What Are We Begging For?

1 Kings 19:1-4, (5-7), 8-15a | Psalm 42 and 43 | Galatians 3:23-29 | Luke 8:26-39

Leave it to the gospel to alert us when things are not okay, when there’s something we’re called to notice and maybe even wrestle with. Surely your ears perked up when we’re told a man with demons met Jesus, a naked man at that, one who lives in the tombs. As if that weren’t “interesting” enough, the demon(s) speak to Jesus, naming him as “Jesus, Son of the Most High God” and begging not to be tormented, which results in Jesus casting out Legion into a herd of swine that then rushes off to drown in a lake. This is our Holy Scripture. This is one of many stories that can give us pause as we wonder, “But what does it mean? What is God saying to God’s people?” As we reaffirm nearly every time we engage in scriptural study, the Word of God can mean many things to different people in various contexts. An important question to ask–and faithfully discern–is where does this holy story intersect with our lives? Before we can match anything up, we have to look closely at what we’re given from as many angles as possible. I’m not going to get to all of them, but there are three in particular that offer a greater depth of understanding.

The spiritual aspect of this story takes main stage, for the focus here is on an exorcism. We don’t talk a lot about exorcisms in The Episcopal Church, but we, too, have exorcists, and the bishops know who their diocesan go-to person is. (It’s not me!) Even though the disciples grapple with understanding who Jesus is, this man possessed by Legion knows right away who Jesus is. (A Roman legion was about 5,000-6,000 men.) The demon knows the command Jesus has over the realm of spirit, which exceeds any physical power as neither chains nor shackles could contain the man before. The demons must also know something of the compassion Jesus has, appealing to the Son of God not to torment them, leaving the demons to their inherent destruction even to the point of self-destruction, for even though they begged not to be ordered to go back into the abyss, when the swine drowned, the demons ended up in the abyss anyway.

The personal or individual aspect of this story is inherently spiritual, too, but in a different way. Focus for a moment on one man possessed but then exorcised and healed by Jesus. We’re told that he sits “at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.” This man, in his right mind, speaking for himself and not for the demons, begs of Jesus to let him go with him basically to become another one of his disciples following him on his way. But Jesus sends him away, to return to his home. In his home he is to “declare how much God has done for (him).” Jesus will give the demons what they want but not the man who’s been restored? Yes. It’s not hard to imagine his disappointment, as we’ve all had prayers that were, at least to us, unanswered (we didn’t get what we said we wanted). And yet. . . The man went to his home and proclaimed what Jesus had done for him and became, along with the disciples, a prominent voice for the Gospel among the Gentiles. This man was himself a Gentile. This man had been transformed by his encounter with Jesus, and what is more powerful than hearing about the transformation of someone who is like you? Transformation is a powerful thing.

Which brings me to the third aspect of understanding this story: the corporate or collective level. What happen with the masses? The swineherds saw what happened and ran off and told everyone in the city and the country. All the people who could came to see for themselves and saw one of their own–whom they had cast out, remember, whom they had chained and shackled and left naked and in the tombs–healed (in his right mind), clothed, and sitting at the feet of Jesus. Did they rejoice in the man’s healing? Did they now beg of Jesus as the demons and then the man had? They did not rejoice; in fact, we’re told they were afraid. They didn’t beg, but we are told they asked Jesus to leave “for they were seized with great fear.” It’s actually after the people ask Jesus to leave that the healed man begs to go with Jesus, and I don’t blame him one bit. The man knows what these people are capable of, and now he sees them afraid. When people are scared, it generally doesn’t make them act any better. I overheard one son ask the other what he would do first in the case of a zombie apocalypse, and after his brother’s response he said that the first thing he would do is try to calm down because he would be freaking out and would need to calm down to think clearly. Our former demoniac is thinking clearly; he’s in his right mind. And he wants to go with Jesus and his crew, not stay with these people who are afraid of staying in the presence of the power and mystery of Jesus, Son of the Most High God.

As I see it, it is just as scary now as it was then to live within the realm of Jesus Christ. It’s a place where power as we understand it can be overturned, where life as we know it can be changed forever, and where resistance in the form of fear battles forces of supreme love. If we’ve been in that battle ground and emerged transformed, with greater understanding, we want to stay in that place. Yet so often that’s not where we’re called to be. God may send us back to the battleground to proclaim how much God has done for us, to share our transformation story with others. We may, like Elijah, be sent back to the wilderness, to carry on until our work is truly done. We may, like Paul, be sent ever outward, travelling as far and wide as we can to proclaim the Good News that through faith in Jesus Christ we are children of God, wholly and inclusively. 

