Where Is God?

Exodus 12:1-14 | Psalm 149 | Romans 13:8-14 | Matthew 18:15-20

Take a moment to breathe. How are you doing? Because there is a lot going on right now.

Even if everything is wonderful for you, there are people in Houston digging through mold and mud. An earthquake struck South America, and now Florida is being battered by Hurricane Irma. There are people directly affected by the DACA decision, and there are also those being persecuted in Myanmar and refugees fleeing war-torn countries. Thanks be to widespread communications, we are aware of what a mess things are right now, and it is a lot. In the wake of so much that seems like death and destruction, we might ask, “Where is God in all of this?” It’s a faithful question to ask, and how we respond to it says a lot about our theology, our understanding of God.

I have heard some respond that God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle, that hurricanes or disasters are either given to help us be the strong people we are, or that are some kind of consequence for being sinners. Given this line of thinking, God is at the hand of destruction. So much like in Exodus, God is the agent behind the angel of death that destroys the firstborn in Egypt, unless they have been signified as households of God. We might gratefully wipe our brow and dismiss this as “not our position,” relegating it as a position of Jewish theology, this view of a wrathful God who hardens hearts and sacrifices the living. We separate our good selves from people who attribute natural disasters to some trite meaning.

It’s okay for us to say and believe that we don’t understand–we don’t know–why these horrible things are happening, especially to the vulnerable, to people who don’t have options or the ability to change their circumstances. As people who can rationalize anything, we can assign meaning to anything, too, but I caution myself when it comes to ascribing attributes to God based on my finite understanding of how things work. I don’t know. I can’t know. (Along this line, there was also this response to God and the disasters at hand.)

But I do know this: when I look for God in situations, I find God in relationship with people who are looking for God.

  • God was there in the midst of Pharaoh and Moses, giving Pharaoh the chance to heed the warnings being given.
  • God was guiding the people in their preparations for their meal.
  • God is with the people crying out for protection, help, guidance, and deliverance . . . ALL the people.
  • And God is with us who have the ability to respond to the needs of our neighbors.

As part of my job, I consider it a perk to visit with people who have questions about the church, and I love when people ask what’s truly on their minds because it means we’re developing a level of trust between us, we’re entering a loving relationship. After general questions about what my collar’s made of and about some “Episcopalianisms” being clarified, somehow the topic came up about how part of my role as a member of the clergy, is to bring the presence of Christ. As much as my clericals say “the priest is in,” so also do they signify that a person is present who believes that when two or three are gathered, Christ is here. She asked me sincerely, “So do you think Christ is present now?” Yes, of course. Not just because we were talking about religious things, but because we were giving attention to one another. We were listening to one another share stories of who we are, where we were in our lives and work. Surely the presence of the Lord was with us.

I attended the public discussion about the Confederate soldier statue on the square, along with about 140 others. In that mediated discussion, a room full of people agreed to hear what others had to say, even if it meant hearing an opinion that differed from their own. I heard things that made me smile and things that gave me pause. At times, it felt like my heart seized a moment as I wondered if a person truly meant what they said or understood its implications, and at other times, my heart swelled at truth–even painful truth–being spoken. It was a room of people that was trying to be in relationship, and it wasn’t without times of tension. Even though it wasn’t a religious gathering, I felt that there, too, God was in our midst.

Driving home from the event, I was kind of rushed because I hadn’t yet had lunch, and the Saturday night service wasn’t far off. I take a sort of short cut to my neighborhood through another one. Right in front of the stop sign, there’s a house that almost always has its garage door open and at least five or six kids playing with an adult or two sitting in the garage. It’s an African American family, and I almost always smile and wave at them because I admire that the kids are actually playing outside (something I struggle to get my kids to do), and I am grateful to see people of color living in Bentonville. The diversity in Bentonville today is much richer than it was 30 years ago. (Out of the 140 people at the forum, only 3 black people were present.) Rather than just be the crazy lady who waves at them, I’ve always wanted to stop and introduce myself, but it never seems like the right time. I’m always just driving by. This time wasn’t any different, but so filled was I in hope of dialogue and relationship, that I turned left instead of right and parked my car on the street in front of their house and went up to introduce myself in the midst of the little dog and playing children. I met the youngest of the adult children who helps with watching the other kids. They shared some of their family story, and I listened. I mentioned the dialogue about the statue and the lack of presence of black folks, and he wasn’t surprised. I mentioned racism and prejudice and discrimination, not all at the same time, but throughout the conversation, and he mentioned that he had “been black all his life.” Before I left, I told him I just wanted to stop by and introduce myself as a neighbor who was glad to meet them, and he told me I was welcome to stop by anytime. At the end of the day, it’s all about being a good neighbor, right? Living into the commandment to love one another?

It’s easy to get caught up in talking about what to do and leaving ideals in the ideological realm, but I’m more of a mind that we don’t have time for just that. It’s not enough to talk about something. It’s not enough to point out how nice something is for others to do or for theories to exist.

What are we doing now?

As a church we’re signing up to serve, so all of you check out the ministry fair today! We actively serve in our church, a church where everyone is a part of our work and worship. It’s not just about what we do as clergy but what we do as a body. But it’s also not just about what we do in here, within church walls, but about what we do outside. So talk to your neighbors if you don’t already. Bring awareness of the presence of Christ to your midst. If I can do it, anyone can; it just takes getting over that initial barrier outside your comfort zone to find what you didn’t know you were missing.

And there’s something to sharing a meal together. We do it every week here. There’s something about setting a table with intention for nourishment. So, starting next month, I’ll host a “Dinner with the Vicar.” It will be a sign up to come join my family and me for a simple meal, nothing fancy. (I have pets, too, so be forewarned!) Over a meal, we can share our lives together more intimately than just a quick greeting at the back. I’ll continue to meet with folks as much as I can over coffee or wine or at your homes, but I consider this opening a path to deeper relationship. I also consider it an invitation for the church to start a “Dinners for 8” model, where we take turns hosting a meal for folks in our congregation, always open for visitors, so we can share our lives together in a meaningful way, share our stories that we don’t otherwise get a chance to share. Not only for our church family, but I’m opening this up even more broadly by signing up for a People’s Supper. There’s a group that set up a model for “healing suppers” and “bridging suppers,” doing what they suggest in bringing together like-minded folks and then broadening to invite others with a different viewpoint–over a meal.

Wherever we find ourselves, in whatever kind of predicament either good or bad, it’s okay to ask “Where is God in this?” It’s a faithful question to ask because we only ever find what we seek. If we want to find God, look at our relationships. Look at how we care for one another. If we want to find God, look for how we love. If there’s not evidence of love there, maybe it’s up to us to bring the presence of Christ.

 

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Here We Are

Exodus 3:1-15 | Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c | Romans 12:9-21 | Matthew 16:21-28

Don’t you love how Moses’ encounter with God through the burning bush begins by “he was just keeping his father-in-law’s flock…” He was just going about his work, but he wanders beyond the wilderness to THE MOUNTAIN OF GOD” where he doesn’t seem completely surprised to see a burning bush not consumed by the flames. Moses actually wants to see how this thing is happening, turning to get a closer look. That curiosity is a sign to God that Moses is in, and God calls Moses out by name, to which Moses replies, “Here I am.” So begins God’s call to Moses and Moses’ work as a Prophet.

If you were here last week, you got to hear many times over that you are loved. I love you, your neighbors love you. You were minding your own business, going to church like you’re supposed to, and you get told you’re loved. Showing up today as you have before, you could be checking off a to-do item from your daily list. But my hope is that you came here today–that you came last week–and love touched your heart. Maybe you found yourself getting beyond the wilderness and arriving at a place filled with the presence of God, and you knew something was happening because your life became filled with more purpose. Love does that to us. All this search for meaning or wondering what we’re supposed to be doing with our lives to me says that we haven’t yet fallen completely in love with God, that we haven’t yet leaned into God calling us by name so that when we hear it, we say, “Here I am.”

Because that’s scary. As a child I was reprimanded over an intercom by someone nearby playing a joke, and I could’ve sworn it was the voice of God. I’ve rarely been so terrified. Now, that was a prank. Hearing a genuine call from God has more at stake. There is actually material substance involved in denying ourselves, taking up our crosses, and following Jesus. It will cost us money and possessions because we’re busy spreading the wealth and abundance, trusting that there’s enough for everyone. Even more than the material, though, there’s the valuable intangible stuff: time, energy, and ego . . . especially our ego. Because when we show up before God at this altar or in our prayers or out in the woods, we are bare, heart, mind, and soul. God knows how broken and wounded and imperfect we are–all our needs and wants–and knows exactly how perfect we are to do the work that God needs us to do.

