Good Friday 2019

Isaiah 52:13-53:12 | Psalm 22 | Hebrews 10:16-25 | John 18:1-19:42

Every Friday in Morning Prayer, the Collect for the day was written by William Reed Huntington, an Episcopal priest who died in 1909.

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.

Especially on Good Friday, we are ever mindful of walking in the way of the cross, and we likely focus on the suffering, pain, and crucifixion more so than the joy and glory to come. It’s hard to see the way of the cross this day as the way of life and peace.

I want to wish that Christ didn’t have to suffer and die, but in our human experiences, this is our way. All that we know comes from learning the hard way, unless we’re one of the few who actually heed the advice of others who have learned on their own the “hard knocks” of life. All the hardships I’ve gone through and the suffering I’ve known give me some of my greatest lessons, shaping who I am by how I shape myself in response to these adversities. At our best even when we’ve gone through the worst, our suffering humbles us to reach out for help, to strengthen our network of support. When we feel weak is when we’re most likely to call on divine intervention, maybe like the psalmist to cry out why God has forsaken us and maybe also in our cry for help to call out praise for the only one who fully knows our hearts, the one to whom we’ve been entrusted since before we were born and has been with us ever since. And in our humility, we’re more likely to show compassion for others in their times of trial. If we haven’t been through what they’re going through, we know there’s nothing that exempts us from such suffering. It could easily be us brought to our knees, crying out for help, begging with outstretched hand, weeping silently in the night. We know the sufferings we’ve endured. So does God.

Of my time in Israel last spring, there were two places that spoke to me most deeply: Magdala and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City, downtown Jerusalem. Because tourism is a major industry in Israel, there are many efforts to preserve ancient history and prevent building contemporary structures. But over 2,000 years, much has been built, shrines built even over a thousand years ago draw many pilgrims and lay claim to ancient stories. Our tour guide pointed out to me one such stone around which a few pilgrims were listening intently to their guide. Father Kamal advised me how important it is to know the scripture and the scholarship so as not to be fooled. He needn’t worry; I’m naturally a skeptic when people claim something is “real.”

But the walls in the Old City drew me in. We went through the building surrounding the sepulchre, scrutinized a crack in one of the 1st century stonesin the wall that could affirm a quake of some sort, and made our way to the entrance of the sepulchre. It’s a stone stairway that curves upward alongside a wall. You have to crouch or bow a bit to make it through the low and narrow entry and continue to ascend the small stone steps. Like many places we visited, I again felt like we were cattle being corralled and pushed through to arrive at a place.

It’s a darkened place, illuminated by light and many candles, filled with incense and the smell of crowded bodies–at least when we were there. Honestly, I felt it was cluttered, crammed with all the things of devotion. It was so much to take in when we were being ushered along by those anxious pilgrims behind us.

Reflecting on it now, I don’t think I’ve ever had the experience before of being someplace and knowing that all the stuff didn’t matter. The place itself was holy. We came to see the place of the Skull, Golgotha, where Jesus had been crucified. We came to see how our ancestors had built around it to mark this sacred place and preserve it.

 

Being there, it wasn’t what I saw but what I felt. Stepping closer to the place where others bowed and kissed the ground, my chest constricted, my capacity to breathe felt blocked. I could barely speak. I grabbed the arm of a friend as an anchor, unsure of where this feeling was taking me. I remember him asking if I wanted to move closer, and I remember shaking my head, heart full and tight at the same time and saying, “This is it; this is the place.” I remember thinking, this stuff isn’t what I’m here to see.

I’m here to feel the presence of Christ in his suffering. I’m here to feel the presence of his mother and disciples and friends who witnessed his crucifixion. I’m here to know that all my suffering for love and against God’s love are known, even as my heart is fully known. And I couldn’t stay in that place. It was so crowded, and people were pushing in. I still felt like I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t stand the feeling of suffering. It was too much.

But I wanted to go back. I still want to go back because I wasn’t able to while we were there. Because I wonder if it was the suffering I couldn’t stand or the incredible love shown, the kind of heart-breaking love that is so broken open that it draws everything and everyone into its embrace. God laid claim on my heart, and I wanted to turn away. I realize, though, that it’s that knowing that I yearn for, that nothing else comes close to fulfilling. On the other side of that suffering is joy. On the other side of the crucifixion is glory. The way of the cross leads to eternal life because the way of the cross is the way of Jesus is the way of love. That love may hurt us and break us, but if we are truly following that way of love, we have nothing to fear and everything to gain.

