On Being Provocative

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

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

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

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

“And her countenance was sad no longer.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Giving with Meaning

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17 | Psalm 127 | Hebrews 9:24-28 | Mark 12:38-44

When presented with text that gives us the story of marginalized people, I love to see where God is in the midst of the struggle and hear what it is that Jesus sees as he encounters those whom others might otherwise not see. Such is the case today the story of Naomi and Ruth and in the story of the poor widow and the treasury.

You know me well enough by now to know that my heart goes out to these poor women in our lectionary today. It is easy for me to have compassion for those who are undergoing extreme suffering and hardship. In the Old Testament and the New, people of God are called to care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger–those people who were most at risk in society. We get a sense of how desperate Naomi is when she sends the only one who is left to left to care for her to the tent of a man she is hoping will do right by Ruth. If all goes well for Ruth, Naomi will be cared for, too.

I do struggle with the fact that Ruth is in fact having giving herself to a man in a patriarchal society, obediently giving of herself because her mother-in-law has said she will look out for her and give her a better life. A good life for our children, for future generations is what we all want. But with my 21st-century mindset that hears so much of the evil and horrors in sex trafficking, prostitution, and the #metoo movement, this is a hard story for me to understand. How could the family be in a place where this was their best option, if not their only option? It was a different time a different age, though, and as hard as that is to comprehend, if I had lived that time and if I have been Naomi, this may have been my wish for my daughter-in-law–maybe even for my daughter. Fortunately, it does work out. Boaz marries Ruth, and the LORD sees that they conceive a son, which in turn blesses Naomi with family.

It is easier for me to relate to the poor widow at the treasury who had two coins to rub together but only just. It was all she had to live on, Jesus says, and she’s giving it to the treasury. We don’t know the details of her life, but we know she’s not living without a care in the world. Jesus knows her heart, sees her sacrificial giving, and tells the disciples–without giving the details of her life–that she has given more than everyone else combined. The widows–all three of them–in both of our stories act in great faith. Despite their dire and desperate situations, they can imagine a different way and thus hope for the future. They know there must be something more, and they keep their faith as children of God. Ruth and Naomi didn’t know they would be foremothers of Jesus. The widow at the treasury didn’t know she would be immortalized as a woman who gave all she had that day she went to the treasury, her devotion seen by Jesus even if she didn’t see him.

I want to stay with these women on the margins. My mother was widowed at a young age. I’ve been in a place where I’ve barely had to pennies to rub together. I can’t know what it was like to navigate life as a woman in the first century, but I know something about being a woman in our modern society. As much as I want to go deeper into the stories of our widows, I haven’t been able to shake the tug to look at this from a different perspective.

I am compelled to look at it differently because of the way I feel when Jesus talks about the wealthy giving out of their abundance. The wealthy, giving out of their abundance, come and go, checking of their to-do list for the day. It sounds familiar to me as one who can automate my monthly giving to All Saints’. I can click and give and not really think about it anymore because I live a privileged life. I have freedom to work and travel great distances because I have a care. We actually have two cars in our household. We have a house, too, for that matter–a place where we have our own beds night after night and where we have cabinets and a refrigerator with food to eat. We come to church because we want to, because it does something for us–not because we have to. We can think about spiritual, lofty, and esoteric things because as far as the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are concerned, ours are being met and exceeded. But is my giving out of my abundance really not as meaningful in the eyes of Jesus as the widow who gave everything she had?

I know we’re wrapping up our stewardship season, and you may be thinking, “Um, Mother Sara, shouldn’t you be lifting our spirits about being generous, grateful givers?” The easy answer would be “yes,” but I rarely take the easy road, as much as I may try. What I am more interested in today is how to make our giving truly  valuable, truly meaningful. That’s why we’ve been asking when we talking about giving to All Saints’: “Why All Saints’?” Why do we give to All Saints’? Why do we choose this place as the place we give our time, talent, and treasure to build up the kingdom of God?

I hope that when we give to All Saints’, we are giving in meaningful ways that catch the eye of Jesus through the people in our community. Sure, we may automate our giving, but it doesn’t stop there. We have a vision for the future, too, a hope that we imagine, even if we don’t exactly know how to get there or what it will look like. I know when the dream of a building was being cast, this wasn’t exactly what you had in mind, but here we are. And it is good. There were many All Saints’ folks involved in getting the food pantry and Feast of Grace at Christ the King started, and think of how many lives have been touched. We have neighbors who through the imagination of their daughter started sending art supplies to children who might not otherwise have opportunity for creative expression (I hope we’ll hear more about this in the future!). So many of us give to All Saints’ because we know that there is a sense of welcome in this place that reminds everyone that we are all beloved children of God. Unfortunately, that’s a message most people don’t hear on a regular basis. If you leave this place not feeling that, I’m not doing my job–WE aren’t doing what we’re here to do.

Maybe some of us are giving out of desperation, hoping that by giving to God, the nightmare of our reality will be transformed into God’s dream. Whether or not we’re desperate–and you can certainly be privileged and desperate, don’t get me wrong–we all give for hope of transformation. That whatever material possession we give for the work of God would be transformed into something that conveys the love of God and the presence of Christ at work in the world around us by the power of the Holy Spirit. That’s part of our mission, our work as a church, and it takes all of us. It takes each of us giving with hope and expectation. It takes each of us seeing one another and knowing that we are working together to build something great and good, even if we don’t know exactly what it is God has in store.

God blesses us all with imagination, planting seeds for all the thoughts and ideas that will manifest God’s dream for us. This is our hope for the future, and giving with the hope that we’re nourishing God’s dream makes my giving meaningful enough for me.