And last week I asked if we had become lame as the Body of Christ, unable to do God’s work because we had become so divided. I asked if we needed to be revived as the Body of Christ. And the answer is of course, YES. We need to be revived as a united Body of Christ, even if we have quirky differences in how we understand God’s love revealed in the world or how we practice partaking in Holy Communion. As baptized members united in love of God and one another, we can and must work together for the love of God in the world. This is the perfect time for a revival, especially in our Episcopal Church, a church that truly welcomes all, and this is a message we need to be sharing, loudly and proudly.

This revival talk might make you nervous. You just came to say some prayers and receive the Eucharist. You didn’t come for a revival. But I’m saying if you came to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, if you came to say a prayer for yourself, for your neighbor, for the world, you are participating in the love of God, and God is inviting you to gird up your loins and get ready to do some work. Because the world needs you. The world needs you to show some love–not just any love but the love of God.

Now, I’m not adding anything more to your to-do list (yet). What I want to do now is illustrate how we’re already doing the work! In an essay on Medium, The Reverend Emily Scott outlined Seven Hallmarks of a Progressive Revival (which we could say would be seven hallmarks of the Jesus Movement). She described the revival as a spiritual awakening that calls us not only to confession and repentance but also to do the hard work of opening ourselves to transformation by and through Jesus. So these are the hallmarks that I think you will find strikingly familiar.

  1. An encounter with Jesus: Confidence in Christ and Christ’s transformative power. Has your heart been touched? Has your life changed because an experience of genuine love, healing, and resurrection? Have you had a “burning bush” experience? Our call is to holy discomfort and transformation that is clear, biblical, theological, and radical.
  2. Offers vulnerability: we’re honest and show our woundedness, which reveals what is true. Carry our cross not as a badge of honor but to show suffering and how we heal
  3. Rooted in abundance: There’s enough love, grace, and mercy for all. There’s enough, and our voice has enough power to share the good news for all.
  4. Rejects a whitewashed God: Actively seek to reverse the power imbalances built into all the structures and systems in our society and institutions. We have to be in relationship with others not only to see the imbalances but also to change them. This work isn’t captured in our annual report on paper … yet. In January, you bet we’re going to report ways we’re moving from our heart to the world around us.
  5. Centers the marginalized: especially queerness. Transgress societal norms like Jesus did and bring life to where there was death and brokenness. In doing so, we are all radically transformed by the experience.
  6. Ecumenical and interfaith: uniting for broad justice movements like Dr. Barber’s Moral Mondays reminds us of our common humanity. Interfaith work like the Abrahamic Center aims to do teaches us what it means to be neighbors and learn and grow even we are each other’s “other.” Learning how to cultivate understanding, respect, and compassion is godly work.
  7. Tells the truth: Truth is hard to swallow at times, especially when we take the “hard look in the mirror.” But truth-telling proclaims the gospel–that we’re all created in God’s image, that we are all commanded to love, and that we all have hard work to do for the love of God.

We’re already in the midst of a revival! Now that you know we’re already participating in the revival, be excited about it! Say, “Thanks be to God” in public. Share God’s blessing with others in the name of God. Talk about coming to church to learn how to be part of the Beloved Community. Be proud in a humble way that you belong to a church that is truly struggling to live as Christ commands us to live, even when it’s hard and we don’t clearly see the way. We are living and growing deeper in our relationship with God through Christ, and it’s a beautiful thing. Be nervous about saying you love Jesus, that you’re a Christian (without apologizing), and keep practicing. We don’t want to deny Jesus like Peter did. I know I don’t want to be part of the church MLK, Jr., addressed in his letter from the Birmingham jail. We certainly don’t want to be stumbling blocks on the way to God. We are here now to be building up the kingdom of God.

And we can check ourselves for signs that our lives are set on the divine and not on human things — see Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul gives us a list of over 20 things that say “we get it.” Others notice when our lives have been touched by the love of God. In our conviction, we stand out front in all of our weakness and humility, linked with the marginalized even in our own marginal position within the whole Church. Together, like the clergy with arms linked in Charlottesville or the people forming human chains in Texas floodwaters, we have a bold, clear, moral, and courageous voice that proclaims love of God, that shows we are doing holy work with all our heart, mind, and soul. So, labor on, dear Christians. Here we are. We have good work to do.

 

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Hope, Unity, & Vision

Exodus 1:8-2:10 | Psalm 124 | Romans 12:1-8 | Matthew 16:13-20

At the Christianity panel sponsored by the Tri-faith Club on Tuesday night, there was a question regarding all the different denominations within Christianity. The question really started out with something like: “What’s up with all the different denominations in Christianity?” We were told there are more than 33,000 denominations, and that number continues to grow. So when our collect mentions a church “gathered together in unity,” I pause. “Unity” doesn’t exactly come to mind when thinking of the whole Church, and therein lies a warning flag for a shortcoming in my living into God’s will. So focused am I on “our” well-being as an appendage to the Body of Christ, that I miss the opportunity to pray with all my heart, soul, and mind this prayer of hope that sees–that visualizes– the potential we have as the Body of Christ to give glory to God.

We are taught from a very early age to look out for ourselves, for our kind. It’s a tribal mentality, and I haven’t tried it, but I imagine that if you look at every conflict throughout history, you can see the battles playing out between an “us” and a “them.” We must protect ourselves for our survival. Certainly we have that within our Christian ancestry. Take this genesis story of Moses. The new king didn’t know Joseph; he didn’t know that it had been Joseph’s leadership that had helped the Egyptians and the Hebrews live through the famine. From his place of power, he saw the others, the Hebrews, growing in number, and rather than do the hard work of learning to live together without fear, without oppression, the king leaned harder into the oppression, motivated by his fear of this strong multitude of people. Where was the king’s hope? We can’t see it for the fear of losing power. What is his vision? For a continued reign unchallenged. Where is his sense of unity? Solely within his kind.

(I’m talking about the ancient Egyptians, remember. People who lived thousands of years ago.)

What about the “others”? The apparently growing number of Hebrews, who, even in their subservient place in society, were also growing in power. Whereas the Egyptians feared the Hebrews, the Hebrews, we are told, feared God. At least, the midwives feared God more so than the king. So when they are told to kill the boys born to Hebrew mothers, they commit civil disobedience. They speak the truth when they say that the Hebrew women are vigorous; they are strong from all the labor they have to do. Are they born before the midwife comes to them? I birthed with a midwife who said the baby always started to come when she stepped away to go to the bathroom. Maybe these midwives, too — Shiphrah and Puah — didn’t get there in time. It can happen like that. We have the names of these midwives. Shiphrah and Puah. They had a sense of where they stood in relationship to God. They had a sense of hope in the blessing of their people, that they dare not defy God’s covenant or work against it. Their hope is in God. Their vision is in a people chosen by God. They know the stories of Joseph, Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham, and even more than that, they know the roles of the women in the stories, too. They know the power of the women to continue in God’s work. Their people cannot survive without them. They know they have to work together as a people united to be and stay strong. Out of all of this, Moses is born and rescued–by the cooperation of Egyptian and Hebrew women. Leave it to something innocent, precious, and good like a baby to bring people together, even if they aren’t fully aware of the divine work at play.

We’ll continue with more of Moses next week, but today, where is our hope? What is our vision? Where is our unity?

We, who know the stories of our people, who, like Peter recognize Jesus as the Son of God and are assured the kingdom of heaven, can we kick back and ride out this life on the waves of grace and the assurance of our salvation?

Peter might have been granted this moment of glory with the favor of Jesus shining upon him, but remember that Peter is also the one who denies Jesus three times. Peter is a lot like us in his imperfections, right? He showed us that great faith can get us out of the boat, but our fears can also sink us. We needn’t be so sure of ourselves. We have to know who we are, really.

We have to know where our hope is, and our hope is in the name of the Lord. How many times have we said that? What does that look like in practice? My hope is in God, so even when I’m told to do something that I know in my heart of hearts is wrong, I do not do it. More than that, I say out loud what is true, and if I do what is wrong, I confess and repent and begin again. With the strength of Shiphrah and Puah, I support life and protect the vulnerable, and even if I’m scared, it is hope that I have in God to be with me, behind me, and before me, that I walk in the way of Jesus Christ. Hope in practice looks like living with the marginalized, if not as actual neighbors then as advocates for them. Sharing meals together. Sharing conversations together. Voting on measures that support the poor and silenced. Hope in practice looks a lot like taking the Light of Christ and sharing it with others because it gets stifled and changes when we hoard it for ourselves. We begin to think that the hope and all God’s promises are just for us when we keep hope to ourselves, when we start to enclose ourselves in our echo chambers which are too confined for the Holy Spirit.