It may be hard, but the healing we know from our deepest wounds reveals the power of God in ways that only wisdom of experience can convey. It’s why outreach workers in the Oxford Houses are supposed to be people who have been through the Oxford House model themselves. It’s why the best counselors have done the personal work themselves. It’s why the voices of those living in poverty are the most powerful testimonies to why we need to advocate for change. It’s why those who have immigrated and those who have fled their countries of origin as refugees are the only ones who can help people in power understand how to fix what is fundamentally missing or broken in our current systems and institutions.

Faced with Truth, we understand real, liberated, restored power, and for those of us functioning with temporal, materialistic power, we realize our weakness, our lack of understanding, and some of the depths of what is unknown. Only when we’ve swam in those depths and came ashore with a tale to tale do we have any idea of te power at play, the grandeur and greatness of God. Evan Garner, the rector at St. Paul’s in Fayetteville contributed to the “Reflections on the Lectionary” in Christian Century on this passage from Luke (June 5, 2019, p. 21). He very astutely writes,

“Sometimes the terror we know is more tolerable than the peace we cannot imagine.”

Our demons are still legion. Addiction of all kinds, mental health issues, poverty, racism, fear, and hatred . . . there are many. And when we get closer to knowing the peace, love, and liberation through Christ, it can seem like if not be that we are confronted with our own demonic cocktail, made specifically for us to chain and shackle us in the tombs. But I don’t think this is where we’re left in our understanding of this story.

The question becomes, “What are we begging for?” What are we asking for that will truly satiate us? What are we asking God of that no matter how it gets answered, when we hear the voice of God in the silence, we’re willing to go where God leads? Most often the spiritual journey doesn’t take us any farther than our own home but takes us to great depths in spiritual maturity.

Vulnerable, shackled by all the societal norms that surround us, with the freedom from the tombs of death promised by our faith in Jesus Christ, what is it that we beg for to experience true liberation? In our Noon Bible Study, we’re reading Rachel Held Evans’ Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again. She writes about Jacob wrestling with the angel until he gets what he asks for, even if his encounter leaves him with a limp. In the reading guide provide on the website, we’re invited to consider what we would be willing to wrestle God about through the Bible. What is it that we long for? What would we be willing to beg of God, or are we too afraid of what God can do? Eternal life in God through Christ or destruction empowered by our limited self? The life lived in Christ is not an easy one, but our joy and gladness are inextricably tied to the light and truth of God. Therein lies our ultimate liberation, something worth begging for.

 

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They

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31 | Psalm 8 | Romans 5:1-5 | John 16:12-15

(a draft of the homiletical moment)

I speak to you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sharing these words with you before I preach centers me and brings me to a sense of presence that I know I don’t have on my own. This Trinity Sunday, it gives me extra pause to contemplate how grateful I am that we have a Triune God–God in three persons–and what it means to me in practice of my faith.

If you want to know what we mean by the Trinity, you could flip back to the back of The Book of Common Prayer (pages 864-865) to the Historical Documents section and read through “The Creed of Saint Athanasius.” From the first lines you see that one’s very salvation depends upon adherence to the “Catholic Faith,” the universal faith, which is “That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance” (BCP 864). There’s also a bit about believing rightly in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, most of which we convey in our Nicean Creed. Fortunately, we’re not tested over this. I don’t even recall an incident of someone returning from a near death experience asking what was meant by the true Catholic Faith.

Am I grateful for the Athanasian Creed when I say I’m grateful for a Triune God? I appreciate that people have wrestled with what it means, its implications, and have tried to make sense of 1+1+1=1. Mainly, I am grateful for a God whose very being is relational–our God in three persons, blessed trinity. The God who in the beginning said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness” (Gen 1:26). The God who visited Abraham, manifest as three strangers, and inspires what I consider one of the most inviting icons, Rubliev’s Hospitality of Abraham. 

There’s so much about God that we can’t understand. Abraham and Sarah didn’t understand how they would have a child in their old age. The disciples didn’t understand everything Jesus was telling them about the kingdom, about the Advocate, about the Father in whom he said we all abide.

Thank goodness we’re justified by our faith and not by our complete understanding, yes?

We believe in a relational God who values love above all else–a selfless, rich, all-encompassing love. We believe in a God who defies all boundaries, despite our attempts to draw lines around what God is/isn’t. When for so long we call God “He,” we might be inclined to forget that God is so much more than any masculine image we might conjure.

I appreciate what our transgender community is teaching us about getting outside our solely binary way of thinking. At the parade this weekend, a friend drew my attention to a child sitting in the back of a truck like royalty, the mother tending to the dress, face, and hair. She told me, “I want to go over and talk to the mom, but I’m not sure what pronouns to use.” Watching the two, smiling admiringly at them, I suggested she tell the woman, “What a beautiful child. What pronouns does the child use?” With such a simple question, we immediately empower the child and the mother, too, who is probably more often than not made to feel weak and other rather than uplifted. And in this situation, again, we have a beautiful trinity–of mother, child, and neighbor–dancing together in a loving relationship.

