Anticipation & Presence

Isaiah 64:1-9 | Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18 | 1 Corinthians 1:3-9 | Mark 13:24-37

Quite unlike our January 1st New Year’s Day, we in the Church have a less festive way of celebrating our turn of the calendar year, for this is a new year. If you’re keeping track of readings, we’re in Year B now, a year we’ll get to read lots from Mark, and for the Daily Office, we’re starting Year Two. But I doubt many of you stayed up until midnight to mark the occasion–no fireworks, singing, or festive parties. Then you come to church (you faithful lot), and solemnly light one candle and proclaim to you to KEEP AWAKE since second coming may be nigh. What does it all mean?

We say “keep awake” as we enter the darkest time of the year. The last thing I do to keep awake is to turn out all the lights and let things get quiet; that’s actually the perfect setting for really good sleep. We do need good sleep. We’re tired and weary from all our worries and concerns and trying to get everything done. We need rest. We need our basics to be taken care of. So “take care of you” is what I often say. I might have borrowed it from Pretty Woman, but the words get at the oft-forgotten need to truly care for ourselves. When we are rested up, taken care of, safe, and prayed up, there’s something about entering into darkness, letting things be shadowed. We’re aware and alert, appreciative for the intensity of the darkness, grateful for our safety in the unknown, and incredibly sensitive to the liminality of space and time when we just don’t know what might happen next.

Liminal times seem to sneak up on us but are pretty predictable. We find them in our traditions. They have a way of taking us out of chronos, out of chronological, sequential time, and putting us into that no-time and all-time, the moments of kairos time. I was fortunate to be able to attend my friend’s funeral this past week. It was an unexpected death, though we all know we will one day die. Hugging his mother outside the church on the beautiful sunny day, she said, “Good morning,” though it was afternoon, and then laughed through grieving eyes as she said she really didn’t know what time it was. I held her arms and smiled, knowing that in birth and death and all times marked by deep love, these are particular times when the separation between heaven and earth and all dimensions seems so very thin–that if we just closed our eyes, we could reach into the unknown. As we listened to the Word, the music, and the homily, our hearts open and vulnerable, the distance between us and our beloved was not far, and the connection between each of us gathered was nearly palpable.

After the funeral, on the way back home, I opted for the road less traveled. But you know how when you gotta go, you gotta go? That was me. Let me tell you, there aren’t many amenities to choose from in the Ouachita Mountains between Hot Springs and Russellville, but there is a campground at Hollis. If I had listened to my body the first time, I could have stopped at the nice visitor’s center, but I didn’t (that’s another lesson: listen to our bodies!). At the Hollis stop, there was what looked like little yellow Post-It notes on the bathroom doors. I thought it was weird but maybe a new thing to leave notes for folks. (You never know what the new trend is!) Bringing my keys and phone with me, I realized that it wasn’t notes but yellow duct tape over bullet holes that went through the door; the ones that didn’t go through just dented the door and removed the paint. Glad I brought my phone with me (because this is obviously how scary movies get made), I also realized there is no light inside this old-school forestry cinderblock outhouse.

When I got out and stepped back into the fresh air, I was caught in a pause. Maybe it was the fresh air tinged with smoke from the forest fires; maybe it was the twilight. Maybe it was the stillness . . . the stillness of being in the woods when I stop walking along making all manner of noise because it feels like I’m the one disturbing the sacred silence for the lives of those all around me. It’s a feeling of being watched, knowing I’m not alone but also of being unafraid. It’s still. I’m keenly aware, with heightened senses, actually. Looking around expectantly but also waiting patiently because I know I don’t know, but I might just feel the presence of Spirit in my goosebumps or in the swell of my heart or a deep sigh or in an even deeper knowing, though I can’t quite put my finger on it or words to it. It’s a connection to a deep mystery in a brief moment.

I pondered this concept of alertness in stillness and silence and found myself taking a seat at Crystal Bridges in one of my favorite sections of art. Having just been outside, I knew that darkness had settled all around. The lighting in the museum is soft, almost hushed, intentionally angled to highlight pieces, to invite illumination and shadow. We need the light and the dark to see the relief, the detail in the sculptures, the shadows in the painted compositions. It’s amazing and to me conveys the energy the pieces bear. The pieces themselves are alert and vivid but perfectly still . . . silent . . . waiting for the next person to round the corner and engage and notice so that the hidden meanings, the random strokes, every shade and hue can reveal itself to the reaction of another–be it fascination, disgust, or ambivalence. We need light to see, but we don’t need light to feel. We only need relationship, consent to engage one another that we might reveal to the world our beauty of creation, including our shadows, which are part of our beauty. We’re just waiting for the light to come and fully illumine us, that we might be restored in full relationship with God, one another, and ourselves. We yearn to be restored to the fullness of this Holy Presence.