Our hope is in the name of the Lord, and our vision is set on the Kingdom of Heaven. Isn’t it? “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done.” We mean that, right? If we don’t pray this every day, we get distracted. We forget what’s important. Our vision gets short-sighted in the busy-ness of our daily lives, and our hope becomes fixed on making it through the next few hours for me and mine. And we do have to take care of ourselves, making sure that our basics are met so that we can help others. But taking care of ourselves doesn’t mean that we only make sure our basics are met; our neighbors need the basics, too. Do you know when and where the food pantries are in our community? (Here’s a link.) As long as there are people starving, we’re going to struggle to share the vision of the kingdom because people are living in hell. When our basic needs are met, we can imagine the kingdom because we’ve tasted abundance. We’ve known love and safety and stability. There are people worldwide who don’t have those experiences. And it doesn’t mean that God is any less with them than us. Don’t for a second think that God doesn’t love someone who is suffering. The culpability is on us, the Body of Christ, the hands and feet of God in this world.

Have we become lame? Do we need to be revived?

Yes, we need to be revived, and we must be united as the Body of Christ. Yes, there will be divisions because we do not agree on everything, but fundamentally, we share one Lord, one Word, one Love. As a Church gathered together in unity by the Holy Spirit, we can’t help but show God’s power of Love in the world, and this is work we must do.

There is hope.

Being new in this community, I’m building relationships. Yes, it’s easier to build relationships with people like “us,” but I’m also looking for opportunities to reach out and unite with others for the sake of Love and to the glory of God. Because we have a Light that shines and illuminates for us a vision of the kingdom. The doors are wide open and sometimes we get a glimpse, like when Camp Mitchell announces it’s open for refugees from the hurricane or when another Magdalene House opens up or brings another woman in. And ultimately, we are a people united, not just as Christians but as children of God, as people of humanity. What unites us? Love. The love that involuntarily bubbles forth when we recognize our common humanity. The love that makes us rush into harm’s way to help another. The love that makes us pick up the crying baby from the river.

At the interfaith prayer service Monday night, Dr. John L. Colbert from the Northwest Arkansas Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Council had a speech prepared and threw it to the wind as the Holy Spirit blew in. His heart showed in his eyes and smile as he greeted us with the energy of a black pastor about to lead us in a gospel sing. He admitted that he was overcome by love as the voices from people gave thanks and as we came together as a people united. And he did the thing that we are so dis-inclined to do. He chided us for sitting so far apart, and he told us that we love being told that we are loved. Then he told us to stand up and tell a neighbor that we love them, to look them in the eyes and say, “I love you.” Laughing genuinely, and I’m sure some were laughing nervously, we all stood up and spent the next five minutes hugging one another, telling each other, “I love you.” And we meant it. You know when you look into the eyes of another person whether they are telling the truth. You know when it’s hard. You know when they’re trying. But if you look into someone’s eyes and say, “I love you” with the love of Christ, that love of Christ shines forth from the depth of your being and rejoices that you’ve given glory to God, allowing a connection to be made, for a union to occur. It might be tenuous at first, but with a lot of practice, all our hopes and vision for the kingdom can be realized if we focus on what unites us.

 

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We Are Saved

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 | Psalm 105, 1-6, 16-22, 45b | Romans 10:5-15 | Matthew 14:22-33

(Asking for a show of hands) How many of you have ever been asked or heard the question asked: “Are you saved?” This isn’t a judgment of you, just a poll to see if its prevalence is what I think it is, especially here in Arkansas. Now, without raising your hand, did you feel like you could respond to this question? Do you feel like you can respond to this question now? Chances are, if you’re a lifelong Episcopalian, you’re a little iffy on this. If you were raised Baptist or something more evangelical, chances are you remember the moment you were saved and maybe more than once when you were baptized. Just so no one gets a nervous sweat going, I’ll offer you a major spoiler: you’re already saved. I know you’re saved because Jesus Christ lived, died, and rose again for us all. But do you know that? Where are you in your life of faith, your understanding of salvation?

Because we can be young in our faith, naive even. We can take for granted the faith and beliefs that we are born into, that are spoon-fed or indoctrinated into us. We can take everything at face value and ask no questions because everything is just fine as it is. We can be like Joseph, confident, self-assured, and gifted. We can have the favor of our father (and/or mother) and just do what we think is right because it’s what we’re told to do or say, even if to others it looks like tattling. We can wear our beautiful garments because they are lovely, unaware of the jealousy we might be inciting in others. We can show up when we are summoned and go where we are sent because obedience comes naturally in our innocence and untested faith. Surely others are as good as we are; surely everyone else means well; surely no one would do anything out of ill will or out of line from God’s will. If someone asked Joseph if he was saved in his youth, prior to his 17th year when his life took a drastic turn, I can imagine him saying, “Saved from what? I am safe. I am part of a Chosen people. I am protected by God.” Would he really have a concept of being “saved”?

About nine years ago, and for a few years thereafter, I would go over to a friend’s house in the afternoons for coffee and conversation, and we would let the kids play. The summer months were especially great because they could play in the pool and would come home exhausted. One afternoon while we were at the kitchen counter right by the backyard door, my friend raced around and ran out the open door, coming back in just a moment later completely soaked and carrying an equally wet Autumn on her hip. Autumn seemed fine. My friend was wide-eyed. “What just happened?” I asked. What happened was that Autumn had just walked down the steps into the pool. My friend noticed her missing from the fray and ran out to find her standing, open-eyed, underwater at the bottom of the pool, right there in the shallow end. She wasn’t afraid. Was she saved? Yes. Did she think she needed to be saved? She had no concept of what she needed saving from.

As we experience more of life, we learn more about consequences of our own decisions and of the decisions of others. We learn more about what might be “out there” that might do us harm. Joseph learned a thing or two about his brothers and how politics work. My daughter has learned a lot about the importance of water safety. We grow and mature in our understanding of life, just as we grow and mature in our life of faith.

Peter and the disciples were learning and growing with Jesus when the five thousand were fed, which precedes our gospel today. The disciples were sent ahead in a boat while Jesus took some time apart. When he was ready, Jesus returned to the boat, walking on the water as he did on the land. This disturbed and terrified the disciples until Jesus assured them, and then, of course, Peter offers a little test of Jesus, who calls him on it.

“Come,” Jesus says to Peter. Come out of your boat to walk across the sea. Come out of your shelter and into the wild. Come away from your fear and toward your hope. Come. Peter sets out, and things were great. Peter got caught up in the moment like Peter does, and he didn’t think things through, like Peter does. He soon notices the wind and gets scared.

We understand this, right? We’re not perfectly aware all the time. We get excited and caught up, and no matter how mature in our faith we are, we can take things for granted. No matter how focused on doing right we are, how devoutly we have our sights set on following Jesus, the winds can blow, pricking our ears toward our fears, reminding us of all the what-ifs. Jesus, as divine as he was human, could walk on water. Our faith so set upon him, what couldn’t we do? But our doubt binds us to our physical confines, the confines of physics in our material world.

To the one standing on water, Peter cries out, “Save me!” and the witness of Jesus saving Peter stirs the hearts of the disciples to worship him as the Son of God. (Out of one person’s experience, eleven other lives were touched.)

Why was Peter sinking? His fear crept in with the wind. The risk of it all. It didn’t make sense to be doing it. He wasn’t prepared for a swim; if he sank into the water, he was going to drown. He was going to die. And he was afraid.

His hand holding mine

Waist-deep in the stormy sea

Faith and doubt collide.

Was Peter saved? Yes. Did he know what he was saved from? Yes, from drowning in the sea. Is that all? Could Jesus have been measuring Peter’s faith in a discernible way? Do we doubt the extent to which Jesus is our savior? Do we doubt God or ourselves? Jesus trusted Peter to come and to make it, but Peter had a choice to make. Jesus knew whatever Peter chose, he was safe. Jesus wasn’t going anywhere.

When we ask someone if they are saved, aren’t we really asking if they are safe? Mind, body, and spirit, do you know you are a beloved child of God?

When we are sheltered like Joseph and Autumn, we are safe. We abide in love. We’re entrusted to our elders, steeped in faith and tradition. Yet we can be unaware of the dangers lurking outside our door or in the hearts of our neighbors. This puts us especially at risk, this vulnerability of innocence.

We’ve seen enough of the world to know what is good and bad, especially what is good for us or not in relationship to God. And we know what we love and cherish. Truth be told, we love and cherish our material world quite a bit. We find it hard to let go of things and people. We get attached. Maybe these others just make us feel good, or maybe we do send a deeper, truer Love that gives us a glimpse of Christ.

When we know we are saved, when we believe in our hearts and confess with our lips, we are saying we know what dangers lurk about us and that we know we are safe. We know that the greatest hell there is to live a life separate from God, for a life lived in sin is a life lived apart from God, outside of God’s will for us. We don’t have to fear an eternity of hell; there are plenty of “hells” this side of eternity–just ask someone living in dire poverty, struggling with addiction, living in war-torn communities, living in fear fueled by ignorance. Whatever storm threatens us, there is a constant that God is in our midst with an understanding of everything that surpasses anything we could even imagine understanding. There is a love we are called to live in that’s easy when when we’re not tested but that is deeper and richer when we know what is at stake.