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You Are Called . . . Take Heart

Job 42:1-6, 10-17 | Psalm 34:1-8 | Hebrews 7:23-28 | Mark 10:46-52

If thinking about the suffering of Job these past weeks has you feeling more anxious than normal, you can take a deep breath as we conclude his suffering and see his trial over and his fortune restored. Rather than feeling anxious, I find myself more aware of how often I allude to the suffering of Job when I encounter someone with what seems like rotten luck, someone who can’t seem to catch a break. God’s man Job triumphs, remaining blameless and upright, but while we get this lavish description of all that is restored to him–double what he had before in some cases, including his lifetime–we aren’t told–and I don’t see–Job standing triumphant on a pedestal.

Job encountered God in the whirlwind last week and received God’s voice as God described the cosmos and all creation as God created it to be. This wasn’t a divine knockdown; this was God stating what is, revealing creation as seen from God’s perspective. In today’s lesson we hear Job’s response and hopefully can sympathize with him as he realizes that he had spoken without understanding. Now . . . now that he has heard the voice of God with his ears, he has a direct knowledge of God. Now his eyes “see” God as God has been revealed to him, and his new understanding leads him not to “despise himself” as it’s translated or even to “repent,” but to “recant and relent” being but dust and ashes. Job, as blameless and upright as he is, is humbled before God. All that he had said prior to his new understanding of God, he recants: he no longer holds onto his old beliefs. His whole worldview has changed as he relents, giving way to God and accepting his mortality and feeble understanding of the world. For all the riches and extended lifetime he receives, the true beauty of this story is not only Job’s faithfulness to God but also God’s faithfulness to those who believe.

Job’s faithfulness seemed to come easy for him, but we’ve seen in the past weeks that that’s not the case for everyone. The rich man, remember, wanted eternal life and asked Jesus how he could obtain it. When Jesus told him, he balked and turned away. Even the disciples, James and John in particular, said they wanted the best seats in glory, but they were speaking without understanding and knew not what they were asking. Bartimaeus, on the other hand, is a different story.

A blind beggar on the roadside isn’t hard for us to imagine. I can picture the flat, dusty road in Jericho with mountains in the distance, and I can also see in my mind’s eye the crowd surrounding Jesus making their way out of town, heading back toward Jerusalem. The poor, blind man of course heard the approaching crowd and caught the name of Jesus, and he knew him. At least, he knew stories of him, enough to call him out as the Son of David. He had heard of all that Jesus had been doing, and that recognition couldn’t be contained. From his position at the side of the road, “he began to shout and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’”

In typical fashion, those in a more favorable position suppressed the voice from the margin. “Many sternly ordered him to be quiet,” and it’s quite possible that those who didn’t say anything that the man could hear were probably casting him disdainful looks or ignoring him altogether, as was their custom. But the man persisted, crying “out even more loudly” for Jesus’s mercy.

We don’t get a whirlwind here. Jesus stands still, and then he turns the tables when he says, “Call him here.” Notice that? Jesus involves those who are keeping the blind man at bay. You want to follow me? You’re going to do what I say? Practice.

And they do! Maybe with a grimace, maybe a little embarrassed, maybe with a fake smile they say to Bartimaeus, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” Jesus has a way of helping us see one another on a level field. Just as the disciples have been called, so now is Jesus calling Bartimaeus. Whether they’re telling Bartimaeus to take heart or reminding themselves, I see the phrase as one reminding them all to be courageous. Those come-to-Jesus moments take courage, do they not?

Bartimaeus throws off his cloak and springs up to come to Jesus. I’m not exaggerating; this is what it says! He’s excited and doesn’t take a moment to hesitate. When Jesus asks Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus replied, “My teacher, let me see again.” And Jesus tells him his faith has made him well. Immediately Bartimaeus regains sight and follows Jesus on the way.

I’m reminded of the hemorrhaging woman who had nothing to lose and works her way through the crowd to touch the fringe Jesus’s garment. I’m reminded of the Syrophoenician woman with a possessed daughter who also asked the Son of David for mercy and persisted until she got it. These women, like Bartimaeus, knew where society placed them, how it devalued them, yet in their humility, they were persistent and were healed by their faith. But Bartimaeus asked for sight and is the one who is healed and goes on to follow Jesus on the way. He doesn’t look back. He doesn’t even go back to get his cloak, probably one of the few possessions he had. With his new sight, he sees the way forward through Jesus, even if he doesn’t know for certain where that leads. He probably had no idea he was following Jesus and the crowd toward Jerusalem and toward the Passion. Like Job, he has vision revealed through God, which gives insight that exceeds our human understanding.

Does this kind of revelation or restoration still happen today? Of course. It’s why we read the Bible, why we pray, why we gather in community. Because this doesn’t just happen on its own. There has to be intentional effort to give way to this kind of transformation.

Anne Lamott shares a bit of her journey and struggle in a recent Facebook post. She says she often thinks about writing a book called All The People I Still Hate: A Christian Perspective. She hasn’t written it yet, mind you, and in this post she shares why. Anne speaks from her experience in recovery quite openly–recovery from drugs, alcohol, eating disorders, and I think also codependency. She was reminded of her friends who talk about Step Zero, the step before the 12 Steps, the step when you realize “this s*** has GOT to stop.” She realized that since the election she had let herself go into rage mode and be angry until she was reaching a level of toxicity that was bordering on explosive. Focusing on her self-care, she asked herself about her mortality. If she only had one year left, is this the way she’d want to live? No, she’d want to be a “Love bug,” she says, and “if you want to have loving feelings, you have to do loving things.” A huge part of being a loving person is realizing that everyone, even the person you think you despise the most, is a precious child of God.

So she thinks she’s ruined her chances of writing a book about all the people she hates because her whole perspective, her worldview has changed. Taking wisdom from 8-year olds, she’s okay with leaning into the 80% that believes God is there and is good and is within us all the time. Except she flips it to give herself 20% of that goodness, which she thinks is a miracle. The lens through which she views the world has changed; she has new insight, new vision. Like Job and Bartimaeus, she has been restored in a way that only Love can make happen.