Richard Rohr calls his book on the Trinity The Divine Dance for a reason. With only two, we can get caught in either-or thinking, becoming polarized and at a stand-off. I think we’re entirely too familiar with this end result. But with three, there’s something more. There’s another way; there’s motion. It’s a dance. There’s a fulness of relationship. There’s God.

Rohr shares this poem:

God for us, we call you Father.

God alongside us, we call you Jesus.

God within us, we call you Holy Spirit.

You are the eternal mystery that enables, enfolds, and enlivens all things,

Even us and even me.

Every name falls short of your goodness and greatness.

We can only see who you are in what is.

We ask for such perfect seeing–

As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.

Amen. (So be it.)

–Richard Rohr, “Trinity Prayer,” 2005

In our lives, love, and relationships, may we always leave room for the other, especially allowing space for us to dance with the Holy Spirit.

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What Do You Want?

Acts 16:9-15 | Psalm 67 | Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5 | John 5:1-9

As the weather beckons us outdoors, it is not lost on me that many are fueled in their connection to the divine by being outside. It is crucial that we maintain a relationship with Creation, remembering that we, after all, are the stewards of this fragile earth. Amidst storms, tornadoes, and raging waters, we realize our fragility, too, our vulnerability with forces greater than ourselves. We do the best we can at any given moment, and truly only God knows what the effects will be generations down the road. But like the brand Seventh Generation, who attributes their guiding principle to the ancient philosophy of the Iriquois, we need to think about the actions we take now and how they will affect the sustainability of the future even to seven generations (that’s our great5-grandchildren).

This line of thought about decision-making comes to mind when I hear Jesus asking the ill man at the waters near the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem and after taking the last of the family systems classes I’ve been taking this past year. The man at the pool was asked a question about his personal well-being, and in family systems thinking, we think about ourselves as individuals but also in the context of a larger whole, the collective, a family (however big or small).

Every moment we’re making decisions like how we use our time, which route we take to get where we want to go to dodge traffic, and what we’ll eat. We know these have consequences, hopefully helping us lead safe and healthy lives. We are fortunate to have a baseline of privilege, ability, and a certain level of affluence. It’s hard for me to imagine being in a place like the man lying by the pool in Jerusalem who for 38 years is sick, lame or partially paralyzed, apparently unable to go into the pool by himself where he might at least be cleaned. Surely this man was an untouchable, someone no one would risk their own well-being to help. What does Jesus do? What did the Good Samaritan do? He sees the unwell man. Over 38 years, don’t you imagine that the man had become invisible? How long do you have to live in a city where you no longer notice the homeless sleeping on benches or sidewalks? Hopefully we would never be blind to the suffering of our neighbors, but that homelessness, dire poverty exist, we have let it not be our problem to solve.

Jesus sees the man lying there, knows he had been there a long time, and asks him, “Do you want to be made well?”

I could stop there with this passage and bask in the grace and mercy waiting in the wings. “Jesus, ask us today, ask EACH of us today: Do you want to be made well?” Wouldn’t we fall at his feet and wash him in our tears? “Yes, Lord, make me well. Heal all of us.” Isn’t that what you would imagine us saying?

But that’s not what the sick man says, the one who has been lying in sickness and filth for 38 years, 13,870 days and nights. He says, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool . . ., and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Do you hear this the way that I do? Jesus asked if he wanted to be made well, and the man replies that he has no one to help him or others get in his way. He places the blame outside of himself, but it presupposes that the way to be well is that he has to get into that pool.

Jesus knows the man has been there a long time. Jesus knows the man wants to be well. Jesus knows that man needs to be shown another way. When Jesus says to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk,” he is doing just that. Listen to my voice, follow my command, and you shall be made well. The man heard these words and believed Jesus spoke what is true. His believing and following made him well, but for those looking on, they saw Jesus heal a man on the sabbath, doing work on a day of rest.  We know this is another of Jesus’s signs in the gospel and that it’s also something his adversaries will use as fuel against him. I think it’s also important that we know Jesus isn’t telling the man to pull himself up by his bootstraps. Not only is the man not wearing boots, but everything about his situation puts him at a handicap so great that he cannot overcome it alone. He needed an intervention. He needed help. He needed to be shown another way, yet it still remains within his agency whether or not he heeded the way revealed to him.