 

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Almost, Not Yet, Already

Isaiah 43:16-21 | Psalm 126 | Philippians 3:4b-14 | John 12:1-8

The cherry blossoms and tulips taunt me with the coming season of Easter, but we’re not there yet. Entering this fifth week of Lent, we know we’ve been in the season a while. After a month more likely than not, we’ve either given up on our practices, or they’ve become habit. As any of us know who have had to cut ourselves off of an addiction, at this point if we’ve been off for a month, we’re clean. It doesn’t mean we don’t still struggle with temptation, but after a period of detox, we have a bit more clarity. For those with powerful substance abuse addictions, that period of detox is especially cruel to witness, let alone experience. Addicts will think they’re dying, that they won’t survive, and those who are helping them make it through will offer witness and assurance that while, yes, they feel like they’re dying, they will make it. They will survive, and they will be stronger for it. They’re at a critical moment in their journey–a tipping point, if you will–and now more than ever, as people of faith, we know that God’s grace is needed.  Wherever we are in our journey of faith, wherever we are in our wilderness, whether it’s in the throws of painful cleansing/detox/transition or in the lush jungle of joyful, life-giving discernment, there comes a decisive moment of taking that next step into a new chapter and hopefully with a newness of life rooted in Christ.

It sounds like easy words, but we know the process is more complicated. Even if we gave up something simple for Lent, the intent is still to give up something in our lives that makes more room for God’s will to speak to us and guide us on our way, which at our best is God’s way. We do this because we remember that after baptism, Jesus went into the wilderness for forty days, was tempted in every way but did not sin. He emerged from the desert, prevailing over evil, and fully lived into his life’s ministry, perfectly living into God’s will. Jesus’ faithfulness prevails in every way. And we remember, too, that God’s faithfulness always prevails. God’s faithfulness is what gives the psalmist hope in Ps. 126: recalling the great things that God has done, from deliverance from Egypt to the restoration of fortunes, whatever it is they lament now, the will of God is to be faithful, to keep promises, and to transform the lives of those who survive the wilderness.

It is this transformation that we hope for when we’re going through difficult times. I don’t want to suffer for nothing. If I’m going to give up sugar, I want to lose weight and be healthier. If I’m going to give up drugs, I want to live a life worth living. If I’m going to do good, I want to know that what I’m sacrificing for is worth it. I want something to look forward to. This is hard for us because we can’t promise that because we’re doing good things that life will be sunshine and roses. We can’t assure there won’t be daily temptation, that our bodies will stay in remission, that there won’t be some senseless tragedy, despite our best efforts in our home or at the capitol. But our remembering God’s faithfulness strengthens our faith in God’s will and fortifies our hope, our imagination of what is to come. Not yet are we transformed ourselves or as a community, but there is hope that it can be.

When we have this faith and hope of what can and will be done through the grace of God and our cooperation, if this is our belief, we can’t help but act upon it. Paul, sitting in prison, writing to the Philippians, couldn’t help but strain toward the future, toward what is to come. Paul wants to know Christ fully, even to the sharing of his suffering. In commentary on The Working Preacher, Edward Pillar suggests three ways that Paul demonstrates how the knowledge of Christ could be obtained. To me they sound like Paul’s three ways of love because they include

  • Letting go of status or significance in our culture–value is only rooted in love;
  • Being obedient to the values and ethos of God, which is love; and
  • Maintaining love and loving even to the death, even if it’s at the hands of the powerful/unjust/corrupt.

We are given how Paul does this, having given up his status as a blameless leader. We know that this is the very model of Jesus in his life and death, which is why by our experiencing these things, we are more inclined to know what it is to live in Christ, to have the Christ-mind, to be Christ-like, to be truly Christian.

In our gospel lesson today, we are given a couple of people through whom we can see how they are orienting their lives toward knowing God through Christ, or not. Martha and Lazarus are there at this dinner party, Martha serving as she does and Lazarus living his resurrected life (wouldn’t we love to hear more of his thoughts?). But it’s Mary and Judas who are the two characters we focus in on today.

We don’t know what Jesus said during the meal, but at some point, Mary gets the perfume and anoints Jesus, filling the room with the scent of nard, a fragrance that takes me back to Jerusalem in a heartbeat. This fragrance, they would know, is the fragrance of a burial anointing. Six days before the Passover . . . maybe Jesus had said something again of his coming death, of going to be with his Father. Maybe Mary is letting go of her attachment to Jesus in recognition of him living into God’s will and is showing her utmost act of love in supporting him, encouraging him, and loving him up to his death. She’s the one who sits at the feet of Jesus and listens to him intently. Whatever he says, this is how she responds, acting in faith, hope, and love. Her act is tender and heart-wrenching, if she truly anticipates his death. This isn’t to say it couldn’t also be an impulsive act of adoration, but either way, Mary is giving herself over to Love, offering probably one of the most precious material possessions she has.

