Breaking In, Making Way

Isaiah 40:1-11 | 2 Peter 3:8-15a | Mark 1:1-8 | Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13

There’s part of me that wants a rally cry from the church to come down from above, stop us in our tracks, and realign everything so that we’re all fixed in God’s will. So when I hear the words of Isaiah to “make straight in the desert a highway for our God,” I get excited. Yes! This is it. Finally, “every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low.” We’ll get the level playing field for equality and justice to be manifest so the Glory of God can be revealed, for all to see it together. That’s the beloved community I long for. And the Gospel of Mark repeats this, basically. Only, it’s not so much a rally cry as it is an introduction . . . for John the Baptist, a man of the wilderness, humble and unworthy, yet baptizing many.

This is why we can’t solely proof-text the Bible, why we can’t just pick and choose verses of Scripture to hold onto. Well, we can certainly hold onto verses of Scripture for the strength and assurance we need; I have one stuck to my laptop screen (Jn 15:11). But we also need to know the context of the greater picture.

As much as I want Isaiah to be a rally cry for social justice–and it very well can be–it’s also part of an image of the way the world is when God’s will is manifest. The Israelites have suffered under oppression and are at that time returning to their land, something they didn’t think could or would happen. What’s happening is that what they least expected is actually happening, what they don’t deserve is being granted because God is faithful in God’s covenant with them. Their journey this time won’t be forty years’ wandering in the wilderness, but the path will be straight for them. In that moment, this is an observation of the mercy of God, even as we also get a picture of the fickleness of the people with whom God is in relationship and know their struggles are not over.

We get an even richer image of God’s manifestation in Psalm 85. God is speaking peace (shalom) to the faithful: peace, the fruit of forgiveness. What does it look like? Like mercy and truth meeting together, like righteousness and peace kissing each other, like truth springing up from the earth and righteousness looking down from heaven, like abundance for all and peace as the pathway. Just thinking this fills my imagination and heart with goodness, but it’s highly conceptual. I read a story about a group who created a physical “Road to Shalom” so youth groups could actually walk a way of peace. They had signs that said “Steadfast Love,” “Faithfulness,” “Righteousness,” and “Peace.” Using Ps. 85, vs. 10, they had youth hold the signs and act out the verse. Steadfast Love and Faithfulness met one another (our “Mercy” and “Truth” in the NRSV translation; NIV has “love” and “faithfulness”), and Righteousness and Peace exchanged a kiss (among much giggling). This was a very physical, tangible experience, a way to embody the path of peace so that our finite minds can try to fathom the greatness of God’s glory.

Whereas the Word of God does stand forever, we are more like the grass and flowers that wither and fade. Our Epistle reading reminds us that with God “one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” We know with God there’s that timelessness and all time, the kairos time I’ve referred to before. With that perspective of all time, I cannot even imagine the kind of enduring patience that waits for us to turn our hearts toward the way of peace. That kind of steadfast love that waits for us to acknowledge the truth of our condition of suffering. That kind of goodness that accepts us wholly and unconditionally.

I want a rally cry, and I’m offered a way of Peace. I’m reminded of the patience of God who is waiting on me, when I think I’m waiting on God.

I’m waiting for God to intervene in the Middle East crisis and the poverty crisis and the refugee crisis and every single one of our life crises. And I think surely this Christmas we’ll remember that Christ has come and been made manifest and that we have all the power of the Holy Spirit to make all things new, . . . but I’m told to wait. To be still. To listen. To be alert and awake. And to heed the messengers who have gone before me. And to repent for my sins. So that I can be ready to meet Christ at his Birth and at his Second Coming. That’s a lot to do for one “just” waiting.

I want a rally cry to make the world a better place, and I’m so outwardly focused that I miss that God is waiting on me. And on you.