Unfortunately we don’t often have power of the Almighty to speak the Word and make restoration complete. When we see a problem, we might think we know how to fix it, make it better. We may give a few dollars away or hand out bags of sustenance and hygiene to the homeless on the roadside, and this is good, helpful for a moment. This Friday I got off the interstate and realized no one was in the left turning lane. I looked at the corner and noticed a man standing there with a sign, as is often the case. The other turning lane had at least six cars in it, and honestly it crossed my mind to get in line behind them so as not to have to interact with the person on the side of the road. I didn’t have any money or food within my reach. I had nothing to give him. I recalled, however, that visibility means something. I had a card with our church number. This happens all in seconds, right, this decision-making. I rolled down my window as I approached the man, who turned his weary eyes my way. “I don’t have any money or food to give, but what do you need?” I asked him, hoping that I might at least be able to point him in the right direction. “If you could give me a prayer,” he said. I stuck my arm out the window, extending my hand to him, and he gave me his hand to hold as I prayed that the Lord would bless him and show him the way, provide for him and guide his path, and whatever else I said, hoping that the Holy Spirit was giving him the words he needed to hear. I realized as I drove away that I forgot to remove my sunglasses so that he could see clearly that I saw him. I had remembered to ask his name. Gregory.

“Do you want to be made well?” Jesus asked.

We don’t always know what we need for ourselves, and we certainly seldom know what another person needs. We do know that our individual well-being benefits us all, and we have to want to be well ourselves before we can take next steps. But just because we want to be well doesn’t necessarily mean we want the whole system to be well.

I can make full recovery and then return to the activities or exploits that made me sick or ill or dis-eased to begin with. I can make my way up out of the valley and once on higher ground contribute to keeping others in the valley. How many people who have truly experienced the pitfalls in the welfare, medical, incarceration, housing, immigration, and all other systems are actually in positions to make the changes that need to be made to heal what is broken or flat out isn’t working?

This is where the family systems class struck me. At the end of the class, we were posed with a powerful question. (That’s often the case that some of the most intense questions or would-be conversation comes when time is up, isn’t it?) The question was

How many people would it take, doing even one of the following:

  • Connecting with their generations, eradicating all their personal cutoffs
  • Educating themselves as to the facts in our society
  • Becoming clear on their guiding principles, being guided by them instead of the anxiety of the moment or groupthink (mob mentality)
  • Taking a stand, after careful consideration
  • Defining a self in their families
  • Becoming principle-guided parents, rather than projecting a worried focus

to bring the regression to an end?

The regression speaks to the place we are in our society that is incredibly polarized, emotional to the point of triggering fight/flight responses, and reactive rather than proactive for the benefit of the common good (my lay summary). From a family systems perspective, the regression indicates that we are not well. We really need only look at the increased violence, depression, anxiety, addiction, and everything else that contributes to our dis-ease to affirm that we’re not in an overall good place, not to mention the groaning of the earth itself with the weight of our population and exploitation of natural resources.

Family systems say that there are leadership principles that can influence the system or society in a positive way. Those principles are to

  • Learn the facts,
  • Learn to “think systems” (or to think relationally),
  • Get clear on one’s guiding principles, and
  • Take a stand.

“Do you want to be made well?”

I want to be well. I want our society to be well. I want our earth to be well. Is my guiding principle for everything to be well? I am fond of repeating Julian of Norwich’s mantra, “All shall be well.” Or is my guiding principle that God’s will be done. My love and obedience to God will guide me and others toward what is good and best for the whole. Come what may, my love of God is steadfast. The Lamb of God is my Light in the darkness; by night I do not need the brightness of the moon. I am open to hear the Word of God; like Lydia I am willing to open my heart and home that the Way of Christ may fluorish. May God use my heart, my mind, my feet, my hands to move us all toward God’s will. Love of God is love for us all.

“Do you want to be made well?”

God’s will be done, now and for generations to come.

 

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The Lord Is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!

Acts 5:27-32 | Psalm 118:14-29 | Revelation 1:4-8 | John 20:19-31

When we feel strongly about something, we don’t often keep it to ourselves. Well, we can. This week I was reluctant to share too much about the place where I found respite. It’s wonderful, and if too many people know about it, it will be hard to make reservations. But it is so good that I want it to stay in business. I want others to have this wonderful experience, too, so I wrote a positive review . . . after I made my next reservation, of course. (You can find it on AirBnB, search for “the Nest at Sewanee.”) When we have something good, we can hoard it, or we can share it: we can work from scarcity or abundance.It sounds like economic terminology, but it works across the board.

We have folks here from the Arkansas Poor People’s Campaign: A Call for a Moral Revival. The Poor People’s Campaign (PPC for short) has twelve main objectives, all based around the moral call we hear from our prophetic ancestors to raise the lowly, to make straight the pathway to heaven, to the kingdom of God. The basis is that we have enough; there’s plenty to go around. The problem is that in our industrial complex, we’ve prioritized materialism, particularly capitalism, over every other aspect of life, including our spirituality. Not that we can’t monetize spirituality, either. Think of all the products we can buy to make us feel like we’re better, more pious people because we have all the right stuff. But we know the truth. All the money in the world can’t make you a better Christian, any more than it can solve all medical crises, your family life, your mental stability, or any other aspect of our life. But when we know we have enough and find contentment where we are, know that we have a network of support, our life worth, our true quality of life reaches that priceless point. You know what I’m saying? Contentment. Blessed assurance. True happiness.