And we need that kind of restoration and transformation happening today. When the news is full of two innocent African American people shot and killed in Kroger by a white supremacist, yet another bomb mailed to critics of the president, and a place of worship becoming a scene of terror, cutting short the lives of 11 faithful Jewish people. A CNN story came across my phone this morning: 72 hours in America: Three hate-filled crimes. Three hate-filled suspects. I’ve heard all these stories, and they’re like background music to our lives these days.

This has got to stop. Step Zero.

We can call out for Jesus to have mercy on us, and he already has. It’s up to us to open our eyes, hearts, and minds to see clearly what is happening and follow Jesus on the way of love–a love that doesn’t make peace with injustice and is greater than hate, fear, and even death, if we have eyes to see.

 

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Persist

Job 1:1; 2:1-10 | Psalm 26  | Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12 | Mark 10:2-16

Knowing Jesus’ perfection, maybe rather than asking ourselves “What would Jesus do?” we should ask ourselves “What would Job do?” We wouldn’t have to change the acronym or anything. WWJD still applies. Job, unlike Jesus, doesn’t have divinity in his being; Job is just–like us–fully human. Yet, in times that tried his soul to his very core, Job persisted as one whose actions mirrored his beliefs. Job remained blameless and upright, full of integrity and obedience to God.

If we aren’t careful, we might miss that while we start with the first verse of the Book of Job, we skip right on over to the second chapter. There’s this meeting of the heavenly beings like in the first chapter, and there’s Satan. Let’s check ourselves here, too, before we get carried away in our imaginations. “Satan” is better translated here as the “Adversary” or the “Accuser.” Notes in the Jewish Study Bible say that it’s more like a heavenly prosecutor, like a prosecuting attorney. That makes sense. Because in the Book of Job, one of the basic questions is: Would Job be so faithful even if he weren’t so blessed? Does he fear God, obey God, for nothing or only because he has something to gain? God grants the Adversary permission to try Job . . . but not take his life. All that’s in the first heavenly court meeting or pre-trial chambers.

The rest of Chapter One continues with the Adversary systematically removing Job’s wealth and possessions and even his children. Truly, it’s a horrific account, even with the lone witness coming to tell Job of his loss, the haunting refrain repeated four times: “I alone have escaped to tell you.” In response to these calamities, Job tore his robe, shaved his head, fell to the ground, and worshipped. He neither sinned nor charged God with wrongdoing. Job remains blameless and upright, even prostrate before the LORD in the midst of his devastation.

What we have in our lesson today, then, is the second heavenly council. God is pleased to confirm that Job still persists in his integrity, and I prefer the Jewish Study Bible translation that reads like God says the Adversary incited God against Job “to destroy him for no good reason.” We agree, don’t we? Job didn’t–doesn’t–deserve to suffer this way or in ways to come. Like the people of Job’s day, we tend to have a worldview where if you do good, you get rewarded: calamity befalls those who are bad. This worldview fuels the question of theodicy: why do bad things happen to good people? It doesn’t make sense. We can’t see the reason for it–at least, no good reason. As we encounter Job over the next few weeks, we’ll go along with him as he struggles to find order in his world, in the events happening to him, and like me, you may marvel at his ability to remain blameless and upright.

But Job isn’t perfect. Job isn’t Jesus. Job’s wife isn’t perfect, either.

Job’s wife, who–keep in mind–has also lost her children, is in despair and cannot believe Job’s faithfulness. She taunts him to curse or blaspheme God and die. We sense her desperation and longing to escape misery. Job’s response?

“You speak as any foolish woman would speak.”

That’s a hard line for me to hear this week, when the voices of many women have been minimized, mocked, ignored, or silence . . . as has been common for millenia. And our translation, again per the Jewish Study Bible, is actually more tame than the original Hebrew in just calling the woman “foolish,” losing the sexual promiscuity associated with the Hebrew word. Basically, Job is telling her–his wife–she speaks as any prostitute would speak.

“Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” Job goes on to say to his wife.

In all this, we’re told, Job said nothing sinful. Because Job is blameless and upright, embodying the righteous one before God.

I want to give Job credit for staying with his wife and not casting her aside. By Jewish law, Job could divorce his wife for any cause (Deut 24), releasing her. By Jewish law, she could not do the same. Marital relations in antiquity were no less stressful (and probably were more so) than they are today. But in the time of Jesus, as in some places in our world, women by and large were considered property of their fathers or husbands. Women, unquestionably, were inferior to their male counterparts in society.

So when Jesus defends the sanctity of marriage to the Pharisees and then goes on to use the same language for both the husband and wife in his further response to the disciples, he’s just being Jesus, transgressing those social norms, rocking their worldview.

Thanks to Jesus, we recognize that in a healthy marriage, there is strong emphasis on mutuality. A healthy marriage is one of mutual affection, respect, and joy. The marriage is life-giving for each partner and maybe even life-bearing if it works out that way, though that’s not always the case, nor does it have to be. The two are an embodiment of who God created us to be in God’s image, a harmonious union.

And in case we miss what Jesus was doing there regarding elevating the role of the woman, he reaches out to the very least of those in his society, the children. He gathers them in his arms, lays hands upon them, and blesses them, for they have what it takes to receive the blessing, to receive the kingdom of God.

What does a child have?

Until it’s been taught, children have an unobstructed worldview. They exist, and they need. Children are completely dependent upon their care provider(s). Whether that provider does everything perfectly or not, the child is attached to their source of nourishment, of life.

In times of trial, heaven forbid it ever be like Job’s, we are vulnerable–as vulnerable as a child. We might, like Job’s wife, rather die than endure endless suffering. But that we could be like Job, who maybe in his prostration was curled into the fetal position–as we often are in times of distress–returning to a most child-like state, vulnerable and dependent on the mercy and grace of God, yet persisting in our righteousness and obedience.