We are saved. Let that belief be strengthened in your heart so that others don’t need to ask you–they just know in your being. If they don’t just know then may we all have the courage to say that we know a love that passes all understanding through Jesus Christ. This salvation kindles a hope in me for the world. A hope that assures me that love triumphs fear and that we do have good news to share, that we must share not only with our neighbors but with the world.

With blessed feet may we go proclaim the Good News. We are saved.

 

Post-script: 

Believing in our hearts that we are saved, what do we confess with our whole lives, not just the words of our mouth? The violence in Charlottesville–not just the outright fights but also the rally promoting a people divided against “other”–begs the question of who is paying attention? Who is awake? Who will stand up for a way of love of neighbor, truly showing a love for God and self? Let us not sit idly by or take a seat of complacency. Let us discern our way forward together, not fueling a path of fear and violence but growing the way of Love with a fierce dedication to what is truly right and good.

 

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Stories & Light

Exodus 34:29-35 | Psalm 99 | 2 Peter 1:13-21 | Luke 9:28-36

Wherever our lives have taken us, our paths have led us here, to this moment on the Feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord, a feast that marks the occasion of Jesus being transfigured from an ordinary, praying man to the radiant and dazzling Son of God. It will always be significant to me when we baptize someone new and renew our vows because it reminds us that our roots are grounded deep within our tradition. Today, especially, we are reminded that our trajectory is oriented toward the glory of God, our ears attuned toward Christ. We are reminded through story.

We start with our Bible stories because these are our past, even as we bring them to the present. We intelligent folk might get a little tangled up in the verification of facts from fiction in our Holy Scripture. My Old Testament professor, who read her Hebrew as we read our English study Bibles to illuminate discrepancies in translation, pointed out to us time and time again that we were missing the point of our Holy Texts if we were caught up in what was fact or fiction. She said we needed to be concerned with what is True because it could be True and not a fact, and that it is through these holy stories that God reveals the Truth to us. Stories like bearing witness to the glory of God.

We’re given a preview, aren’t we, of the power of the glory of God, from Moses’ encounter at Mt. Sinai? This part of the story is where he was so radiant from being in the presence of the LORD that he scared the people at the bottom of the mountain. After he shared what the LORD our God had told him, he covered his face with a veil and remained covered, presumably, until he was back in the presence of the LORD. Moses’ face was radiant; his face shone with the glory of God from God passing over him. Was it hope? Was it assurance? Was it the perfect combination of grace, mercy, love, and light that illuminated his whole face that he was scary to people who thought they knew who he was? God had changed Moses somehow, but Moses continues unapologetically to do the work God has given him to do.

The highlight of today is our gospel story of Jesus’s transfiguration. Mind you, religiously we understand that a transfiguration is “a complete change of form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state” (per Google definition). Not only does it have a physical component, but there is also something of the Spirit about it that gives it an “exalting” or “glorifying” component (per Merriam-Webster). It was true of Moses, and now we have it in Jesus. But we don’t just have an account. We have a story.

Jesus chose his three fellows–Peter, James, and John–to go up the mountain with him to pray. Were they watchmen or companions or fellow pray-ers, it doesn’t say. But while Jesus was praying–and probably while the disciples were praying, too–they were distracted. They probably felt a disturbance while they were of course bowing with their heads down and eyes closed, but they couldn’t close their eyes again as they saw Jesus’s countenance transfigured, his clothes no longer desert-dingy but dazzling white. They saw blessed Moses and Elijah talking with him, heard them talking about his forthcoming departure that Jesus had mentioned but no one really wanted to comprehend. The three disciples had been so tired, but now they were awake, one might say they were rewarded for their wakefulness to witness this great sight, a sight that Peter wanted to commemorate. But then a great cloud overshadowed them, right . . . like at Sinai with Moses. And they were afraid in this cloud that had a voice that told them, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Then all returns as it was before–except that they had experienced this, hadn’t they? We are told they kept silent and in those days told no one of what they had seen.

(Of course, it’s a great irony that they told no one when we have this story archived in our Holy Scripture.)

They had just seen something truly incredible. How many of us, if we had seen that, would have been able to keep it quiet? How many of us, having experienced something great tell no one?

How many of us, having experienced the grace and love of God, know it in our heart and soul yet keep the good news to ourselves?

Maybe it was easy for Peter, James, and John to keep quiet because they didn’t want to sound crazy or have everyone else judging them. Or maybe they didn’t want incite chaos because it was said that Moses and Elijah would appear before the Messiah. Maybe they were still terrified at the cloud-voice they heard, and they were being quiet themselves until they had explicit instructions from Jesus on what to say and do. He had taken them up the mountain to pray.

Maybe the best prayer advice we can get is to listen.

But they experienced something amazing. Whether they knew it or not, day in and day out they were with Jesus, and he was transfiguring their lives. What they saw happen to Jesus was happening to them, only they had not the eyes and ears to understand. We still don’t understand. But following Jesus changes us, exalts us, glorifies us because when we encounter Truth and Love in the stories we share, we discover more and more of the Light our lives have to bear. Those whose lives had been touched, healed, restored, transformed by the life of Jesus Christ bore a mark to the soul of having been touched by God, just as all of us who have been baptized and sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.

This notion of being elevated to or into the glory of God is not new. Our church mission “is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (BCP, 855). Jesus showed us the way during his life as he went around healing others, welcoming the other, hanging out in the margins, not clinging to stuff or buying into the status quo. His whole life story was about showing us how to find our way back to God. Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Sounds so simple: kind of like just going up a mountain to pray.

But here’s another story.

I’m reading Krista Tippett’s Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, and I find myself rejuvenated by her words and the stories she shares. Mostly, the book is a sharing of stories from people she’s interviewed in her career, particularly through On Being. Early in the book, she mentions Rachel Naomi Remen, “a wise woman and physician” who “first began to challenge the nature of cancer treatment . . . with her realization that every illness has a story attached.” Her understanding that “the details of a person’s life make every cancer or diabetes or heart disease different and every course of healing unique” may have first taken root in her fourth birthday present, given to her by her Hasidic rabbi grandfather: the Birthday of the World (24). The story begins in the holy darkness at the source of life where eventually a great ray of light emerges. Only an accident happens, and the light is broke, shattered and scattered and hidden to this very day. The task of humanity, of course, is to restore the fragmented, hidden light of the world to its wholeness. “We are all healers of the world,” Rachel says, and “It’s not about healing the world by making a huge difference. It’s about healing the world that touches you, that’s around you.” This story from her grandfather touched her in a poignant way and challenged her to consider that not only she herself but all of us are exactly what’s needed to heal the world, not all at once in one fell swoop, but one fragment at a time, one by one.

We understand who we are, in our brokenness and in our restored wholeness, through our stories. We tell our birth stories, as Christians, as human children. We tell our stories of transitions–when and where we went to school, moving across state or countries. We tell stories of hardship, grief, and trauma when we can, usually when we’ve gotten to the other side of them or at least have a little more understanding of them or more support in their midst…when we have more love than fear in place to see with eyes open and a courageous spirit.

So often in these stories, while they are filled with all the who’s, what’s, when’s, and where’s, and probably a good dose of humor or suspense and lots of emotion, where do we see God? Do we point out what is True? What have we learned, what have we gleaned? What has been revealed to us about God that uncovered a fragment of Light that was buried near us?

It could be that we’ve grown accustomed to thinking we had to climb some spiritual–or physical–mountain to achieve enlightenment or the glory of God. But really we have the multi-dimensional here and now to mine. In every direction, who is there to be restored to health? What is broken and needs to be made whole? Like our precious possessions in our home, like our friends, family, and neighbors, everything and everyone has a story. If we listen well enough, we’ll see the Truth and Light revealed. That revelation will change us, if we let it. Whether we say a word or not, others can know in the countenance of our being that “the morning star has risen in our hearts,” that we, too, have been transfigured by the Glory of God.

 

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All the Treasure

Genesis 29:15-28 | Psalm 105:1-11, 45b | Romans 8:26-39 | Matthew 13:31-33,44-52

Two weeks ago when we were beginning our lectionary tango with the parables in Matthew, I approached the parable of the sower gently, opening the treasured parable like we do in Godly Play, like a precious gift to be discovered. And last week we waded into the field of the good seeds and bad weeds, still being very intentional about what Jesus is trying to reveal to us about the kingdom of heaven. But this week, y’all, Jesus is pulling an Oprah, and he’s all: “You get a parable, and you get a parable, and you get a parable. Everyone gets a parable!” It’s like he’s dumping out the whole treasure chest of parables before us in rapid succession with not an explanation given…except for what he mentioned in verses we left out today, verse 35, that says he’s fulfilling what Isaiah had said, that he would “open (his) mouth to speak in parables;/ … (to) proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.” Apparently he was just getting warmed up, and now he’s revealing even more of the kingdom.