Peter and the apostles are confronted by the authorities in our reading from Acts. Readings later in this past Easter week have included the apostles not being able to keep quiet about Jesus. Whereas everyone knew he had been crucified, only a few had been privy to his resurrection appearances. And once they had seen and known, they had good news to share. Not only that, but they were filled with the power of the Holy Spirit and were proclaiming the Good News and performing good works in the name of Jesus. They were filled with power and continuing to manifest the presence of Jesus Christ among the poor and marginalized, giving them hope and raising them out of their despair. And they couldn’t keep quiet.

“We’ve told you,” the authorities say, but when you’ve got something to say, when truly you have a message to share, especially when it is aligned with the will of God, woe be it to the authorities to stand in your way; they’re just going to have more work to do! Peter and crew answer, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” We must obey God.

Now, the Feast of St. Mark is normally on April 25th, but it got transferred to Monday due to Easter Week, which takes precedence in the church calendar. In the Gospel according to Mark, we get the Great Commission (16:15).

“Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.”

The apostles were told to go to the WORLD and PROCLAIM the GOOD NEWS. Alleluia! Christ is risen! Don’t we say that? We just did, at the beginning of service. Do we say that out in the world? Our gospel lesson today focuses on bringing forgiveness and reconciliation to the world. Do we spread that good news in the world, outside the church walls?

Maybe we’re not so sure we believe in the resurrection and all this “power of the Holy Spirit” stuff. It sounds like a bunch of ghost stories, almost. Idle tales, right? Unless we see and touch and know for ourselves, we’re just gonna stay as we are, trying to follow the way of Jesus as he showed us in his lifetime, keeping his memory alive. That’s a good thing to do, right? Many, in fact, believe the historical Jesus was just that, an example. Maybe that’s where Thomas was in his belief–that it was wonderful while it lasted, but now . . . what do we have now that Jesus is dead aside from our deep grief? Thomas doubted the truth of what the disciples had proclaimed to him until he touched the wounded flesh of the risen Christ, proclaiming, “My Lord and my God!” In that moment, he believed and knew for himself that Jesus Christ was all he had foretold, was everything they hoped for, and more than they could have imagined. The risen Christ was real. Thomas knew personally the reality of the risen Lord, like the apostles gathered with him. With every confidence, they would go out into the world and proclaim that Christ lived, died, and rose again, showing the way to eternal life in God, showing the power of God to triumph over sin and death. And if that was possible, there’s no limit to what love can do. Let us go out and proclaim to the world this Good News.

It would be easier to proclaim the Good News if we actually believed for ourselves that the power of the Holy Spirit could work a miracle or two here and now. There are a lot more Thomases in our faith than there are apostles who share the true Good News. We’re living in dark times now if we only read the headlines, and hope flickers dimly if at all for many and for good reasons.

I was listening to OnBeing, and in the interview between Krista Tippett and Joanna Macy, a Buddhist philosopher of ecology who translated Rilke’s poetry, Macy says that she didn’t believe Rilke emphasized hope. In a way, she said, he seemed to foresee the darkness coming in the 20th century, and his poetry often seemed to address God, especially God in Creation, lamenting humanity’s degradation of that which had been so freely and lovingly given. She said that Rilke didn’t emphasize hope because hoping or gauging how much hope we have can be exhausting. Kind of like if Thomas had never touched the risen Christ and was constantly compared to the other apostles who believed without a doubt. Macy also shared a bit of her own story and journey and recalled one of the main things she gleaned from Buddhist teaching: showing up, being present. Being present and showing up is our biggest gift, she says. Even when Thomas didn’t believe as the others, he returned to be with them, right? He was in the room with them another week later. He showed up.

It is in our showing up that we “have the capacity to love,” Macy said, and this capacity to love gives us solidarity, the power to heal the world. Our heart might be breaking every day, but with our hearts wide open, we give God more room to fill us with the power of Holy Spirit. Macy said something to the effect of “What’s a heart for, if not to be broken?” (The title of the interview is “A Wild Love for the World.”)

The healing we experience from our deepest wounds teach us great things; it gives us a learning we know in our bones, so to speak. Maybe our lessons aren’t major, like me being tired and going on retreat. The experience of restoration is wonderful, and I have experience to share with others about the benefits of self-care. But maybe they are significant. If I’m in recovery and making the daily decisions to support life and health, I have my experiences to share and offer support to others, helping them toward a way of life and health. If I’ve been a victim of child abuse, through foster homes, through counselors good and bad, I have invaluable experience to share with others to find their way toward a life of peace, a life restored. If I’ve been living a life in the dark, drowning in sorrow and despair, and found a point of light I could cling to until I surfaced into a life that offered a sense of wholeness and joy I didn’t think was possible, I have good news to share. It’s my personal experiences that make all the difference, that affirm my belief that there is something to this life that speaks to love, and when I lean into that love for myself, and especially toward God and my neighbor, it gets big quickly.