So when we hear or read a psalm like Psalm 26, which is a prayer for divine justice, we read it not solely with the voice of David or Job in our head. We read it with the voice of the mistreated wife, the mother in despair, the son not living up to society expectations, the child kicked out of their home. We read it with our own voice as we struggle to make sense of our world. Even if we know we’ve sinned and faltered, we’ve returned to God as a faithful child who delights in the glory of God and stands on level ground–blameless and upright. We, too, bless the LORD, persisting in what is good and true.

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“Running to Obtain Your Promises”

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22 | Psalm 124  | James 5:13-20 | Mark 9:38-50

What I love about longer road trips, be it to Little Rock or even farther to Sewanee, is the ability to ponder for greater lengths of time in relative silence. For these trips it’s often the Scripture that provides fuel for thought. First thoughts for this Sunday hovered around a question inspired by our Collect. “Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure.” “Running to obtain your promises.” Well, what “promises” are we running toward? I don’t argue that most of us are “running.” We’re always running somewhere, and more often than I like, I’m often running late. But am I running toward God’s promises?

Am I running toward eternal life and salvation in Christ? Are you? What does that even look like?

I spent time Wednesday and Thursday in the seminary setting for the annual DuBose lectures and alumni gathering. In Sewanee, the skies were characteristically gray, accompanied by rain that went from drizzle to downpour to flash flood warnings (alerting us to those who hadn’t silenced their phones). Dr. Charles Marsh’s lectures began a three-year focus on racial reconciliation for the lecture series. I confess that I marveled that I hadn’t heard of him before, though the work that he does hits all the marks of someone striving for social justice, particularly in the field of race relations and theology. After the final lecture Thursday, I didn’t really know what to ask or say to him, but I felt compelled at least to say hello and to introduce myself. I told him we have a Continuing the Conversation group that meets once a month to talk about racism and white supremacy. He wants to know more and gave me his email address so we can be in touch. I realized I wanted him to know that there are those of us outside academic settings who are doing the field work he enjoys and deems necessary as we heal and build relationships across divides.

While he spoke about Nazi Germany in the time of Dietrich Bonhoeffer or White Southern Christians in the time of Martin Luther King, Jr., I had the story from Esther in the back of my mind. The query of the king, Esther’s petition, Harbona’s advocacy, and the hanging of Haman on the gallows intended for Mordecai, all unfold around a story of a people oppressed and justice sought and served. Mordecai spreads the news, the need for remembrance and celebration. The psalm reiterates the gratitude of a chosen people helped by their God, “maker of heaven and earth.”

The story and the psalm support an us-them dichotomy. The us-them mentality fuels prejudice, oppression, racism. We’re the good ones, the chosen ones, the right ones, and THEY are outsiders. They are wrong, different, bad, unknown, and outside our understanding. Whichever side we’re coming from, we want God on our side. Surely God’s anger is abated like the king’s when the guilty party hangs on the gallows, right? Surely, justice is served. Or is it?

In our gospel lesson today, John righteously tells Jesus that he was standing up for him when there’s this “other” exorcist casting out demons in the name of Jesus. “We told him to stop,” for this “other” person isn’t one of us, a part of the disciple crowd we’re familiar with. Jesus’ response isn’t a question of “why did you do that?” Jesus simply tells him and the others not to do that, not to stop someone who is actually healing in his name. Doing good in the name of Jesus Christ bears its own reward, and that goodness can’t be reversed or gone against. Let it be.

Then our gospel lesson continues with Jesus going on to talk about when things are bad. This is one of those times when I kind of wish I had skipped reading the footnotes so I wouldn’t be reminded of what the meaning is thought to be. I want to skip it because talking about sexual morality tends to make people uncomfortable, but our study Bible calls this section “temptations to sin.” Jesus admonishes sexual misconduct against children specifically and sexual transgressions generally. There were Jewish laws familiar to his contemporaries. Jesus warns them, lest they continue in sin and go to hell, “where your worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.”

Dr. Marsh also spoke about sin, of course, in his talk about race relations. He shared one description of sin that was something like “inappropriate relationship with another for personal gain, self-fulfillment, and/or self-satisfaction.” Putting oneself first and foremost, violating the first commandment, is basically the root of sin from this perspective, which aligns with how I usually define sin (along with the way MLK, Jr., and many others do): our separation from God. If our sin is harmful to others and separates us from God and God’s will, then the description of hell being a place where your worm never dies and where the fire is never quenched, makes perfect sense. A “worm” is something that eats away at you, destroying your life, and “fire” . . . well . . .  

Like Dr. Marsh, I grew up hearing sermons of fire and brimstone describing hell. An eternally burning fire as an image of hell is likely seared into the minds of many of us. BUT, “everyone is salted with fire,” Jesus says, and “salt is good.” What do you mean, Jesus?

Salt is good. Salt preserves food and adds flavor. We actually need salt to live. But fire? Fire cooks food and can add flavor. Does fire preserve life? Actually, it does. We need the fire of the sun, the energy it provides. We need heat in the cold and heat to clarify impurities. I dare say that we need the burns from our sins to remind us of our need for God, too. Maybe that’s the salt we get from the fire. Our wounds remind us of where our failings are, what our weaknesses are, but we’re given saltiness to keep us aware of the presence of God in our lives and of our dependence upon God’s mercy to obtain any reward that is life-giving, let alone our salvation.

And when we lose our saltiness? Maybe that’s when we’ve become numb to the burn. Maybe we’ve relied on ourselves for so long that we lose our sense of taste for what is truly good. We let our selfish desires eat away at us unceasingly, and our selfish yearnings burn unquenchably because we’ve turned away from the one relationship that actually gives us life and fulfillment. Is there no hope if this is where we find ourselves? Of course not.