Judas, however, I imagine him going from being annoyed at Mary’s affection to disgusted that she would waste the nard. The value of the perfume–I read that it’s about a year’s salary for a laborer–could have filled the disciples’ discretionary fund, providing him with more for his own pockets. Not only are we told here that Judas will be the one to betray Jesus, but he’s also a thief, a dishonest treasurer. How, we might wonder, can Judas be with the disciples all this time, even up to the end, and be so cold-hearted? Quite obviously, the way of love is not Judas’ way of living. There’s something he benefits from being among the disciples, if even it’s the status of treasurer or being among the band of misfits making a ruckus. His values are self-centered, and ultimately he doesn’t show love in his betrayal, even to himself.

Who do we see leaning into God’s grace in their actions in this life? Judas never lets go of his self-interest. In Mary we see repeated acts of her following the guidance of Spirit or love or impulse–whatever we want to call it. In those moments, we can see where her actions reveal something of love made manifest in unexpected ways. There’s something sacramental about it because it is making visible and tangible something invisible and spiritual. Mary’s act demonstrates grace, which is an offering of God’s love. It’s unwarranted, unearned, and unconditional. Grace is always ready to be received.

At the end of our wilderness pilgrimage, or after a long period of struggle, we know that point when we say “I’m done” or “I can’t do this anymore” or “I don’t want to.” Those of us advocating for the rights of the poor and marginalized might feel like it’s an endless uphill battle. What does it mean for us to hear these words of Jesus, spoken to the one who does not embody or understand the importance of love? What does it mean to hear Jesus speaking to cold-heartedness, “Leave her alone,” she’s doing work for what is to come. This is her act of faith and hope, and my receiving her act of love lets my grace be fulfilled with mutual affection. Does it prevent what is to come? No, but it emphasizes the importance of moment to moment actions, the significance of one act of grace, one donation given, one kindness exchanged, one life transformed.

Remembering our stories and promises sustain our faith. Seeking the transformation of nightmarish realities into dreams of God’s will made manifest in the kingdom of heaven speaks to our hope. Above all of what is “almost” and “not yet” is what already is in the prevalence of God’s love for us from beginning to end, through and beyond. How are we leaning into God’s grace, acting in ways of love, especially when we are most ready to give up and walk away? Do we turn away from God’s grace, or can we act in love and take that next step into new life in Christ?

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On Being Provocative

1 Samuel 1:4-20 | 1 Samuel 2:1-10 | Hebrews 10:11-25 | Mark 13:1-8

We now draw toward the end of this Season after Pentecost, often called “ordinary time.” Ready or not, Advent is only two weeks away. It is in this “green” Season after Pentecost that we also often call it a “growing time.” Not only is it in the summer months, wrapping up at the harvest, but it is also a time when we hear and learn about Israel and her kings and about the faithful people of God, imperfect as they may be. Any time we engage in scripture, to hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest–as our collect says–we are invited to step into the story wholeheartedly to understand how it relates to us now, even though the distance between then and now, let alone between here and there, is so great. Our learning shapes and grows us, too, in our understanding. While we may be growing on the outside, more likely than not there is also growth and formation happening within us.

As much as people seem surprised to encounter women in the Bible, we do so more often than we might realize. Today’s story of Hannah exhibits this internal and external growth quite well. While it is the conception story of the child who would become King Samuel, it’s not told through the lens of his father or even of the high priest of the time, though both make an appearance. It’s the plight of Hannah, Samuel’s mother that draws us into the tale. Hannah, second wife of Elkanah, is faithful yet barren. Even though she’s childless, she has the love of her husband, who makes no effort to hide his favoritism and seems shocked that his love alone doesn’t satisfy her (as if all she should need is a good man to make her happy, right?!?). Not only does her husband not fully understand her distress, but she is also constantly provoked by Penninah, Elkanah’s first wife who has sons and daughters. In case we’ve forgotten, fertility was considered a gift from God, and even though Penninah provokes her severely, irritates her because she hasn’t borne children, Hannah doesn’t rebuke her. Hannah internalizes her grief. She weeps and fasts, and one day she goes to the temple to pray.

It wasn’t the custom, apparently, to whisper one’s prayers or to pray silently. (Remember the scribes who say long prayers? They probably say them just loud enough to be heard over everyone else so people can make sure they are there.) Hannah is saying her prayers much like I say morning prayer, mouthing the words but not making much noise. Some days my prayers are more fervent than others, and I can only imagine the intensity in which Hannah prayed to God.  And Eli, the priest nearby, sees her and accuses her of being drunk, making a spectacle of herself. Hannah fills in the blanks for him. She knows he thinks her a worthless woman. But with the strength of a hemorrhaging woman seeking healing, with the persistence of a woman seeking an exorcism for her dying daughter, with the audacity of the woman at the well to speak out for herself, Hannah confesses her trouble and grief. She has “been pouring out (her) soul before the LORD.” If Eli is anything like most men I know, when faced with a woman pouring out her soul, her truth, he faces his own inadequacy and knows there isn’t a thing he can do aside from get out of the way or empower her in her own strength. Eli, in his blessedness, offers her a blessing, that God might grant her her petition. He doesn’t need to know what it is. When we are agents of God’s work in the world, we often don’t and most of the time can’t know toward what end we are working.  Whether it’s from Eli or God or both, Hannah seeks favor and goes on her way.