Joanna Macy, in talking about her journey, said that she grew up in a liberal Protestant church, but it wasn’t until she was at church camp when she was about 16 that Jesus and God became personal, alive for her in a way they hadn’t before. In all the resurrection experiences, it’s personal: the risen Lord appears to people who eventually see and believe. What if in my life experiences and the lessons I’ve learned I look for the presence of Christ? What if it’s not the wounded hands and sides we need to touch, but it’s the lives of ourselves and others that we need to be present to, to show up for until we know that we are connected in a way that passes our understanding? Like in the Truth & Poverty tour, we need to see our neighbors, reach out to them, hear their stories, lend a helping hand or bond money or food or advocacy, and be the presence of Christ to them. Even with broken hearts, maybe even helpless, if we show up and allow the presence of Love to be in our midst, doesn’t that speak to our faith?

If we’ve already seen the presence of God in our lives and have a faith that in one way or another has touched the wounds of Christ and known the power of God’s reconciling love, why don’t we share that faith in as many words with others? Why don’t we risk letting our hearts be broken, risk being embarrassed for a minute, risk being rejected, to say outloud that we love Jesus Christ, that we’ve experienced the presence of God in  our lives, and that coming to our church helps us stay strong in that faith if not feel the presence of the Holy Spirit directly. Or do we want to hold that love for ourselves? My loves, our hearts aren’t big enough for the love of God, for all of Creation. Let’s risk being broken hearted for love of the world, for love of God. Let’s tend to our neighbors and this little bit of earth and do our best to say it like we mean it, knowing that the powers and principalities in this world have no hold on the children of God: Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

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Our Story

Romans 6:3-11  | Psalm 114 | Luke 24:1-12

This service, unlike others in so many ways, captures as much of our Christian story as it can, which is why it is longer and why I’ll keep this brief. We move from creation to the empty tomb in one fell swoop, and what do we do with that? Do we leave this place like we’re clicking the remote, getting up from our seats saying, “Well, that was nice”? I dare say that if you are fully engaged throughout this service, for at least a moment, your heart and soul are stirred. For if anything is true about what research claims about cellular memory, these stories are written in our hearts, so to speak, or at least in our cells. So the story of our ancestors, of the Hebrews, of the women, of the apostles, of Jesus are all part of our story, very much a part of who we are. This story of ours isn’t meant to be kept in the dark.

We know for ourselves what is real, what is true. Like I shared last night, I’m as skeptical as anyone when laying claim to what is really real, but when something grabs hold of us and speaks to us like nothing else we’ve ever known, we pay attention. As our Christian Education lecture series says through Prof. Bart Ehrman, what happened in the past might not be counted as history, as what can be proven with evidence and supported with scholarship. The exodus and Passover are taken as history, the raising of the dry bones not so much. The person of Jesus of Nazareth, even his crucifixion under Pontius Pilate, are history, but his resurrection leaves historians in a quandary. Perhaps it has you in one, too. What exactly are we celebrating this Easter? Jesus’ houdini-an act of rising from death and fleeing the tomb?

What we celebrate this Easter Vigil is the light of life coming from even the darkest of times. It’s why we start from creation, for the ultimate void to the generation of life. It’s why we remember the Exodus, the liberation from oppression and despair. It’s why we aren’t afraid to talk about death, a most natural part of the life cycle. It’s why as Christians we remember our baptism, because it is one way that we die to ourselves, giving ourselves over to life in Christ. We are given new life, new birth. It’s not a coincidence we celebrate this in spring, when everywhere we look, new life is rising from the darkness of the earth or from branches that looked all but dead.

Maybe like the disciples, you think this resurrection hope is an idle tale, an opiate for the masses, giving false hope to make people feel better about the nightmare of life in this broken world. Chances are if you’re here, that’s not your perspective, but we all have days when we’re not our most optimistic. I have days, too, when I wonder if all that I work for and strive for is worth it.

But even in death, there are things we do, making arrangements, preparations. A few take care of this, like the women going to the tomb; it’s usually the few who were closest. And we can close that chapter of our lives, or we can reflect on what it means for us that one we loved so much has taught us things we’ll spend the rest of our lives processing. But what if we were the women at the tomb, and what we expected to see wasn’t what we faced? What if what we thought was the end of the story, the death of our Teacher and Lord, wasn’t so? What if we then remembered, after being prompted by another, that Jesus had actually told us this would happen, that he would rise again? Wouldn’t we tell others?

And wouldn’t they in their despair question us, write us off as crazy or making up idle tales?