Wait. Be still. Prepare yourself. Listen. A rally cry will come…has already come…and broken into our world. God has prepared a way of peace, determined a pathway long ago. Who’s to say it’s not already written on our hearts? We might stumble upon the path of peace, but what happens when we prepare ourselves for it? What happens if we help reveal it to others?

What does it mean for us to “make straight in the desert a highway for our God”? Would it be like parting the Red Sea or the Jordan River? Or making way through the crowds clamoring for healing or throwing down palm fronds on the way into Jerusalem? Is it really the people doing the “making way”? Or are the people the ones noticing enough to direct attention at what is breaking into the world, right into the midst of all the messiness and struggle, settling into our heart and spreading to our minds and lives.

And this in-breaking presence of God speaks peace to the faithful, to those who have their hearts turned toward God.

So we don’t have to go to someplace that tells us it’s trying to create a visual of the path of peace. We live it. Frederick Buechner said, “The birth of the child into the darkness of the world made possible not just a new way of understanding life but a new way of living it.” People the world over don’t have to wonder what it’s like to live outside of God’s love because God’s love already broke into our world and prepared for us the Way to salvation. But we forget that we’re in this eternal covenant of God’s steadfast love and grace and mercy. And we have to be reminded that when we greet one another with peace, whether we’re in church or in our cars or on the phone or in the restaurant or the grocery store, we are walking along the path of peace, one that was and is and yet will be.

Steadfast love/mercy and faithfulness/truth meet not just like teenagers on a youth trip, shaking hands and exchanging names. Mercy and truth meeting looks like legislators listening to the constituents showing up at their offices in D.C., outlining the affect health care has on their lives, how grateful they’ve been for the dialysis they’ve received or for every effort made by the medical team to heal the child and provide a refuge for the parents as they watched their child die. In this coming together of mercy and truth, righteousness and peace kiss, coming together in a communion of intimacy and love that bears fruit of something good for all, in legislation that benefits the most, especially the least recognized, the most invisible.

I want a rally cry, and I’m invited to be still. Be alert. Notice the pathway of peace that signals where the feet of God have trod–to the altar, to the food bank doors, to the waiting rooms of health centers, to the kitchen table, to the artist’s canvas, to the inventor’s studio, the programmer’s desk, to the child’s imagination, and to the student’s mind–to everywhere Holy Spirit gives us a taste of the grace and mercy, righteousness and peace that creates what is Good for each of us and all of us. In our haste, chances are we’ve paved over the holy with our good intentions and self-interest, creating a different kind of highway that helps us navigate the mountains and valleys without thinking too much about it. And we have the soundtrack of our lives playing so loudly that there’s no way we’ll hear the voice of a weird-looking guy in the wilderness or even a still, small voice within, nudging us to stop a minute and notice the glimmer of light out of the corner of our eye.

There’s a way that’s been prepared for us. There’s a light that’s broken in in the most unlikely of ways. God’s waiting for us to notice and follow the path.

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Choosing Community

Genesis 45:1-15 | Psalm 133 | Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32 | Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

(These are the main points from Sunday’s sermon, which was very much a homiletical moment born of prayer and preparation . . . but not a script.)

Many times this past week in particular, I’ve heard people say with a weary, heavy heart, that we’re living in dark times, that they haven’t seen or heard things they’ve been seeing or hearing since the ‘50’s, ‘60’s, and ‘70’s. I don’t know how many of you watched Presiding Bishop Curry’s video that was circulating through Facebook. In it, he says that in times of crisis, we have a decision to make. (Times of crisis can be receiving a medical diagnosis, facing a death of a beloved, famine, war, or anything that disrupts our sense of things being as they “should.”) Right now, Bp. Curry points out that we are in a time of crisis, and our decision ultimately determines where we go from here: chaos? or beloved community?

As Christians, as followers of Christ, we better be moving toward beloved community. I think this is where Bp. Curry sees the Jesus Movement taking us, and simply by being here in this place, taking time out of our lives for worship, prayer, and fellowship, we demonstrate that being present at church is part of it. But how do we do it daily, moment to moment?