“Have salt in yourself,” Jesus says. Recognize our own sins and shortcoming. We’ve all got them, some of us more than others, perhaps. In the reconciliation work being done to try to build up the kingdom of God, we have to be self-aware and do our own healing before we can build relationships or reconcile relationships with others. Only when we’ve been healed by the mercy and grace of God can we then have peace with one another because then we’ll realize that there is no “other.” We can have peace. Period.

Like James reads, if you’re suffering, pray; if you’re happy, sing; if you’re sick, call for healing and prayer; and if you’ve sinned, confess.

How many times are our wrongdoings swept under the rug to fester in the subconscious or in the shadows of our mind? Consider the harm that does to us who do wrong, carrying the weight of the carnage left by the worm that eats away at our authenticity, our Christ-light and life. Consider the victims of those to whom a wrong or injustice has been done. It’s something outside the victim’s realm of control. Most of the time it’s also nearly inconceivable or so “inappropriate” that they don’t want to risk shame, accusation, disbelief, or social ostracization. The victim, too, might suppress the trauma–be it physical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual. The victim might be left to wonder why this happened, and if left all alone might fall into despair, forgetting that God is there–the right relationships waiting to be restored. Dr. Marsh described this as the question of the spectator, asking where God is in times of trial, and the request of the believer, the desire for God to show the way forward.

Maybe that’s what we’re running toward: the life of grace and mercy. We may be running toward life in eternity, but we have our relationships here on this side of the Kingdom tagging along. Lord knows we need grace and mercy, and God can pity us. We’ve created a mess for ourselves. We don’t trust one another to have our best interest at heart because we know we put ourselves first, too. If we truly put God first, we would already be living out the reality of the beloved community, the kingdom of heaven. We don’t need the news to tell us how far from the kingdom we are, but I look forward to a time when the news reflects a people united actually running toward God’s promises, when the news reflects us upholding and protecting those who have been victimized and traumatized, when the news reflects a people who value integrity, when the news–no matter what channel you’re on–shares a vision of a common goal we all share. Call it “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness;” call it “beloved community;” call it “God’s dream for us” or the “kingdom of heaven”; but call it and name it as one goal for us all to unite in so we can run this race together and practice outdoing one another in goodness, giving everything we have to restore one another and all of creation into wholeness to God through Christ.

We don’t have to go anywhere to figure out what it looks like to run toward God’s promises. We recognize our own sins, realize our need for God, and turn to our neighbor in peace. The kingdom of heaven can be here and now, but we’ve still got a long way to go.

 

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Carrying Our Cross

Proverbs 1:20-33 | Psalm 19 | James 3:1-12 | Mark 8:27-38

Where’s the good news today, my friends, in these words where Jesus speaks sternly, rebukes his disciple and friend, and promises to be ashamed of us if we’ve been ashamed of him? Is this a case of “this is going to hurt you more than it hurts me” or Jesus showing us tough love? It might seem like it at first glance, but think of how much we miss in our lives when we’re too hurried. If we rush through the lessons and the gospel today, we might miss the most important invitation of all, which is to take up the cross and follow Jesus.

The seriousness of Jesus’ words and actions catch our attention. He might not be flipping tables here, but he’s using a tone of voice that can stop us mid-stride. Walking along to Caesarea Philippi, we imagine the crowd around Jesus talking and walking along. Jesus seemingly casually asks, “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples answer: “John the Baptist,” “Elijah,” “one of the prophets.” He hears them and shifts the question: “But who do YOU say that I am?” Peter answered him, without hesitation it seems, but maybe because everyone else got really quiet: “You are the Messiah.” Jesus sternly tells them not to tell anyone.

But why not? I mean, Jesus is still walking around doing the amazing things he does, saying the incredible things he says. Why not share that this is the Messiah they’ve all be waiting for? Because he’s not what they’ve been waiting for, as they understand it. Remember, they wanted a militaristic messiah who would overthrow Rome and restore the chosen people to their freedom from oppression. Even as the disciples understood him, they couldn’t grasp who he was and is, really. Their tongues would deceive people at this point in time, not reflecting the full reality of Jesus as Christ.

Jesus goes on to foretell his suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection which is in a way a result of the people’s disappointment that he’s not the messiah they’ve imagined. Mostly, though, this is what will happen. The words that Jesus speaks are the Word of God. He knows this must be the way the salvation of the world unfolds, our great Paschal Mystery. Even hearing this teaching, Peter again steps to the fore, rebuking Jesus, saying things we don’t have recorded. It’s not hard to imagine him telling Jesus he’s off his rocker, that they wouldn’t ever let those things happen to him. Every time I hear this story, I imagine the hurt Peter feels when he’s rebuked by Jesus, something akin to a teacher’s pet being reprimanded by the beloved teacher when he truly thought he was doing what was right. But again, Peter didn’t know, didn’t understand. Jesus is foretelling what is to be. Jesus foretells what makes way for God’s will to be done. Above human understanding, even above human affection and attachment, Jesus places God’s will above all else.

So far it’s been about Jesus and his disciples, right? It’s easy to think about them and their relationship with Jesus, their mistaken understanding because they couldn’t know what was to unfold. We have such a better understanding, right . . . until the words of Jesus turn to a much broader scope as he calls to the crowd and his disciples, and we know as readers of the Word that we’re part of the crowd, too.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” ~ Jesus

First of all, he’s just said that he’s going to suffer, be rejected, and die. Secondly, the cross for them is a symbol of humiliation and torture. Third, our whole life? Isn’t there value in our lives? Don’t our lives need to be here to spread whatever good news we have to share?

As if reading their and our minds, Jesus continues, saying, “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation (meaning that they’ve turned toward other gods and away from the one true God), of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Why does Jesus throw in the shaming language? We notice it, don’t we? Think about what he’s saying.

You’re going to be ashamed of me now, be embarrassed or humiliated to be one of my followers or to heed my words, then so I’ll be ashamed of you.  But do we embarrass or humiliate the Son of Man? The meanings of words get complicated here.