But love is a strong thing. Even after death, don’t we hope for a sign from our beloveds that they aren’t truly gone from us, even if it’s in our dreams? It’s blessed Peter, isn’t it, who acts first and thinks about it later. Peter, who had denied Jesus three times and regretted it deeply. He gets up and runs to the tomb. Now, according to this gospel, he doesn’t immediately go back and credit the women, apologizing for not trusting them at their word. But he goes to his home, his place of safety, and we end with him in amazement today. When we think we know how the story ends, we can tune out or fall into our habits and routine.

But this story doesn’t end. It goes on. The devotion of the women, the discerning of the disciples, the searching for themselves for the truth, the questioning, wondering, and amazement: all this is ours, too. All this is fuel for our hope that life triumphs over death, that light prevails in the darkest of times.

If those of us here tonight have to be reminded of the hope of our story, how many others who aren’t here could us a few words to remind them that they are part of our story, too? For the love of God that couldn’t be held in a tomb certainly isn’t just for us but is open for all the world. Our story is nothing less than a love story, radiant with the light of Christ, written upon our hearts.

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Maundy Thursday 2019

Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14 | Psalm 116:1, 10-17 | 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 
John 13:1-17, 31b-35

My senses stood on edge at the first foot-washing I experienced in a church (St. Paul’s, Fayetteville). I had never done it before but trusted the clergy in their invitation to the holy days leading up to Easter, to participate fully in all that was offered. I looked around at others who seemed so calm, as if what we were about to do was normal. In the church, Baptism and Eucharist are normal; even in the church of my youth I had at least had one Communion. Jesus told us that we were to be baptized as he had been and that we were to take the bread and cup in remembrance of him; this is standard issue. So what do we make of this where, according to the Gospel of John, Jesus plainly says, “I have set an example, that you should do as I have done to you”? What Jesus has obviously done is kneel before his disciples and wash their feet in an overwhelming act of love.

On Sunday I encouraged us all to pay attention to Jesus’ acts of love throughout Holy Week, and in his act of washing his disciples’ feet, we witness a great and powerful act of love. In this act of love, Jesus says many things, verbally and non-verbally. What Jesus knows is that the time is coming for him to die, and he is resolved to love his friends and followers through to the end. How is he able to do this? He has the assurance of his place in God, his confidence that he not only comes from God but is going to God; he is not bound by this world. With this assurance, he gets up and washes the feet of those gathered with him, even arguing with Peter, telling them that he knows they can’t fully understand this now, but they will, later. Later they will understand the paradox of their Teacher and Lord serving them and the significance of the servant not being greater than the master, nor the messengers greater than the one who sends them.

Jesus washing the feet of his disciples wasn’t just about role-reversals on that one night long ago. In one exemplary act, Jesus encourages a letting-go of expectation, puts those who think we understand in the uncomfortable position of not knowing and in a position of vulnerability. If letting go of a sense of order and control wasn’t uncomfortable enough, giving your feet over to the one whom you regard as your Teacher and Lord certainly is. Jesus, in his tenderness and love and assurance in God, created a safe space that night to plant a seed for new understanding. In a place of safety and security grounded in God’s love, Jesus offered a moment of transformation, illustrated in Peter’s move from not wanting Jesus to wash his feet to wanting to be washed head to toe in the waters his Lord offered. Like Peter, we still have much to learn, much to understand.

Accepting our own lack of understanding of all that Jesus stands for and all that he offered and showed to us, letting go of a sense of control and of vice-grips on what we deem acceptable, let alone taking off our socks and shoes to let an acquaintance pour water over our feet at the end of the day, all of this puts us in a position of vulnerability, and our culture equates vulnerability with weakness. Our culture equates love with weakness. But we know that being vulnerable means being open. Being vulnerable means we have the opportunity to take a risk, to be brave, to be courageous. We know that being vulnerable means that we have the capacity to be in relationship with another, which means that only by being vulnerable can we experience and understand true love. And we know that true love is powerful.

The bonds of love defy reason and even time and space, which may be why Jesus wants us to do this, too, this act of love. I wash your feet. You wash mine. We share this act of love in the name of Jesus, for love of God, and we live our lives together in assurance that whatever may come, we are God’s, we are beloved. Though we may be afraid, we have nothing to fear. For Christians, this act of love is normal. We practice showing our love for one another in the church so that outside these walls we remember that we are God’s servants and messengers on the same level with all other children of God, many of whom have forgotten what it is to love and be loved. As important as it is that we be baptized and share in Holy Communion, it is equally and especially important that we show genuine love for one another as often as we can.

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Holy Wednesday 2019

The skies are gray this morning, but the weather forecast says the rain doesn’t come until tonight. That rain promises to come with storms. The darkening of the skies calms me somehow, encouraging me to retreat a minute, get myself in order, and focus on the holy moments at hand.