“Show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.”

We think we have to go someplace, do something special, say magic words, but as we say in our Psalm (and will say in our prayers Sunday morning), we need only the light of God’s countenance to be saved . . . from ourselves, from resignation, from the sin of turning away from God, losing ourselves in darkness void of Light. How God’s countenance is shown to us–where it manifests–will be many and varied and in moments and places we might otherwise miss, if we’re not anticipating the Presence to be there. The only thing we have to do is consistently be. Maintain wakefulness. Stay alert. Be aware. So that when we encounter those holy moments, we don’t miss them. Let our lights be dim at home this season. Turn off the notifications on our phones. Make space in our calendars to sit in silence or at least to seek stillness. (There are apps to help — Headspace and Calm are a couple.) Listen to the 1A podcast about silence from Thursday morning. Be alert enough to notice what surrounds us.

When we start to feel like we’re drowning in our own chaos, let’s not miss the Presence calling us into wholeness, casting out a cord of light, of hope so we don’t lose our way. This Advent season is about God restoring us through Christ, but we have to be open and alert to hear the message. It helps to slow down and get quiet to hear that still small voice. It’s okay to sit in the darkness, light a single candle, and wait in anticipation for the light to shine in expected and especially in unexpected ways. It’s what we’ve been waiting for, in this moment and the next. We’ve just been trying to get the timing and the light just right to illuminate what’s there all along: God, the presence of Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit.

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Clarity of Vision

"William Blake - Christ Giving Sight to Bartimaeus - Google Art Project" by William Blake - XQENbMVCvBS7kw at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:William_Blake_-_Christ_Giving_Sight_to_Bartimaeus_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg#/media/File:William_Blake_-_Christ_Giving_Sight_to_Bartimaeus_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg
William Blake – “Christ Giving Sight to Bartimaeus”

The Scripture Texts for Proper 25, Year B, Track 1  are

Job 42:1-6, 10-17 | Psalm 34:1-8, 19-22 | Hebrews 7:23-28 | Mark 10:46-52

It’s a dusty, busy, crowded scene, the street where we find Bartimaeus today. I’m sure Bartimaeus wasn’t the only one begging, and the twelve disciples aren’t the only ones in the crowd following Jesus to Jerusalem. Still others are likely watching the passers-by with curiosity, suspicion, or apathy. The hearts and minds of the men, women, and children sound in myriad voices, a cacophony contrasting with that of the clarity of purpose, the clarity of vision with which Jesus made his way, being one so fully aligned with the will of God.

The scene isn’t dissimilar from today. We are part of the crowd following Jesus. We, like Bartimaeus, ask for mercy. We, too, follow our Lord and Savior toward the promised land through our loud and busy lives.

Every three years in our lectionary, we come to this healing of Bartimaeus, to this scene at Jericho, where Jesus stands still and asks, “What do you want me to do for you?”

“Let me see again,” Bartimaeus says.

“Go,” Jesus tells him, “your faith has made you well.” With regained sight, with renewed vision, Bartimaeus follows Jesus on the way.

Thank you, Jesus, for standing still.

While we may not be blinded by an all-consuming darkness or desperation, we may be wearing blinders, oblivious in other ways. We may be like the crowd telling Bartimaeus to stay down and keep quiet. So focused are we on our goal to where we think we are headed that we might trip upon one another, caught off-guard by the sudden stop in our journey. Jesus is standing still. Hopefully he has our attention.

“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks all of us in our moment of pause.

“Let me see again,” we might say. “Remind me where we’re going, what we’re doing. Restore my vision. Rekindle my passion for God’s will, the fire of Spirit within me.”

We’re crazy to ask such a thing, you know.

If we look around with unobstructed vision, we see things as they are, and we can’t unsee.

Starting with ourselves, we recognize the wholeness Christ brings to our broken lives, the healing we experience through redemption and the power that brings to us.

Then we notice the injustices around us. If you don’t already see, talk to parishioners about Project Hope, Jackson House, or Salvation Army. Ask about Safe Haven, Potter’s Clay, and Samaritan Ministries. Talk to principals, teachers, doctors, and nurses about our local schools and the uninsured. Talk to Kathy, CB, and me about the needs of folks we see here throughout the week and about other people and agencies that are struggling to meet those needs. Jesus opens our eyes to see, our minds to understand.

With clear vision, with wholeness and well-being, Jesus tells us to “Go.” Where else have we to go but after Jesus? He’s not telling us to go away from him. There is no place we can go that Jesus hasn’t already been or isn’t already present. In our moment of pause, we are re-set, but we can’t stay still, basking in the radiance of Christ. He doesn’t say, “Stay.” He says, “Go.” We are, after all, his disciples. We are to get moving. We follow him.