In the Greek, the word translated as “ashamed” is “shall be being on viled.” Vile is the strong word there. We associate vile with toxicity, unpleasantness, foulness, but in archaic terms, it also meant “of little worth or value.” If we place little value on Jesus and his Word, Jesus will also put little value on us. We don’t like to talk about judgment in our church, but here is Jesus saying if we are so selfish as not to heed the Son of Man who gave and gives everything to us, then we can expect to be judged accordingly. Our psalm today assures us that the judgments of the LORD are true and righteous.

Maybe you’re thinking, “Okay, I get the tough love. What’s the good news? Where’s that most important invitation?”

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” ~ Jesus

What if instead of all the self-centered worries and fears that Jesus’ followers had when they first heard these words, we hear them today anew. What if we hear Jesus saying to us these same words but know that

  • we keep our reason, our thinking mind and critical skills,
  • we have faith in a tradition that sees through the suffering and death and knows Easter joy in the Resurrection,
  • we often carry or display crosses as a symbol of the mystery that gives us eternal salvation,
  • And, most importantly, we know that in our baptism we die to a self-centered way of living and give our lives over to God’s will.

In our baptism, we are given a cross–the cross marked on our foreheads. I imagine a great heavenly joke where there’s a blacklight of sorts that shines on the foreheads of Christians to make us feel truly special as it picks up the remnants of the oil from the chrism that marked us as Christ’s own forever.

As children of God in the Christian tradition, we need to know what is expected of us, where the boundaries are, what our consequences are. This isn’t when I start putting conditions or qualifiers around God’s unconditional love for us. God’s love for us, the salvation given to us through Christ, and the power given to us by the Holy Spirit is ours to have, just as Wisdom is ever available to us, should we heed it. When we turn away from God, when we deny Christ, when we squander the power given to us by the Holy Spirit or don’t listen to the Wisdom whispering in our heart of hearts, there are consequences. We set up ourselves to struggle in a self-made cycle of suffering and run in our hamster wheel of self-sufficiency.

Maybe it’s not so much that we have to take up a cross but remember that we already have a cross given to us as a symbol of so much more. Or maybe we want to have that cross to help direct us and guide us because our way of doing things isn’t getting us anywhere. Or maybe we want nothing to do with a cross that is a symbol of humanity’s interpretation of power in the name of God that’s led to so much suffering and pain. We have to pause and listen. We can do a lot of discernment on our own, but sometimes we have to say things out loud to know where things get real and when we are more serious than we’ve ever been.

If we’re going to be serious about being Christians, serious about being followers of Christ, we know it’s not all fun and games. There are times for feasts and merry-making. There are also times to pause and listen to what Jesus is saying to us. There are times to have a reality check and evaluate how we’re doing in carrying that cross of ours, even if no one else can see it.

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Unconventional

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 | Psalm 125 | James 2:1-10, [11-13], 14-17 | Mark 7:24-37

As much as we know it to be true that we aren’t perfect, that we can’t do everything or know everything, there’s something in our society that has conditioned us to believe that we can be those things. Our working norm is that we just need x, y, z to get to that better, bigger, happier place.

Think about a baby shower. A whole list of items promises the parent(s)-to-be that everything will be bright, new, and perfect. Those of us who have been through the phase a time or two or four know that really there are just a few essentials you need. Everything else you need is intangible, but you won’t typically find those items on the registry: items like babysitting while you shower/nap, meals and snacks for the family, phone-a-friend permission at 3am when you’re pretty sure your baby is going to starve to death because you can’t tell if they’re nursing properly, a list of resources for a counselor, lactation consultant, mommy groups . . . you get the idea. In fact, if these are the kinds of things you brought to the Pinterest-perfect baby shower, you’d be getting all the strange looks because your gifts were unconventional at best.

Speaking of “unconventional,” the realtor and I were swapping homeopathic remedies the other day, and I told her of a time when we lived in Fayetteville and were having a pizza party, thanks to my husband’s wood-fired oven in the back yard. The rock patio in front of it wasn’t finished yet, so we had a lot of rocks sort of positioned and scattered around, and there were some places in the flagstone that were sheeting off, leaving some very sharp rocks exposed. Along with our hedgeapple tree in the back, the ground was a landmine of dangers for the barefoot kids inevitably running around, no matter how much we told them to wear their shoes.

My oldest refers to this time in our lives as our “hippy” phase. At best we were pretty granola, but I was surrounded by folks inclined to a more natural lifestyle, which suited me just fine. Of course one of my kids cut his foot on one of the rocks, across the bottom of his foot like a crescent. I fretted over whether to take him to the hospital, wondering if they’d really be able to do anything, worried we couldn’t afford the co-pay. One of the lovely, earthy ladies at the party assured me not to worry, that it didn’t look that bad. She asked if I had any onions and clay. (Fortunately my husband was too busy making pizza when this was all suggested!) But in my gut I trusted her, and after cleaning it as best we could, we used the onion skin and clay to make a pack over the wound, wrapping it with plastic wrap to hold it in place. I could check it in the morning.

When morning came, and I wondered if I had lost my mind, I checked the cut and decided we’d take him to the walk-in clinic. You can imagine the look on the doctor’s face when I told her what we’d done. After she wrote a prescription for an antibiotic, she looked at me incredulously. “If I give you this prescription, you will give it to him, right?” “Of course I will,” I told her; I meant it and followed through. And he’s still doing okay, as far as I can tell, and he says he remembers that night. Taking a little unconventional advice saved me a lot of worry and money (which would have been worth it had he been in danger). I still keep clay on hand for spider bites.

When we cross over from the conventional to unconventional, the whole environment feels precarious, doesn’t it? Do we risk ridicule? What will others think? Will it even work? Am we even right? There’s a lot of uncertainty in unconventionality, and above all things, we fear what we don’t know.