And those poor disciples. Jesus says, “Y’all are getting this, right?” I’m certain the disciples are saying, “Yes,” with quavering voices and heads shaking no. And because Jesus has greater faith than we do, he sends the disciples out to do the work anyway. If they understood, and Jesus knew they really did with God’s help, they would spread the word of what was old and what was new and what was revealing the kingdom of heaven in their midst. And that’s what they did.

So here we go, disciples. Jesus is giving it all to us today, just as he did those disciples. We get to sort out the old and the new and what’s relevant to life today.

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, small yet bound to be great. I’m thinking of David, the youngest and least likely of the brothers to be chosen by God but nonetheless a great king of the nation. It was when he was small that he most proved his might in being chosen by God to defeat Goliath. That example is from our Old Testament. What about the New Covenant? What about the small band of disciples that grew from a few being called to a Way that spread across nations, from East to West and North to South? We get Christianity–our Jesus Movement–from meager beginnings and tell the stories that unfold our tradition across the centuries. Just like David, our stories aren’t always perfect, but from our beginning, we are from God. With God and through God we have the potential to give honor and glory to God. It’s just when we get in our own way that we obstruct the path to the kingdom.

And that kingdom is also like yeast that a woman puts into the flour until the measures are leavened, giving the flour just what it needs to rise, uplifted and transformed. Don’t you know when Moses encountered God he was changed? As soon as he was rescued from the river, we knew his story would be told for generations. He was chosen to lead a people out of bondage, humbled as he was by his actions and his voice. But think of Moses after his encounter with the Glory of God on Mt. Sinai. He returned to his people with a whole new understanding, even more so, it seems, than after all his attempts to persuade Pharaoh, mediating between God and the ruler of the land. Moses had been transformed by God. In our story I think of Mary, too, the mother of Jesus; she was one who encountered the Holy and was transformed from an ordinary girl into the Mother of God Incarnate. I don’t know if you can get more transformed than that.

Of course that’s not all.

This kingdom that’s like a seed of great potential and like yeast that transforms the ordinary…this kingdom itself is a treasure, a treasure worth risking all that one has, we are told. Sometimes it’s a treasure so joyfully fulfilling that one is content in just finding it and tending it, loving it dearly and intimately like the beloved in Song of Solomon. Sometimes it’s worth giving away everything just to lay claim to it. I think of Ruth in her devotion to her mother-in-law, her willingness to stay in a foreign land and find a new way forward, leaving behind what was familiar. These stories are in our ancient past, but in our history, too, are stories of people healed and told to keep quiet, though they weren’t very good at that. Lepers healed, restored to health, and one out of ten turning back to Jesus in gratitude. For while he had nothing to give nor lose, Jesus gave him everything, restored life itself for one who thought himself unworthy. If only the healed man could talk to the rich man who just couldn’t sell everything, not even for the kingdom. If only he could give him a glimpse of how valuable a life lived in gratitude to God is. It’s worth so much more than this world has to offer.

And, yes, the kingdom of heaven is a net thrown out to catch every kind of fish. Yes, our Old Covenant says only the chosen people of Israel, but our New Covenant says all and means all. God’s faithfulness throughout time has remained constant, the Word ever-present. There’s no one unfit for service in the kingdom from God’s perspective, but how well are we serving the kingdom ourselves? How well do we reveal the kingdom in our lives? How are we loving God? How are we loving our neighbors? How are we loving ourselves? Are we loving in a way that reveals that we’ve discovered a thing or two about the kingdom and share our treasure with the world near and far?

Jesus gave us everything then as now because he knew what a hot mess we were then and are today. We have a hard time caring for our neighbors. Poverty is complicated. Health care is complicated. Cultural literacy takes time and compassion. Jacob’s trick to garner Esau’s birthright eventually gets met by Laban’s trickery in giving his daughters, and we just can’t believe that people would do that . . . only we really can because we’re human, and we see neighbors betraying neighbors day in and out.

Jesus has emptied all the treasure before us, given us a glimpse of the kingdom in a way we can try to understand, and sends us into the world with what is new and of God to build up the kingdom of heaven. And he hasn’t told just a few of us anointed ones; the Word is here for everyone to read and hear and study and digest. The Word is here to germinate within and transform us, to uncover the treasure we are in the midst of the field and the priceless gifts we are and have to contribute to the kingdom, reminding us also that we have power to choose what is for the kingdom or against it. So, as disciples, as scribes trained for the kingdom of heaven, what is the Word we share with the world? What is the treasure we bring out of the house? What is old? What is new? Our treasure trove is great.

Are we caught like the disciples, saying we understand when Jesus knows we really haven’t a clue? Thank God we have the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whose very sighs usher us toward the will of God, shifting us into alignment. We’re not always going to make the right judgment calls. We’re rarely going to know what to say in difficult situations. Jesus knew, as God knows, that we are perfectly imperfect on our own. As believers, we know this, too, and we know our need for intercession by the Divine.

We’ve been given keys to the kingdom and all the treasure we could ever need, but it comes with the burden of responsibility to share the treasure with others, to break open the kingdom of heaven–God’s dream for us–into our present reality. The parables in relation to the Old Covenant highlighted a relationship with the LORD based upon obedience, steadfast devotion, and fear . . . especially fear. This same LORD our God of the Old Covenant revealed something more of God’s self in the person of Jesus. The parables in relation to our New Covenant with God through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit reveals the transformational and unconditional love of God that forms the ground of being of the kingdom of heaven, of our Church, of our lives.

Why can’t we live our lives, mighty and transformed, joyful and priceless, caught up in God to build up God’s kingdom? What are we afraid of? Of having to take the keys to the kingdom and show someone else the way? Of explaining the mysteries to which we don’t fully have the answers? Of sitting beside someone in agony while the Holy Spirit isn’t sighing quickly enough?

Being a disciple is hard work. Those to whom much is given, much is required, right? Jesus showers us with treasure, gives us everything we never knew we needed until we woke up and realized we can’t do it by ourselves. We run into our imperfection, our weakness, but we catch glimpses of the shiny treasures around us, and we hear the still small voice that whispers, “Remember the wonderful works God has done. Share the goodness. Seek God’s presence continually.” Remember. Share. Seek.

Remember all the ways we and our people are transformed and treasured by God. Share God’s Love. Seek God’s Love flowing not only between us and God but through others, too, everywhere. As we find ourselves more and more surrounded in the reality of the treasures of the parables, maybe we’ll discover that the kingdom of heaven has been here all along, waiting for us to find our way home.

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Seeds & Weeds

Genesis 28:10-19a | Ps. 139:1-11, 22-23 | Romans 8:12-25 | Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

A lone thistle from All Saints’ property.

A few years ago, I recall talking with my dad on the phone as he was out checking the cows, and he was complaining in colorful language how there was another … thistle in the pasture, another weed that–given the smallest window of opportunity–would multiply quickly and continue to contaminate the hay field. It reminded me of when Casey and I laboriously tended to our lawn in Conway, the lawn of the first home we purchased. We wanted to be organic, so I pulled weeds by hand on the lawn that Casey mowed in a certain pattern. Someone told me that one weed would spring forth seven more, at least, if not caught before it matured. I couldn’t imagine pulling up a thistle by hand, definitely not without gloves. Any time I would see thistles along the roadside or in a nearby field, I’d think of my dad and his battle with the thistle, his weed archnemesis, and wonder if that landowner felt the same way, exasperated at trying to get rid of them.

So when I picture the scenario of the parable Jesus gives us today, I imagine the servants looking suspiciously at their master as the weeds–and of course I picture thistles–grow above the wheat. “Trying to cut corners, were you?” they might be thinking. He bought the cheap seed, huh? Got a good deal? Because they had only planted what had been given to them. They had done their job right.

But the master isn’t a fool. He knows what’s going on. While everyone was sleeping, the enemy flung the invasive weed seeds throughout the crop. There was at least a 50% chance for the master to get aggressive in getting rid of the weeds. A chance that he would destroy the weeds and crop alike. To let the weeds and crop grow together would require more work and use valuable resources. There’s a chance the whole field would end plowed up, given up on.

The God of Jacob, who promised to be with him and keep him; the God of David, who is inescapable and knows the way that is everlasting; God, who revealed Himself in the person of Jesus as a sower of good seeds, is not a God of chance.

God knows.

The master knew what was up, what the stakes were, what the stakes are.

We struggle with omniscience. Because if God knows all, what does that mean about our free will? What kind of choice do we have? But if we listen carefully to our treasured parable today, we hear that the Son of Man is the sower of good seed. God, creator of all Creation, saw from the beginning that Creation is good. And that God knows everything means that God knows all variations on a theme of our choosing–from a reality where Adam and Eve stay obedient to a reality where only giving of God’s self brings redemption to the world. The great I AM knows all that is, has been, and will be, even though our human brains cannot even compute the infinite possibilities of the infinite variables at play in the actions and reactions taking place in all the world throughout the cosmos. And Creation is Good.