I remember reading about a story attributed to Cherokee legend, and I told myself I’d never use it in a sermon because it was seemingly too simple, too trite. (I should know better than to say “I’ll never do ….” because I think it just gives the Holy Spirit good ideas for keeping me humble!) But the story bears truth, and I imagine my own Cherokee grandparent telling me the story.

The grandfather tells his grandson a lesson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he tells the boy. “It is a terrible fight between two wolves. One is evil; he is anger, fear, hatred, vitriol, violence, false pride, ego. The other is good; he is joy, peace, love, kindness, compassion, generosity, humility, empathy.

“The same fight is going on inside you–and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson looks intently at his grandfather. “Which wolf wins?” he asks.

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

Choosing beloved community, I believe, is feeding the good wolf. It is choosing to show love and compassion to our neighbors and ourselves for love of God. It does not mean that it is being meek and mild all the time. I’m sure wolves, like mama bears, demonstrate a fierce love with which few would interfere.  In feeding the Good, we show our true strength within, what is truly in our hearts. We show with our actions and our words that we know Christ and follow his Way, choosing what is right and good.

This choice is a conscious decision. Joseph didn’t have to forgive his brothers. He had the power to let them starve, to let them die as they had left him in the pit to die before selling him as a slave. But he chose the high road instead of meeting violence with violence. He was overcome in being with them, of the hope of seeing his father again, and he sought reconciliation with them. After doing the hard work of being with them, dialogue took place.

And what better example do we have of our human condition of treating others than Jesus’ exchange with the Canaanite woman? He called her a “dog.” Whatever racial slur we can imagine, Jesus used it here, as was custom of the time. Yet the woman’s faith persisted. Most likely Jesus knew that his company at the time and we had to see him correct his way of interacting with others so that we’d know how to do it ourselves. Because Jesus already knew the faith of the woman and that her daughter’s wholeness would be restored.

Clearly recent events show us that we don’t always follow in the footsteps of Christ. My heart has been heavy not only with the newsfeeds following Charlottesville but also with the scheduled protest in Hot Springs. White supremacists, KKK, whatever they booked the protest under, were to meet downtown. The Jewish synagogue was advised by the police not to meet for their own safety. A peaceful gathering was advised not to meet at St. Luke’s. Thankfully, the events were well-controlled and well-patrolled. People gathered. It was nonviolent, though words were exchanged, I’m sure. But my heart . . . before I knew for sure that the situation hadn’t combusted into chaos, I was scared for my friends, neighbors, and vulnerable. What we’ve seen in videos and heard in the news is proof that the evil wolf has grown strong in the hearts of many, that disregard of neighbor is a symptom of a deeper sickness.

Katie Couric was in Charlottesville during the rally, and she describes well the cold, bitter anger that runs through the crowd as they shout angrily, standing up for what they believe to be “right.” But in the face of fear, she says she has never been more assured of hope. Because when a huge commotion erupted not far from the cafe where they were, they ran out to a scene where others were already running toward the site where a crowd had been run over by a car. These strangers weren’t necessarily trained professionals, but they were people dominated by the choice to help, to do whatever they could to help those in danger, even though they couldn’t save the life of Heather Heyer. Heather’s father said that his daughter had way more courage than he ever had. She was an advocate for the marginalized. Hope continues to spring up around these events promoting hatred. Maybe it’s because Good has gotten so strong that Evil has to fight louder. Rather than feed the evil, we have to choose to unite around what is good. Never more so than now am I aware that history, again, has its eyes on us, watching what we are doing. (I’m a big Hamilton fan, so don’t be surprised when I use lyrics. I’m only surprised I haven’t done it more often!) People skeptical about religion to begin with are paying attention to how religious leaders and laity alike are standing up or being silent. In a question of Good and Evil, let us be very clear about which side we are on as Christians. Are we following in the footsteps of Jesus all the way to cross, or are we part of the crowd standing in silence? Or are we part of the mob shouting, “Crucify Him!” We have a choice to make.