These examples, though, aren’t too far outside the realm of normal or acceptability. What we read about in the Gospel according to Mark takes us to a whole other level.

Not only is an unaccompanied woman approaching Jesus and the disciples at table, but she is a Gentile unaccompanied woman. The only thing I could think of similar in our time would be if I entered the men’s worship space of the Bentonville Islamic Center during their Friday prayers and went straight to the Imam to ask for help. “Unconventional” would be a mild word to describe such an action. I couldn’t imagine doing it unless it were a dire emergency, and for this mother, it is. There wasn’t an ER to which she could take her possessed child. In their time and place, the Jewish people, God’s chosen, are the “children,” and everyone else, the Gentiles, are the “dogs.” I don’t think I need to give examples of the racial slurs used today, for even by mentioning their existence, you already are thinking of them. Could you imagine our neighbor the Imam dismissing me in a time of crisis with demeaning words? Could you imagine if we were getting ready for worship when someone came up for help or assistance, and I cast them away, referring to them with a slur of our time while in the same breath referring to our blessedness?

Why is it okay for Jesus to do it? Is it okay?

We want to jump to the end result: the woman stood her ground, and her daughter is healed. Everything worked out okay.

But we can’t skip over the hard realities, and we know there are many ways we can view what is. There’s a reason why we have several news channels, why we even have four gospels. We all interpret our present moment through our particular lenses. Those lenses, in turn, affect how we judge other people’s actions and reactions.

A woman finds Jesus when he’s trying to go unnoticed. She begs for healing for her daughter, but Jesus points out that the children are fed first, that it’s not fair to throw their food to the dogs. But she points out that even the dogs eat the children’s crumbs, and Jesus says that her daughter is healed, cleansed of the demon that had possessed her. The woman returned home and found the demon gone from her child.

As unconventional and unacceptable as it was for the woman to approach Jesus, so, too, was his offering healing to the Gentile woman, someone from the outside. She was an “other” in every sense of the word, yet Jesus extended his healing grace to her and her daughter. When I read this, I acknowledge that Jesus is using unfavorable images and language, but I see him making a statement of their reality, calling out the dissension in the community. He’s calling it out, and even as she recognizes the duality, the conflict, the woman also recognizes her need and the presence of that which will nourish her and her family. It reminds me of the hemorrhaging woman who had nothing else to lose and just needed to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment. They have faith. They believe. They respond wholeheartedly and vulnerably in the presence of Christ, and they are healed.

Jesus had to state what was the contemporary norm, what was considered conventional and acceptable. To us it seems very un-Jesus-like because Jesus is all about standing up for the poor, the sick, and the needy. He is! Yet he was also in the midst of his faithful followers, who were probably shaking their head in agreement with him even as they looked upon the woman with disdain, if they regarded her at all.

But Jesus crosses over into the unconventional when he listens to the distressed woman, engages with her in conversation, and then heals her daughter as she requested. Because no matter what the social norms were or are, Jesus is about doing the will of God, and God is for everyone, even if our society can’t see that or live into it, evidenced in our ongoing disdain and massacre of one another.

Our gospel continues with what seems like another general healing story, a little more graphic than we’re used to, with Jesus plugging a man’s ears and spitting and touching tongues and all, but a healing to be celebrated for sure. Jesus heals the deaf and mute, giving them ears to hear and mouths to speak. He healed them with curious actions–one might say they’re unconventional–and a word unfamiliar to us: “Ephphatha” or “effata,” meaning “Be opened.”

Open ears and open mouths. Jesus is also known to open eyes, too. Those with eyes to see and ears to hear know something about the way of Jesus. Those with open mouths apparently couldn’t keep them closed as they zealously proclaimed the marvelous deeds of Jesus.

Is it another healing story? Yes. Is it more? I believe so.

Even today, we need to know–however we can–what is going on around us, and we need the courage to see it for what it is, even if we have to call it out. Abuse, harassment, fraud, racism, discrimination, bullying–we could be and probably are witness to any of these things on any given day. Unfortunately, it’s been the norm, the convention, not to ruffle any feathers, to pretend we didn’t notice, or to let it go. Whatever we see is the demon in the child, and we are the mother. Do we bind ourselves to conventionality, our societal norms and expectations, to keep things functioning however dysfunctionally so that everything looks okay on the surface? Or do we realize the crisis of the situation? That we’re only as healthy as our weakest member? Do we have the courage of a mother who is willing to go before God saying, “I’m not leaving until you grant me what I need to get through this.”

Giving unconventional baby shower gift certificates and using homeopathic poultices are baby steps compared to the steps Jesus asks us to take as Christians. May our ears be open to hear the direction God calls us toward, our courage be strengthened to stand strong in the face of the adversary, and our love of God be reflected in our true love of neighbor and ourselves. I look forward to the day when such radical love is the norm.

 

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What We Believe & Why We Do What We Do

Song of Solomon 2:8-13 | Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10 | James 1:17-27 | Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

There’s such familiarity in today’s readings that I feel they must be written on our hearts. These words of love, joy, and unity; words of encouragement and instruction; and words of Truth. These are words we live by–what we believe and what we do.

If you look on The Episcopal Church of the United States’ web page, you’ll find this under the “What We Believe” page:

“As Episcopalians we believe in a loving, liberating, and life-giving God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As constituent members of the Anglican Communion in the United States, we are descendants of and partners with the Church of England and the Scottish Episcopal Church, and are part of the third largest group of Christians in the world.

“We believe in following the teachings of Jesus Christ, whose life, death, and resurrection saved the world.

“We have a legacy of inclusion, aspiring to tell and exemplify God’s love for every human being; women and men serve as bishops, priests, and deacons in our church. Laypeople and clergy cooperate as leaders at all levels of our church. Leadership is a gift from God, and can be expressed by all people in our church, regardless of sexual identity or orientation.