But what of evil? THE enemy?

Are we Episcopalians even supposed to be talking about evil and the devil? Yes. Because when were the seeds of the evil one sown? When everyone was asleep. When no one was aware. When no one was paying attention. Not until the deed had been done did anyone notice, and did you notice how quick everyone was to put the blame on the master? You planted the bad seed, didn’t you? It’s your fault. We want to do that, too, don’t we? When things go wrong, when life gets hard, we want to say God did it. Or if we’re trying to maintain a sense of faith, we’ll say, “God has a plan.” But it is so out of our hands that we’re just the innocent servants in the field, doing what we can with what we have. We’re just objects in the cog of the machine. Where here, God’s there, and if we’re doing everything right and staying faithful and obedient, evil is nowhere near us.

(If this is what you practice in your life, we need to sit and visit and hash out our theology a bit more.)

Every bit that God is faithful and devoted, inescapable and everlasting: God is Love. This Love is not only all-knowing, but it is also ever-present. So we can lay our head on a rock in the desert and receive a dream that blurs the distinction between heaven and earth and know that the LORD is in this place. We can bare our heart and soul, fears and doubts, joy and praise, and the unconditional Love never fades. We can hope with all hope and stand in the midst of the field when danger is all around and know that we are ultimately okay.

In the goodness of Creation, there was from early on the ability to be against God, to disobey, to interrupt the relationship of unconditional love. That we can do anything means we have choice, and love fully lived into is of free will, otherwise it is not unconditional, true, wholehearted love. And when Jesus tells us to love our enemies, it’s yet another example of Jesus telling us to do what God has already done.

God knows this. But the Devil doesn’t understand Love. The Devil doesn’t understand the devotion of a loving Creator who will go to great lengths–even through death and resurrection–for the sake of the good seeds that have been sown.

Does that mean that the weeds are automatically to be burned in the fiery furnace? We are so hasty to point out the faults of others, to label “us” and “them,” and to judge in general. Given texts that have language of reaping and burning, weeping and gnashing of teeth, we have an arsenal to broadcast fear. I want to be a righteous one, not an evildoer, and if being a “good seed” is too hard, well, I may as well not care at all. Why believe in something that dismisses me out of hand? The Enemy is clever, right? Is apathy worse than fear? It’s not any better. But if we think we are castaways, why bother?

Do you hear what our God who knows is saying today? I won’t hurt the seeds, even those sown by the enemy. I’ll let them grow. My workers will tend to the field, as I command them. The choices that are made will create the end result. Never am I not here. Never have I dismissed them out of hand. Even my enemy’s children have the option to choose love.

While I was in seminary, I had the privilege of being close to Nashville where Becca Stevens began the Magdalene House, a place for women to escape drug addiction and sex trafficking, lives on the streets. The founding principle is that love heals, and I have a couple of shirts and stickers of my own that promote Magdalene House and the social enterprise they started to give the women opportunity to learn and work. As many of you probably know (since we have models based on the Magdalene House in our state), the enterprise is called Thistle Farms. In addition to bath and body products, Thistle Farms sells paper products like greeting cards. In the handmade paper are bits of thistle, particularly the flower. The very weed that was the bane of my dad’s pasture is the very flower sought out by Becca and the rest of the Thistle Farmers. Becca says,

“To me, being a thistle farmer means that the world is our farm and our job is to see the beauty in the areas that have been abandoned or deemed unworthy of cultivating. Our fields include alleys, lots behind malls, railway clearings, and the poorest sections of town. When we harvest a thistle, we see the beauty in all of creation and that nothing should be left to be condemned.”

When she speaks to groups in Tennessee, she’ll often say that if we notice a place where thistle are growing, to let them know. Whether she’s talking about the thistles or the women who need healing, it’s hard to say, but God knows.

And we know, thanks to Jesus Christ, that we bear the burden of responsibility not to judge what is good seeds or bad weeds but to keep our focus on what is of Love. We stand in the midst of the field and know that there is so much more to this life that we don’t know than what we do. We believe even when we can’t fully understand that the boundaries between the realm of the angels and the depths of hell are not that far apart and that the promise of an end of an age happens more often than we realize and continues to happen only as God understands until the reality we perceive matches God’s dream for the kingdom to come. A dream where love is the pervasive reality, a place where love not only heals but also where love always wins and grows among us all.

 

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Our Fertile Ground

 

Genesis 25:19-34 | Ps. 119:105-112 | Romans 8:1-11 | Matthew 13:1-9, 19-23

Hopefully you’re all familiar with the Sunday School curriculum we use with our children: Godly Play. In this curriculum, which is heavily based on story-telling, there are special lessons in golden boxes, golden because they hold something to be treasured and opened like a precious gift. These are the parables, holy mysteries in our tradition. And we tell the story in Jesus’ words and ponder at the mystery of it, wondering–because that’s what we do together in Godly Play, we wonder–what it is that Jesus is really trying to tell us, if we have the eyes to see and ears to hear.

Thanks to our gospel lesson, we impatient adults don’t have to wonder too much today because Matthew shares with us Jesus’ explanation to the disciples. The parable of the sower is focused on the good soil, the fertile ground, that will bear fruit of the kingdom once it’s given the seed of the Word.

Whereas Jesus gave a very quick riddle of sorts to the great crowds that surrounded him (so much so that he makes an auditorium out of the sea side), he explains the parable to the disciples in clearer terms.

  • The word of the kingdom = seed
  • The path = heart
  • The various conditions = world/what’s between the world and the heart
    • Evil one
    • Lack of depth/roots
    • Too much of the secular world

It seems clear-cut, but what does it mean for the “word of the kingdom” to be sown into our “heart”? The seed is not just the words that come from Jesus’s mouth but his very words and deeds, actually himself that is the Word made flesh. Jesus is the seed, sowing himself into the hearts of those who surround him . . . or at least trying to.

What of the various conditions of the soil, of the hearts of the people in whom Jesus Christ is trying to germinate?

In the midst of the pericope we have today, in the verses we jump over, Jesus quotes Isaiah. Isaiah was prophesying what would go wrong with the people of Israel, what would come between them and the LORD their God and set them up for judgment, and we realize that this is also true of the people in Jesus’ time because he says the prophecy is fulfilled in them. They can’t understand or perceive because

“… this people’s heart has grown dull,

And their ears are hard of hearing,

And they have shut their eyes;

So that they might not look with their eyes,

And listen with their ears,

And understand with their heart and turn–

And I would heal them.”

The great crowds are flocking to Jesus for healing, whether they knew it or not. Their hearts drawn to him like a magnet.

Contemporary Christian mystic Cynthia Bourgeault says that the heart–our path, our soil–is an “organ of spiritual perception,” the “perfect holograph” of the divine. Created as we are, perfectly and in God’s image, our heart is the “homing beacon” that ever yearns for its source, its pure identity. Can you imagine the magnetism of Jesus, perfection incarnate? Bourgeault and others point out, however, that our hearts are overrun with interference, which drown out its connection to its source, dulling it so that we neither see nor hear the kingdom at hand, even when it’s within our midst. Our hearts are dull, indeed, our ears hard of hearing, our eyes unable to see.

This might sound very esoteric, but practically speaking, we realize how true this is. If you were to answer on a scale of 1-10 how fertile you think your heart is to receive the Word, to let the Spirit fertilize and nurture the Word in the midst of your life and others so that you bear fruit of the Kingdom, are you super-rich soil at a 10, or nearly depleted and rock-hard at 1? Chances are that we span the spectrum on any given day, really.

During morning prayer, I’m fertile ground, and journaling feels like a dance with Spirit, pouring out my heart and soul, nearly writing poetry in praise and thanksgiving. Then the weeds and thorns start to crowd in with all the stuff of life that has to be done. What if I’ve just gotten back from a conference or a really good gathering that has given me one of those mountain-top experiences? I’m high on life lived in the Spirit, but then I can be devastated by tragic news, someone’s terminal diagnosis, or a challenge I don’t see a way through. Then put me in 5:00 traffic on I-49 in a construction zone, and my heart can become rock-solid. Morning prayer is long-gone, and by the end of the day, I’m too exhausted even for compline.

It would be easier for me to tell you the ingredients we could buy to amend the soil of our hearts, where we could go to find the best soil and keep it ever-fertile and rich, but the truth is, as faithful disciples of Christ, we don’t buy anything or go anywhere. We can’t, actually. We have to be who we are, where we are. We realize that the very heart we have, whatever state of health it is in, it is our path to God. We might get benefit out of a retreat or vacation, to let some of the interference fall away, but we open our hearts right where we are; there’s no escaping them, no place we can go where our heart isn’t with us (at least in the same room, in cases of surgery!) just as there’s nowhere we are that God isn’t also present.