Being a part of the beloved community, thankfully, means that we don’t do this alone. Yes, we have to make individual choices and make our way through our personal struggles, but even then, we are in community. We go through this life together, with God’s help. Together, we affirm hope. Together, we show love for ourselves, neighbors, and God. And we can do hard things.

I can’t help but think of the family that was rescued in Florida a few weeks ago. Remember? A family got caught in the undertow, and even rescuers were having a hard time getting to them. They were waving their hands in the air, calling for help, and strangers decided to join hands, to make a human chain, in effort to save those who were at risk of drowning. It was scary for them. Those in the current and those along the chain were all at risk. But they did it. Together.

When we link hands in prayer, be it at home or as a line of defense, I imagine us linking hands all the way to Jesus. We have to be the hands and feet of Good here and now. We have to proclaim the Good News in thought, word, and deed, so that others know that hope is alive and well, and that the beloved community will stand up for what is truly right and good.

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We Have All We Need

 

Isaiah 58:1-9 | Psalm 112:1-10 | 1 Corinthians 2:1-12 | Matthew 5:13-20


Knowing how different each of our lives are, I still think I can say with much certainty that we all have a lot on our plate right now. Before we even bring our offering to the Lord’s table, we bring all our anxieties and distress with us when we walk through the door. So, please . . . take a deep breath, drawing in the peace of Christ, and exhale, letting the yoke of all your burdens rest beside you or at your feet, yours to pick up when you leave, if you can’t leave them altogether. Breathe in . . . and out in the luxurious security of this place, with one another, in the presence of Christ. Whatever else is on our plate for today, right now we’re given this time and taking these moments to make way for the light of Christ to break into our reality, perhaps even, as our collect says, to set us free from the bondage of our sins. We need this time more than we realize.

We’re in a place of being perilously close to losing our way, losing our heading of what is true and real.

I share with you a question I was asked on MLK Day. Speaking to a small but beautifully diverse gathering, I was asked sincerely: after all that has happened and is happening, can we be a united people? Sitting here, together, with all our different views, the answer is easy: Of course! We’re all children of God, and we come to the table as one Body in Christ.

But who are we when we’re not gathered on Sunday morning?

The news and media represents all of us as what I call “a hot mess.” Everyone is slapped with a label whether we like it or not, and we navigate our community as part of the majority or minority, the left or the right, the us or the them. A rare news or media outlet will create the safe place of a small group where we can be who we are. Tuesday night at the human trafficking panel, I caught a glimpse of who we are. With care and respect, we delved into a difficult topic. As beloved children of God recognized their woundedness, especially having been harmed by others, they were not helpless victims but strong survivors. Saturated with the Spirit that empowers them to carry on as love warriors, loving of a power greater than themselves and loving of themselves, these women sprinkled their salt generously on those of us present. We couldn’t help but be enriched and hopeful that lives will continue to be touched by grace and saved from harm. However damaged or broken the body might be, the dimmest flicker of light could be tended and kindled to grow ever brighter. At no point did anyone say they did the hard work alone, even though they had to make hard choices for themselves. Their truths sent out ripples of righteousness to all of us gathered.

Beloved child of God we are, but we are also part of a much larger family. We are each of us unique, bestowed with particular gifts and talents, skills and experiences. Unless we have reached a certain point in our life, chances are we’re not sitting still, hiding our light under a bushel.

What are we doing for ourselves and others?

Many of the women who have escaped trafficking or drug abuse find that even getting their life back on track with a steady job, safe home, and healthy kids isn’t as satisfying as reaching back into the darkness to help another escape the pits of destruction. Many today reading the news find that they cannot remain immobile and silent while their neighbors are afraid. That light bearing the brightness of a city on a hill bears the Light of the Body of Christ not to be dampered by the bushels of fear, anger, and indifference the world might try to construct.