Next Sunday in our National Cathedral in D.C., Presiding-Bishop-elect Michael Curry will be installed as Presiding Bishop. In a recent interview, Bp. Curry says that one thing we most need in The Episcopal Church is “clarity of gospel vision.” According to Bp. Curry, who sees his position as CEO of The Episcopal Church also as “chief evangelical officer,” this clarity of vision means we Christians are clear about our role in what he calls the “Jesus Movement.” We are full-blown evangelists, proclaiming the good news of Christ, making more disciples, baptizing in the name of the triune God, all the while following Jesus on the way to the promised land. (He knows this is crazy, too, which is why he wrote a book called Crazy Christians. But it’s a good crazy.)

Evangelism doesn’t mean making others come to our church, which is probably the thought that makes most Episcopalians shudder. Evangelism “happens where we get into the deeper spiritual thing where (our faith stories) meet.”* It means my path crosses with someone else’s on the journey, and we pause together long enough to create a relationship. Somehow, when we open our eyes, we can open our hearts, too. Following Jesus takes us to places where we meet people face to face. We look into the eyes of a child we mentor and marvel at the hope still brightly shining, no matter what her life circumstances may be. We drop off the box of food at a place that doesn’t seem like much but is home to a family. We pray over the wounds of the sick and grasp the soiled hand because that is what love in action looks like. This is what Jesus has taught us to do. This, Curry says, “sets the stage for the Spirit to do what the Spirit’s going to do. And at that point, … it’s up to the person and the Spirit.”

We open up a space for love to intercede.

This is what evangelism looks like to us today.

For us Christians, evangelism includes talking about our faith in Jesus. It means talking about where we find God in our lives, especially in grace-filled moments. Sharing our stories with others about how we came to St. Luke’s and why we stay gives witness to others about how we follow Jesus through this place.

We understand we are following Jesus first and foremost. We love St. Luke’s with a passion. We’re going to raise a lot of money to assure our church’s stability and future, but we’re not a building first and then followers of Jesus. We’re following the way of Jesus, moving toward the kingdom with every thought and step inside and outside these blessed walls. We want to enable our church here in Hot Springs to continue to offer the many resources it provides to us and to our community. We want the ministries offered to grow because there is need and because we are called to serve. In this place we can be still, be healed, and go out again to share our ongoing story in Christ.

I often hear people say that if they’re still alive, they still have a purpose. Of course we do. We have the particular purpose of being disciples of Jesus, of following his way yet in our individual ways.

In Jericho, it looked like realizing we were wrong to hold Bartimaeus back and telling him to “take heart; get up,” helping him to move into the presence of Jesus and then walking alongside him toward Jerusalem.

Today as we move with Jesus, it can look like listening — listening to the friend who needs to share her sorrows and loneliness. Listening to our kids–young or old–who need our attention and affection especially when they are trying our patience. We hear the need and, as Jesus showed us, we stop to listen.

Today, moving with Jesus looks like stepping out of our comfortable routine to volunteer with those who expand our understanding of the human condition, giving our most valuable resource of time.

Being part of the Jesus movement looks like sharing this feast and other meals with all kinds of people, supporting ministries, organizations, and institutions that promote the teachings of Jesus and bring the promised land a little closer.

Our role as disciples requires vision made clear by faith in Christ. We need this clarity of vision to keep us on the path Jesus has already forged for us. Lord knows I need to stop more often than every three years to be still and regain my focus. Daily prayer helps keep us closer God and more aware of the grace of God in our lives, keeping us ever-ready to share the good news with others. Weekly worship helps unify the body of Christ, strengthening that clarity of gospel vision that leads us as a church forward, following Jesus through all that is and is yet to come. So we go today with restored vision to make room for Spirit to do some work, God’s will be done.

*“Michael B. Curry: Christian leaders need clarity of gospel vision,” Faith & Leadership, Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, October 19, 2015, accessed October 22, 2015, https://www.faithandleadership.com/michael-b-curry-christian-leaders-need-clarity-gospel-vision.

Image used is part of Google Art Project and is licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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Jesus Feeds His People

Sermon at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, 2 August 2015

The Scripture Texts for Proper 13, Year B, Track 2  are:

Exodus 16:2-4,9-15 | Psalm 78:23-29 | Ephesians 4:1-16 | John 6:24-35


Jesus has a way of attracting the crowds, doesn’t he?

It’s true that if you offer food, people will usually come, and those who have a specialty tend to gain loyal followers. Jesus always seems to get his hands on some bread. We don’t have accounts of him making it (I’m sure there’s a Martha or Mary on hand for that), but Jesus will take the bread, give thanks for it, and share it with those around him–whether it’s five or five thousand people.

We can imagine breaking off our portion of the loaf, dipping it in the oil, enjoying the company of others. There is such contentment in being fed, being comfortably full. There’s no doubt that Jesus fed his people.