The Word that we see or hear may be out loud or beneath the surface, kind of like a parable, but we only find what we seek, we only see what we’re looking for. We only grow that which we nurture. Any gardener will tell you that a garden requires work and tender loving care to produce the best fruits. Now, Spirit is generous and sometimes gives us abundant volunteers (I used to think the compost pile was an intentional cherry tomato factory), but the best fruits come from loving intention.

Between our God-given heart, the Spirit that dwells within us, and Jesus Christ, the Word that is, as our Psalm suggests, “a lantern to my feet and a light unto my path,” if we focus our attention and intention on God’s will, what is there that we cannot do? It might sound like we have to align the stars just right–and in a way, we do–but it’s not impossible. When we acknowledge and comprehend that God is very much at work in our lives, the stakes change.

Like I’ve said before, life can get harder. The evil one that plucks the Word out of our heart before it’s had a chance to sink in gets even more stealthy as our faithfulness grows. But so do we. We learn what practices keep us nurtured. When and how do we pray. With whom do we surround ourselves? What are we listening to? What are we reading? What kind of community are we nurturing locally and globally in the decisions that we are making? Am I doing this all on my own, or am I letting the Trinity work through me? Am I giving my best effort to tend to my gifts and skills so that when people meet me, they know that I’m doing something important, even if they don’t know what it is. It could be that Jesus is healing them through us.

This has mostly been framed with a mind toward the individual, but it works at the corporate level, the group level, as well. What is the state of the heart of All Saints’? We’ve been planted well, the Word settling deep in our heart. We’re still young as a congregation. Seedlings have to be tended to carefully, often supported by something more stable, as we have been by surrounding parishes and are by the diocese. We’re often repotted when we’ve outgrown our current pot, eventually settling in a place where we can let our roots grow even deeper.

But all the while we are living and growing, participating in the cycles of our lives and the liturgical year, always beginning again with the purpose first and foremost to give glory and praise to God. At the Tri-faith book club, we realized that our traditions all have as our focus to worship God. Worshipping God is part of our mission in the Christian Church, which is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ, in Love. We work toward this restoration through prayer and worship, through proclamation of the Gospel, and by promoting justice, peace, and love. (I’m not just making this up; it’s in the Catechism, BCP p. 855.) These are good practices to keep the heart of All Saints’ nurtured and aerated and nourished so that the Word of the Kingdom will fall onto our rich soil, our ready heart and bring forth the Kingdom of Heaven in ways we have yet to imagine.

And that’s why we hold the parables in their golden boxes. The mysteries they hold are full of divine imagination we will receive differently at various times in our lives. Sometimes we’re ready to understand, and sometimes we can’t quite yet. We have to make sure our path, our heart, is tended to so that when the gifts come our way, we’ll know how valuable they really are.

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Life Partner & Savior

 

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67 | Song of Solomon 2:8-13 | Romans 7:15-25a

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30


I don’t know about you, but I needed this Gospel message this week. “Come to me all who are weary and carrying heavy burdens.” Thank you, Jesus!

Earlier this week I posted on Facebook: “You know you love your vocation when you’re willing to go through all that moving requires.” This week has been the climax of the Milford Family Move, and I’m happy to report that we are 99.8% complete, to be 100% by tomorrow night. Both our movers and my family can attest that we are–quite literally–heavy laden. The driver and head mover said he actually thought about weighing the trailer holding our belongings because he was certain it was one of his heavier loads. (Apparently we have a lot of books.) He kept saying we didn’t have a lot of furniture, but we had a lot of “stuff.” So these last couple of weeks especially, we’ve been busy packing all of our stuff. So busy, in fact, that we’ve had epic to-do lists and plans that start from first thing in the morning until we can’t stay awake any longer at night. Moves can be stressful and all-occupying like that, putting us in a kind of crisis mode, but there’s the tendency to live life that that, isn’t there? Cram as much into a day as it can hold, fill every moment with actionable items, even good deeds, and check every item off as the day turns to night, moving unaccomplished tasks to the next day’s list, if the opportunity still exists. Even when we’re on vacation, the tendency is to pack our itinerary as full of adventures as our bodies and budgets can hold. And we can do pretty well, being the self-reliant busy-bodies we are, but spinning at this breakneck speed isn’t sustainable. Eventually, balls start to drop, and things get off kilter. Suddenly we realize we’ve gotten too self-reliant and maybe even too self-absorbed. Maybe we’re just sharing with others the good deeds we manage to pull off or the highlights of the trip, editing out of our timelines how weary and heavy laden we are. We are as loaded down as my mover’s trailer, holding all the boxes filled to the brim with the stuff of life.

Fortunately, we don’t have to contend with life on our own: we have a life partner and savior in Jesus Christ.

Now, don’t think I’m saying that we all have to consider ourselves married to Jesus; rather, consider a life lived in relationship with Jesus. In God’s triune nature, God shows us that a life fully lived is in relationship, and we are commanded to love God and one another as ourselves. So, we get through life in relationship–not in isolation. I said we didn’t have to think of ourselves as married to Jesus, but there are benefits to thinking about an intimate relationship to Jesus, intimate in a whole-hearted devotion kind of way. Can we dare to be in a loving relationship with God, living with Jesus as our true life partner?

When we think of our marriage vows in the church, mutual joy and respect are big ticket items. There’s no force or coercion but mutual consent, as in Rebekah’s apparent willingness to be Isaac’s wife. Even with God’s favor, she’s given a choice, and we have her words of consent, something we don’t always hear from women in our narratives. Mutuality, devotion, and affection play a tremendous role in successful relationships, as does open and honest communication.

Reading my friend Jerusalem Greer’s book At Home in This Life, I came across the story she shares about her and her husband’s vision of what their hoped-for future farm would look like. Really, it focused on the barn and the hill behind the barn. She pictured a hill covered in wildflowers and a barn renovated to entertain, complete with a huge farm table and a dance floor. He pictured a hill covered in crops, abundant with fruits and veggies, and a barn full of tractor and tools for the work of the land. Both visions and hopes were equally valid but at complete odds and resulted in an epic battle of the wills that they took right on into their marital therapist’s office. Their ideas weren’t on the same page or even in the same book, but the therapist asked them an important question: “Would you want this farm if you weren’t married? Would you want to go for it alone?” What they both realized, even if for different reasons, was that they wouldn’t make the move if they weren’t together. They realized what might sound cliché but what many of us find to be true in our long-term relationships: that they were actually better together.

But it’s hard to be in relationship, even with ourselves, let alone with God and everyone else, and it doesn’t always work out. I think Paul pretty much nails it when he says that he does what he shouldn’t do and can’t do what he should, even when it’s what he wants to do. Basically, it’s easier to do bad than good. Talking with people who are incarcerated, any time we talked about getting on the right path, the folks would talk about how hard it was, and how much easier it is just to do what most likely got them in jail in the first place. I read a review of the Despicable Me 3 movie, and the author mentions that her 5-year-old child wondered whether the main character Gru was a good guy or a bad guy because our lives are often sorted into the good-evil dichotomy. Gru is a villain, but apparently in this movie (which I haven’t seen yet), he’s actually trying to do good, to be a good family guy however dysfunctional the family is, even as he’s planning a robbery. Lives are complicated, and since our perspectives can be skewed, it’s best to focus on ourselves, leaving off the judgment and focusing on the loving others bit . . . because their lives are just as complicated as ours are.

When we realize that we’re becoming awfully judgmental, overly cranky, or completely imbalanced–or whatever your symptoms are when life is out of whack–it’s helpful to remember that we already have a Savior who has not only invited us into an eternal relationship but who also gives us the grace to save us from ourselves. God knows we can’t do everything on our own, but we don’t always know it. When life gets busy, it’s easy to crowd out the prayer time that’s set aside. When there are a million things to do, sitting down to read or write a note or make a phone call or gaze out the window seem like frivolous tasks. They seem “frivolous” when my life isn’t grounded in prayer, when I’ve lost touch of the stillness at the center of my being that resounds loudly with the importance of maintaining my relationship with God and others. Only when I take my focus off of some of the spinning plates and breathe deeply and gaze into the eyes of others or off into the distance, only then do I take time to value my own well-being enough to cherish fully those around me. With this sense of being, when life does get overly full, I hear the words of my Savior calling to me, reminding me, promising me.

The “yoke” is often a rabbinic metaphor for the difficult yet joyous task of obedience to the Torah. I think of the yoke of Christ as being the command to love, to delight in His will and walk in His way–something easy and natural for the Son of God and made easier for us when we are oriented toward God and fully surrendered into a life of obedience to God’s will. Therein lies our salvation.

So, if like me, you were starting to get a little off balance with your expectations or self-imposed demands, remember that God hasn’t called us to save the world with our love or deeds because Jesus Christ has already done that. We have to love God and one another as ourselves with deep devotion and pure affection. Jesus Christ is with us as our eternal life partner and Savior to help us and show us the way. Especially when we need it–and even when we don’t know how much we need it–Jesus calls us to come to him and find rest for our souls, and that is Good News, indeed.