Some days we are just trying to breathe under the weight of everything we bear; we’re just trying to survive. Eventually, though, like a candle under a glass jar, the isolation of our self-focus deprives us of the oxygen that fuels our light. Like a single tear dropped into a tub, the saltiness is lost. Even if we’re the most introverted of introverts, we need relationship. We need a friend, a mentor, a teacher. We need the Word, a prayer, and Jesus. We need to listen and be heard. We need to see and be seen.

In our relationships, we have the opportunity to untie some of the complicated knots of deception and injustice, to untangle ourselves from the bondage of sin, of turning away from God, by doing what Jesus tells us to do: to Love. Love God so much we can’t help but love ourselves, and that love is so overwhelming and rich, we can’t keep it all to ourselves but have to share it with others. That doesn’t mean we dance around singing Broadway songs, kissing everyone we meet. It does mean we question our motivations behind our decisions. Is where I spend my money perpetuating justice or enforcing injustice? What am I doing to help release the prisoner trapped either in mind, body, or spirit? Who do I know who is hungry? What am I doing to help feed their hunger? Who needs shelter from whatever storms they are facing? Who is naked and vulnerable? In my wealth and responsibility, what does Jesus command me to do? How can I best love my neighbor?

“Why are you helping me?” someone asked me last week.

“Because you’re a child of God,” I replied, our eyes connecting so he could measure my truth, my heart and soul laid bare.

What are we doing? At our best we are sending out ripples of righteousness not for our sake, not in empty selfish prayers and false piety but for the glory of God, without whom all our works are but dust.

Where do we go from here?

One could say we’re all headed to our death. All living things die as part of our natural order, but we are also a spiritual being. As we move forward in time it seems we make decisions that are either headed toward destruction or restoration, toward isolation or community, toward inadequacy or fulfillment. We move toward death or toward eternal life, to the grave or to the heavenly banquet.

What does it take to move beyond our fear of death long enough to taste true Love, true freedom?

I was reminded of what it feels like to let go in a very physical way when I was at Disneyland just over a week ago. In the 8 hours I was there–from 4pm until midnight–we rode as many rides as we could. Of course not all rides are equal. The caterpillar ride through Alice’s Wonderland differs greatly from the Indiana Jones Adventure ride complete with oncoming boulder I thought I must dodge physically. (I couldn’t get any lower in my seat!) It was on Space Mountain that I felt certain in the twist, turns, and utter darkness that I would die. At one of the crests, I relaxed my death-grip and let my heart leap and expand. In that moment of darkness with pinpricks of light like galaxy stars, I let my eyes be wide open and smiled with peace and sheer joy . . . before being yanked into a valley and slung around another curve, surely going faster than the 35mph the stats say it goes.

As I watched a video being circulated from the New York Times of people at the top of a 10 Meter dive tower, I wondered how different it was for them. They weren’t strapped in a moving vehicle. They climbed the tower stairs and walked to the edge, some more bravely than others. Nearly all the people shown backed away first. Would we willingly take a dangerous plunge? Would we go weak at the knees, or give ourselves a pep talk? Would we give up, declare it an impossibility, and ease ourselves back down the steps we ascended, or would we listen to the encouragement of a friend? Could we dive into the deep end, completely vulnerable, breaking through our irrational yet resounding fear? “I’ll go first,” more than one person said to their companion.

In this high-speed, one-way life of ours, we die many deaths; we take many risks. The Good News, dear Christians, is that we have all that we need to be a people united if we choose to keep moving toward God. We have all that we need to be free, to love fiercely. We have the gift of each other to help us in areas where we are weak, others who are honest, sincere, and righteous. God gave us discerning hearts to know the truth, that we could follow the light and love of Christ and keep moving toward eternal life. This isn’t idealistic spiritual talk; this is our true north. Following the Light, giving glory to God, we’ll not lose our way.

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