But the contentment of being full wanes as hunger rolls around again. After their digestive lull in which they seemingly miss Jesus walking on water, the crowd of five thousand wakes up to presumably realize that they are hungry again and that their meal ticket has moved on.

With a nagging and growing hunger, they pursue Jesus, the one who not only healed people but fed them. When they catch up with Jesus, he confronts their hunger head on. They don’t really want to talk about a prophet or rabbi; they want some more food.

When Jesus offers the true bread from heaven, that’s what the people want–the good stuff that endures for eternity and gives life to the world.

“Sir, give us this bread always.”

I wonder if they could comprehend what they were receiving.

I am the bread of life,” Jesus says. “Believe in me and never be hungry, never be thirsty.”

Really, Jesus? Just believe and hunger goes away?

Do you want to be the one to explain that to one in five children in the U.S. who suffers from food insecurity, children who don’t know where their next meal is coming from? It’s no wonder the people started to ask for another sign, because it’s crazy talk to ignore the needs of our bodies. We have to be physically nourished to do any kind of work, and we have to work to provide nourishment to our families.

We spend a lot of effort just trying to survive.

But you know, the crowd is listening to Jesus.

In his presence, they attend to his words and hear his promises to give life, to do the will of God, and never to drive away those who come to him or to lose those given to him. He promises eternal life and resurrection. (This is primarily in the verses we skip between this week and next in the lectionary.)

We’re listening hard, just as they must have been in Capernaum.

Our bodies are not eternal. Jesus knows that. Jesus lived in the flesh, in the confines of the physical body. We all are bound to the temporal world and live and die as mortals. Jesus knew and knows our hunger in the physical body. Jesus knows hunger, knows pain as we know it, though on a scale that we cannot fathom.

Jesus knows hunger as we know it, and maybe he saw it as one of the few ways we can understand true desire, true longing.

If you have ever felt within you a fullness of life that swells your heart and threatens to overwhelm you with joy because you feel Love, then chances are you have been in the presence of Christ. There is a fullness and wholeness that come from being in this presence that envelops us with a peacefulness that does pass all understanding, and words fall short.

Stillness. True contentment. Things of the world tend to fall away. Remember hunger? Aren’t you hungry? Oh, yes. But there’s plenty of food, enough for everyone. So content are we feeding on the presence of Christ, the bread of heaven, that we eat a bit and pass it around. There is an abundance, which is enough for everyone.

When we operate from this place of abundance, we are in the good days, quite aware of Jesus in our lives. “Give us this day our daily bread,” we pray. We do the work of believing, as Jesus said, so that we can be fed with enough to live in this precarious balance between the temporal and spiritual. We come close to loving God, neighbor, and self, living in right relationship with each other.

But we are of this world, and our awareness shifts in any given moment, our focus easily distracted. It’s natural to get hungry and need to eat. It’s wonderful to be full, take a nap and go into what I call digestive auto-pilot. What isn’t in our best interest is to be separated from God. Separation sets us up for bad days.

We can get separated by lack of belief sparked by tragedy or apathy. We can get in our own way. As soon as we put ourselves first, focus on what we want, think we are in control or can judge others, we lose focus on the presence of Christ that is still, as always, right before us. Unless we sustain our belief in the one whom God has sent, we will hunger, we will thirst. There are many ways to suffer. We can be so hungry that a snack pack looks like a feast and so empty that we can eat and eat and never get full, the void being so great.

We need to be reminded sometimes that our heart and soul has known the fullness of Christ and was created in God’s image. Having known the peace of God, we want to return to it, we long for it. We ask for ourselves and for others, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

It’s already been given. It’s up to us to see it, and we don’t have to look far or try to imagine anything. It’s here and now. We can expect to see Jesus, if we first believe he is here. Those of you at Women’s Institute heard Bishop Stephen Charlston say that in matters of Spirit, we are more accurate to say “believing is seeing.” It is up to us to do the work to find the bread of life in our midst. It is our responsibility to do the work of believing.

I know that wherever I could have gone after seminary, I would be able to find Christ, but I can’t imagine being anywhere else right now. In this place, the hard work of believing is being done, and that belief radiates from our very being.

As I get to know you better, you’ll teach me the ways you sustain your faith, how I can work with you to strengthen our belief. I look forward to what we’ll learn and share together in the upcoming Faith Journey class, to which all are welcome. Already, in this place, I see life being shared. With gratitude and generosity, our abundance is shared with those who come searching.  Look at the eyes of those who are working and of those who are searching, and we cannot help but see that Jesus is here.

Any and all of you who were here Thursday night in body or spirit know the power of this community, the significance of coming together to be fed. Hope and healing were on the menu that night. Nearly two hundred were fed.

There’s plenty more to feed, and there’s more than enough to go around.

Jesus is still feeding his people.

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