 

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Unity of Spirit

Genesis 22:1-14 | Psalm 13 | Romans 6:12-23 | Matthew 10:40-42

A month or so ago, Krista Mays contacted me, politely asking if I wanted to use Track 1 or Track 2 for our lectionary. Wisely on her part, she mentioned that Track 1 does include the bit about Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac. I grimaced. No one likes that story. What kind of first sermon would it be that mentions human sacrifice at the command of God? (Even though it doesn’t happen.) These are my first split-second thoughts. Then I remembered what I asked Rachel Held Evans at the Insight Lecture at Trinity Cathedral in Little Rock just days before Krista called, something like: “What stories do you find you have to lean into when you really want to ignore them altogether?” So I paused, sort of girded up my loins, and said for this new beginning, we would start with Track 1. I wouldn’t shy away from the difficult. And so we begin our relationship with the lectionary we have today.

Our collect this week asks God to join us “in unity of spirit” by the teaching of the prophets and apostles but chiefly of Jesus Christ. We will spend every Sunday, if not every day we spend in Scripture, gleaning the teachings of our ancestors in the faith. But today, how fortunate we are to have some foundational principles that will guide us in our life together individually and as part of the body of Christ. Especially as we look forward to and imagine the future of All Saints’ . . . we have to know who we are and whose we are. Fortunately, we don’t have to guess what this means. We have a tradition already firmly established in the teachings of Jesus, the prophets, and the apostles.

In a church whose tagline is “The Episcopal Church welcomes you!”, we get the Gospel message today. Our Good News is that whoever you are, wherever you are, you are welcome in this place, you are welcome at God’s table. Given the number of times I think we will have to extend hospitality to each other and the commitments we have made to reach out to others, I know All Saints’ understands the imperative of this teaching to extend welcome to all, to receive one another in the name of Christ, whether we are devout children of God or wandering seekers yearning for something we just can’t wrap our mind around. The graciousness of Spirit that Jesus showed us in his life with all the people he came across, especially the marginalized, that is the graciousness of Spirit we are to embody in our daily lives in whatever way we can.

That’s where the apostles and disciples come in: they show us that the most ordinary folks are acceptable in the eyes of God and that we’re meant to be a motley crew. Last week we got a list of the twelve apostles, but we know there was an even larger band of misfits with them, male and female, young and old, rich and poor, though mostly poor. The apostles teach us that it’s okay to doubt and ask questions. It’s normal to get uncomfortable, especially when Jesus gets excited and breaks yet another social norm, let alone when he starts flipping tables. And they show us that it’s okay to be completely surprised when we do something remarkable in the power of the Spirit. The apostles and disciples show us that if we are full of ourselves, how does that leave room for Jesus to shine through? Only when we’ve given ourselves over to God, become slaves to righteousness, only then can God fully work in our midst, only then is the kingdom of heaven at hand. All of this sums up to living a life in faith and righteousness to the best of our human ability (because we know none of us is perfect).

So we have what we often call the radical hospitality of Jesus and the faith and righteousness of the apostles and disciples. That leaves us with the prophets, and I promised I wouldn’t neglect Abraham.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t normally think of Abraham as a prophet. Father Abraham, yes. Prophet? Of course he is. He gets a remarkable call from God from the beginning to leave his people, and he goes. He’s told he will be the father of nations, though his wife is barren. And when he does finally have sons, one he is told to send away, which he does, and the other he is told to make a sacrifice, which he sets out to do.

Now, if you want to read a remarkable book on Abraham, I commend to you David Rosenberg’s book Abraham: The First Historical Biography. After I told Krista I would do Track 1, in my conversations with the Rabbi in Hot Springs, I asked him nonchalantly, “So, anything in particular I should be mindful of about Abraham if I were, hypothetically, to be preaching on the sacrifice of Isaac?” “Let me think about it,” he said, and the next time we met, he gave me a 300-page book on Abraham, being the good rabbi and Hebrew studies scholar that he is.

The obedience of Abraham, as with all the prophets who eventually accept their calls, is the main teaching that stands out to me today. (Maybe it’s because I’m so close to this most recent transition in my ministry.) But Abrahams’s obedience–particularly related to the near-sacrifice of Isaac–bears particular significance in lessons for our lives in faith. The translation Rosenberg includes in his book has Abraham responding to God not with “Here I am” but with “I am listening.” Not only is Abraham present, but he is actively receiving the Word of God. And Rosenberg describes Abraham’s actions, as the text does, as very physical, very tangible, yet in a dream-like state. There is something at work here beyond the natural realm, but very much in the natural order. For Judaism, God cannot cross to interfere in the natural world because then He would not be trusted ever again. But the boundaries have to be tested. Boundaries like between life, the affirmation of continued existence, and death or the fear of extinction. Isaac is the one upon whom the continued identity of a nation depends. This situation, Rosenberg says, is a “biblical nightmare” because God is testing Abraham with threat of cultural extinction. We realize how incredibly vulnerable this young nation is, a small family in the midst of strangers.

We might think God interfered directly, but Abraham awakes from his trance-like state from the voice of heaven, not entirely unlike the voice of our conscience. Probably with tears streaming down his face as he holds the blade above his son, both of them showing their devout obedience to God above all else, Abraham hears the voice and says, “I am listening.” And he’s told to stop, for Abraham is shown to have “an integrity dedicated to God,” not just fear of God. I love the translation that shows a father of nations to be filled with humility and integrity dedicated to God. That is the kind of obedience we are to show. Not false humility or empty martyrdom, but a complete devotion in knowledge of our strengths and of our faults that we will do nothing but our best to live into the commandment of our LORD. Every day we are listening, we hear the command to love one another as Christ loved us.

Hospitality. Faith and righteousness. Obedience.

The teachings are spelled out for us, but it is up to us to figure out what they look like in practice, what the process of becoming a holy temple will be like. What makes us worthy of the name Christian in the eyes of God?

So I have my sermon prepared by yesterday afternoon when I checked my email and saw the letter from the Bishop about the Little Rock mass shooting early Saturday morning. I had read about it not long after I woke up and thought, as I’m sure many of you did, “How horrible. How senseless.” Like our state leaders, we probably sent up our prayers to the victims and their families. And I went about my day and wasn’t even going to mention it in my sermon . . . except I read the bishop’s letter that challenged us to think about how we can be life-giving when so much of society condones violence as a solution. How hospitable is it for me to look away shaking my head just because the Power Ultra Lounge isn’t my scene and I’d never heard of Finese 2Tymes before Saturday? The victims at the concert were people’s children; the youngest wounded was 16 years old. If it was gang violence, these are individuals looking for belonging in the only places they think they can find it. How faithful and righteous is it for me to ignore or look away from that which is not pleasant and painful? How obedient is it for me to pretend that this doesn’t affect me or us? Because we are all connected. If I’m going to say my prayers matter, then another person’s pain also matters. We can’t turn away or pretend the situation didn’t take place any more than we can pretend that there aren’t some deep-seated issues in our society that need to be addressed for what they are . . . issues that make a place especially susceptible to fatal violence. I don’t expect us to come up with a response for the bishop right away, but he poses questions worth asking ourselves. Keeping our foundation firm in our teaching, we can engage the questions and embark on the arduous journey together.

It will take time, but I aim to meet with everyone here. Don’t be alarmed when I call you . . . consider this your advanced notice, and please let others know who aren’t here. I’ll not show up unexpected, though you are welcome to surprise me. (I’m a big fan of scruffy hospitality, so be at ease.) I want to know how live into your baptismal vows, what keeps you curious about a faithful life, how you see Christ at work in our midst. Together we will discern how we live into these teachings that give us a sure foundation in all we do because no one of us is at the head, save Jesus Christ. When we serve meals, it is the light of Christ we share first. When we visit jails, it is the presence of Christ we bring first. When we pray, it is the voice of God we listen for, surrounded in the presence of Christ, filled with the Holy Spirit.

In everything we do, how and who are we welcoming?

Are we doing it in good faith and righteously?

Are we being obedient to God’s will, or has our own will obscured our way?

The rewards of our practice, of our being Christian grounded in these teachings, is not spelled out in our Gospel today. But allowing the creativity of Spirit to craft our rewards accordingly encourages us to be aware, to keep looking for the glory that awaits us. It won’t necessarily be gold stars or even stars in our crowns, but it will be something like the glory of God manifest in the world around us. Something like that taste of joy when we are aligned with God’s will. Something like the smile of a loving father or mother who tells their child, “Well done, good and faithful one.”

I know we have hard work before us, for Jesus assures us that living as disciples isn’t easy. But our foundation is sure, and our prayers are set for the glory of God. I am blessed to share this journey with you, in unity of spirit, as we fill our community with the light and love of Christ.

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