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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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.

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