“And her countenance was sad no longer.”

A change has occurred in Hannah even before she conceived. Like Job Hannah persists in her faith. Like many who want something so dearly, she bargains with God, promising her would-be child to be a faithful Nazirite. In keeping with tradition, she names the child so that his story, her story, would be remembered: Samuel, meaning “asked of the LORD.” Instead of a psalm today, we get what’s often called “Hannah’s song,” though it was likely written later and put into her story because it has the exaltation of God and the attribution of might to God, the kind that takes what is and makes it what God would have it be. It’s an inner transformation that also had outward signs. It wasn’t just the growth of a baby bump but also the change in Hannah’s countenance that showed a change had taken place, that some kind of grace had been internalized.

As Episcopalians who believe in sacraments, this is not unfamiliar to us. Sacraments by nature are outward and visible signs of inward, invisible grace. Holy Eucharist and Baptism are our two Sacraments, but we have other sacramental rites, like marriage, confirmation, unction, ordination, and reconciliation. I venture that we have sacramental moments in our lives, especially at births and deaths, when we perceive something of grace a little more tangibly than at other times, when we sense that what is holy has made itself known, if not visible. Even if we want to ignore the sacramental experiences of our lives, we can’t unknow them. It’s a hard thing to deny when the holy breaks into our lives, and I venture to say that it’s a beautiful thing when we facilitate that occurrence.

So what if instead of being provocative like Penninah, irritating those who are already drowning in grief and woundedness, we became provocative like Hannah, extolling the greatness of God? What if we become provocative like the preacher in Hebrews suggests: provoking “one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.” See, there’s a little tongue-in-cheek there, still the chance to irritate one another in a negative way, but there’s a way to provoke one another to gladness, to laughter, to joy, to companionship, toward Christ.

Bp. Tom Breidenthal from Southern Ohio, who was our speaker at clergy conference this year, spoke about the church reclaiming its role in the center of public life, as being part of the body politic in a Christian way, not in a powers and principalities kind of way. He spoke about the early house churches that became basilicas, how the open space in the middle was where everyone gathered for corporate worship, how the side chapels were like the markets and offices that lined the open space. He mentioned Philander Chase, the first bishop of the Ohio Mission Territory and how he agreed with the importance of having the church at the center of public life. I mention this because Pastor Clint Schnekloth mentioned to me that urban planners often don’t have churches in their master plans any more. It’s not part of the grid. When I brought this up to Bp. Breidenthal, he said it just emphasizes the importance of doing work outside of four walls, or even without walls. (Yeah, he didn’t know our story.)

Well, we still have churches in our town, in our community. We have ours now, too. How provocative are we? Are we irritating, arousing anger in others out of spite or to put others down? Are we Penninah-provocative?

Or are we Hannah-provocative? Through our suffering and prayers, do we seek God’s guidance to transform us into agents of God’s will? Do we do the work necessary to change our outlook on life so that rather than put others down we can lift one another up, challenging each other in good deeds and love? So when we see another church doing good work, maybe we can help them reach even more by joining in on their effort, as we’re doing with the Thanksgiving boxes with Community Church (the Nazarene church downtown).

Can we remember all that we’ve learned through the stories of those who have gone before and remember the words of Jesus who continually shows us the exemplar way to be provocative for the will of God? The disciples marveled at the grandeur of the stones of the temple and surrounding buildings, but Jesus told them it would all be thrown down. The disciples hadn’t internalized what Jesus said about the temple having been built by the money taken from the widows’ houses. Jesus may have had to slip through the crowd to escape capture a few times, but he didn’t shy away from proclaiming truth to all who would listen. He would stand in the temple, in a boat, in a cave, on a hill, in the field, in the marketplace, and he would provoke his listeners, inciting in them an emotional response. If they didn’t like what he said, wasn’t it usually because they had something to lose, some attachment, possession, or power they didn’t want to sacrifice. If they were already weak, oppressed, or downtrodden or maybe even open-hearted and adventurous, the words of Jesus had a way of landing in their heart and mind and drawing them nearer to him, encouraging them to follow him along the Way.

How do the words of God provoke us today? How does the Eucharist speak to us? How are we empowered to go forth and incite the love of God in the world around us? Even if we, like Hannah, offer our prayers in silence, our actions will speak loudly to our faith and hopefully provoke others in a good way, too.

 

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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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