“We believe that God loves you – no exceptions.”

(We’ve also copied it onto our web page since it’s pretty concise. Our web page, by the way, is getting a makeover, so check it out and offer us your feedback!)

We are a church grounded in the love of God, and Jesus Christ has shown us the way. There might be images and connotations in Song of Solomon that make us blush, but if we get past our own immaturity and contemplate a yearning and love of God fulfilled and in perfect unity, we get closer to the sentiment the wise words intend. Jesus has this love for the world, for the Church, for us.

We know we’re not perfect, that we are going to fall and let our own desires and the world come between us and God, but Jesus Christ is there for us, showing us the way, and making way for us to return to unity with God. Don’t you know that the writer of the book of James, had his own struggles to deal with? If he didn’t, his words to the people he’s preaching to wouldn’t ring true. (If you came to the video lectures in Christian education, you know that it’s unlikely that one of the apostles James, wrote the book, but what is written contains Truth, regardless of who wrote it.)

We focus a lot on authenticity, right? We shun hypocrisy, what is fake and insincere. Most of us can probably spot it a mile away, smell it like the stinky mushrooms that are invading my flower bed at home. James is being real. He’s saying, “If this is what you believe, then what do you do?” (He can also be read as a what-you-should-be-doing list, but that’s for another time.) The book of James is big on doing, not just believing and talking, and we’re given a quick test for religion that is pure and undefiled: does it “care for orphans and widows in their distress” and “keep (people) unstained by the world”?

I don’t think I’ve met her yet, but someone asked us through our Facebook messenger page,

“What is your church doing in the community to follow the ways of Jesus in supporting the widow, orphan, immigrant, single mother, impoverished, the LGBTQ community, etc?”

Maybe I should have sat and contemplated our ministry roster (that will be updated for our Ministry Fair on the 16th!), but what I did was reply as quickly as I could, as if I were being confronted by “James” himself:

“Thanks so much for reaching out with such poignant questions! Indeed we hope that we are following the Way of Jesus in many ways that directly reach out in love to the very people you name. For widows, there are several in our congregation, and they find community in their midst. Maybe someday we can have a more formal support for them. Outside the church itself, many widows, orphans, strangers, and immigrants are participants in the food pantry at Christ the King (the church we formerly shared space with). They also have a Feast of Grace once a month that is open to all. We’ve also joined up with the HomeTowne Suites feeding ministry that assists all kinds of folks who happen to find the motel their home. We also have our Spanish-speaking congregation, and we don’t ask about immigration status, though we are supportive of efforts to support anyone who needs assistance/support. Padre Guillermo often participates and offers prayers at events for the Hispanic community. I’m working on my Spanish skills! We were the only church from Bentonville that marched in the Pride parade in Fayetteville this June. We are open and affirming of or LGBTQ+ community, and The Episcopal Church offers marriage for LGBTQ+ partnerships.

“This seems really condensed but hopefully gives you a glance at our work made possible by our faith community nourished by Jesus Christ, our worship together to offer praise to God, and the power of the Holy Spirit.”

This was just a list off the top of my head in response to her questions, and this is just a portion of what we do here at All Saints’ because we believe in a triune God and the teachings and salvation of Jesus Christ.

So why do we do what we do? Why is it important that we do what we do authentically? . . . Because if we do good because of true belief and faith in our hearts, what we do won’t stink.

God knows I’m being lazy with those mushrooms by my front door. I get one whiff of them these days, and I grab the hoe (that I just leave by the porch since it must be stinky mushroom season), break them down, and cover them over with the mulch. I’m probably just encouraging their growth right there, saving the flies that spread their spores the trip. But y’all, these mushroom stink, smell like death or rotten meat. They’re gross. You’d have to be crazy to eat them, and I’m pretty sure your hands would stink for days if you touched them. But God has said it doesn’t really matter if what we touch is clean or not. Whatever we bring into our grasp, whatever we put in our bodies is just going to go to the sewer anyway (or perish in its materialism, yes?).

It’s what’s in our hearts that matters. It’s all that God wants. It’s what Jesus Christ already knows.

It’s easier to just make things look pretty on the outside, to cover up the stench with mulch or Glade or Febreeze or the most beautiful church ever, but to be pure and undefiled . . . that’s going to come from our hearts . . . that’s going to get at the source.

We do all that we do because we believe in a Way of Love, and it’s not always easy. It’s going to mean that we have to hold ourselves accountable and worship with people who might have a different opinion than we have, but what holds us together is greater than our worldly discrepancies, if what holds us together is the Love of God.

God also knows that we like things a certain way in The Episcopal Church. But I’m pretty sure we’re not asked anywhere in the scripture which vestments we wear, how centered the altar is, what kind of windows we have, or what kind of coffee we serve. What we are asked is: if we examine the works that we do, what does that say of our faith? What do we believe, and what does that say of our heart? What do we trust to be true in our heart of hearts? God knows, but if we hold up a mirror to ourselves, do we see clearly? Are we willing to be honest about who we are in all our beauty and imperfections? I believe we are. That’s why we confess. That’s why we reconcile ourselves to God through Christ: so we can receive the Body of Christ and go back out into the world in peace, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit to do good work in the name of a true religion that actually practices love. If that kind of thing isn’t for you, then this isn’t the church for you. If that kind of stirs your heart or gives you goosebumps or makes you smile, then stick around. Because we are a church that believes in Jesus Christ, and we can love one another so much because with all our hearts, souls, and mind, we love God. We love what God can do through us and with us. I love what God does with me, when I am weak and when I’m strong . . . but especially when I’m weak. More than true religion, I know true love. God loves me with that love, and I know without a doubt that God loves you with that true love, too.

 

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Power & Transformation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Being Filled

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

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

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

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

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

People come to church to encounter the presence of God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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