged are they from bad theology or abuse. We could have been taught that we’re too far gone for redemption, not good enough, and/or that God’s love is conditional. The Bible, the “Word of God” could have been used to alienate or abuse us and others we care about. Even if we had room in our mind or our teacup, we wouldn’t want anything from the religion department to come anywhere close.

We might not have tea ceremonies in The Episcopal Church, but our worship follows the same structure–the same liturgy–week after week to provide stability, security, and predictability (at least in form) for us to settle in our place and let God abide in our midst. In A Hidden Wholeness, former educator and writer, a Quaker named Parker Palmer, writes about the soul of a person being like a wild animal in the woods. I picture a fox. For us to be able to get a glimpse of this animal, we have to be really still and patient, unobtrusive and gentle even in our presence. Even if we think we have them tamed in our certainty and knowledge or have them caged away in fear that they might be endangered, this soul still yearns to encounter God. In fact, studies have shown that while most people these days don’t identify as religious, they still have a sense of awe, experiences that kindle wonder, and a recent study shows that it’s not fancy coffee, shiny lights, or the perfect music program that bring people to church.

People come to church to encounter the presence of God.

I hope this is true or has been true for you here at our church.

Because an encounter with the presence of God strengthens faith and belief or maybe gives it to us for the first time. Venturing out in vulnerability, whether we’re a wild fox or proud student, we risk encountering the presence of Christ: maybe it’s with outstretched hands to receive the Body and Blood and not fully understanding how this feeds us but knowing that it does. Jesus asks us only to believe to be able to be fed by him. He fed the 5,000 physically. When I was dropping my son off for school the other day, I lamented that he hadn’t had breakfast. “It’s alright, mom,” he said. “We have Eucharist at 10:00, anyway. Isn’t that supposed to fill me up?” He’s a smart alec, but at least I get the idea that he’s paying attention to what’s said in church!

What’s important for us today is to know that through our belief in Jesus Christ, we are fed eternally, in a way that’s not to be replicated or substituted by anything. Like a mother’s milk for her baby, Christ nourishes our spirit with exactly what we need, individually, and strengthens us for whatever might threaten our wellbeing. Whatever we try to substitute for to fill our hunger for the spiritual food, we’ll soon realize we’re a bottomless pit, never satiated or satisfied. For Christians, Jesus truly is the Bread of Life–that which fills us and draws us nearer to the presence of God if we dare to believe such Good News.

Being nurtured and nourished in our belief, could we respond like Solomon if God appeared to us in a dream and asked us what we wanted God to give us? Solomon apparently gave God a good answer when he asked for a wise and discerning mind because God also goes ahead and gives him the health and riches that most everyone else would have wished for. But in the reading, we’re given insight into Solomon’s thought process. Before Solomon responds to God, he thinks about where he comes from: from King David, the mostly faithful, righteous, and upright servant of the LORD. Solomon has huge shoes to fill in following David. Solomon also ponders the reality of the situation, what is at the moment: God is, as ever, faithful in the covenant established with David and the chosen people. Then Solomon realizes who he is: a humble servant chosen for a daunting task, leading the multitudes of God’s chosen people. Does he really have the qualifications for this? What does he need for this impossible mission? An understanding and discerning mind. God agrees.

At the clergy wellness program Padre and I attended this week, one of the leaders was a Native American woman from Arizona. As she shared her stories, I imagined her going through a similar thought process as Solomon if God appeared to her. She’s actually a canon in her diocese for Native peoples. I believe she said there are 12 tribes represented in her diocese. She knows where she comes from. Arizona is her home; she belongs to one of the tribes; and she knows that her people and others like her have been severely under-represented in our religious tradition (as well as others). She told me that she is one of two such canons in the country since budget cuts have taken their toll, but she knows that the Native people need advocates, that awareness of their ways needs to spread before it is lost, and that there is much work of reconciliation yet to be done. She describes who she is with openness; she wears multiple hats, and even with all her work, she takes care of her 86-year-old mother whom she lives with. If God showed up to her in a dream and asked her what she asked of God, I’m sure there are many things that she could ask for, but it would not be a stretch to imagine her responding with a request for a wise and discerning mind, so that she could accomplish the mountain of responsibilities she carries.

What would we ask for if God appeared to us in a dream? If God asked what All Saints’ wanted from God? (If God appears to you and asks, please let me share a list!) Of course we know the correct answer: an understanding and discerning mind. But we can go through Solomon’s thought process to get there. Where do we come from? A twinkle in the Bishop’s eye? The effort of the community 11 years ago to pull All Saints’ together here in Bentonville? Even more than that, we come from the diocese, from the national church, from the Anglican Communion, from a rich tradition that bears all the hallmarks of triumphs and struggles of living faithfully in relationship with God. What is now? There are a plethora of opportunities and potentialities before us in regard to our ministries, our worship space, and our involvement in the community. Who are we? We are an open, welcoming community, willing to engage in difficult questions and to be good neighbors, loving as Jesus taught us to love. What do we ask for going forward as we strive to be the Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement in Bentonville? Even before we need millions of dollars, we need wisdom that comes from an understanding and discerning mind.

Even though God said there was no king before and no king after that had the wisdom of Solomon, we can be thankful that we’re given this clue for how to make wise decisions. Within the process, there’s a good dose of humility and honesty, which we all have the potential to embody. Whether we encounter God in a dream, in church, or in a teachable moment, I hope we all have that beginner’s mind that’s ready to be filled with the fullness of God, in all its glory and mystery.

 

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