“Who Among Us” by Texas artist Debra Hurd

This morning the scriptures recall how some people thought the voice of God was thunder, while others clearly heard words. Tonight at our Agapé meal we’ll hear Jesus send Judas out to do that which he must do. We know with Jesus that Judas sets out to betray him, but others think he’s going out for supplies for the coming festival. So much of what we understand–or think we understand–is left to our perspective and interpretation. It might be how we understand written words or how we perceive the present moment, and what we experience is true for us. Simply because we see something as true doesn’t mean it is True, though.

The turmoil we read about and the arguments we observe or endure arise from people standing their ground for what is true for the individual. At our best we try to understand everyone’s point of view, where they are coming from, trying to imagine being in their shoes even if we completely disagree with them. One might call this how we exercise empathy. I believe empathy exercised with humility helps us better see the fuller picture of what is real, granting us a bit of objectivity and giving us a chance to increase our personal knowledge and understanding.

From this broader perspective, we might hear the voice that also sounds like thunder and marvel with others at the experience of God’s presence. We might see the exchange between Jesus and Judas as meaningful and look back on it later with clarity. We might see our neighbors, be they rich or poor, as people struggling with life or rejoicing in small moments. In all circumstances, even as we make our first impressions and snap judgments, we leave critical judgment alone and focus on the only person over whom we have even the slightest control–our self.

Without this focus and work for and on the individual for the benefit of better relationships with one another, we lose sight of the whole. A recent story I heard said we’re truly at risk of losing empathy and retreating into separate camps, evidenced in our increasing polarity socially, politically, economically, etc. From where I see it, the grace of God has no boundaries except those that we construct ourselves. It truly is up to each of us to discern whether we want to stay in relationship with one another, how best to do that safely and for the benefit of the whole, and how we glorify God in the process or continue to betray God.

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Unveiled

Exodus 34:29-35 | Psalm 99 |  2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2 | Luke 9:28-36-43a

When we think about talking with God, we usually mean through prayer, and we trust that by offering our words out loud or in our heart and mind, that God receives them and “hears” them, in whatever way works for God. Because we don’t know. Prayer is one of our constant actions done in faith, and it is one of the building blocks of our discipleship, how we live as faithful Christians. Especially in times of trial, the words of Paul to pray without ceasing come to mind, but I know I’m not the only one who finds the thoughts in my head on an average day filled with a one-sided conversation with the Almighty. Probably more often than I’d like to admit, it’s filled with me telling God how I think things should go. On better days, it’s filled with “Your will be done.” On truly hard days, it’s filled with surrender, acknowledgment that I need God’s help.

But in all of this praying, I don’t think about actually meeting God face to face. Maybe I don’t think about it because it just doesn’t happen. Sure, it happened for Moses, and, sure, it happened for the disciples with Jesus. But it doesn’t happen for us. Look what happened to Moses, anyway. His face had some divine perma-glow that terrified his people, even his brother Aaron. He wore a veil to help others feel more comfortable. Yet Moses continued to be an intermediary between God and the people. Moses went from seeing God in the burning bush, to seeing the backside of God from the cleft in the mountain, to talking with God face to face, so to speak. And Moses was a changed man. Not only was he a leader of the people, but he was one who had survived being in the presence of God. And he shone for it, even if it was off-putting to others. Intimidating, maybe? Moses was physically changed by his encounter with God.

We’re more comfortable with our way of praying, aren’t we? We’d rather whisper or think our prayers or say them together comfortably and predictably than experience what Moses went through because we understand Aaron’s and the other’s terror. What if that happens to us? We certainly don’t want to alienate ourselves. What would it mean for our lives?

It might mean that people know our relationship with God has changed our lives. It might mean that we share our stories because we can’t hide the fact that we have lived through encounters with God in our lives. It might mean that we’re like a friend of mine whom I met in Hot Springs. She was living in a tent at the time with her dog. She came to the church because she needed some more blankets. We talked a while, and she came back a time or two. Eventually she was able to lease a place, and we helped with furniture. Mostly when we talked, though, it was about her accomplishments, her determination, and her recovery. I would know when she wasn’t doing so well, when she’d smell of alcohol or when I met her in the detention center. She was both embarrassed and grateful to see me then. We struck up conversation, same as we would if we had seen each other in the church or out and about. “Will you be okay?” I’d ask. She had faith. She was praying. She was reading the Bible, finding verses that inspired her and kept her going. Even now I see her on Facebook, not just her pictures of her highlighted Bible verses but pictures of her face, a life-worn face that smiles through hardship and smiles with grace, shining in its own way for knowing the love of God, experiencing it in her life.

I know I keep harkening back to diocesan convention, but there was a statement Jerusalem made that I want to make sure we all hear again: We have to use our words to share the Good News of Christ. We can give all the tents, blankets, and food there is, but if we don’t share WHY we’re doing it, how will they know we’re not just part of a charitable or service organization? “Preach the Gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.” We typically attribute this quote to St. Francis. Jerusalem says that today, it’s necessary.

And Paul, he says that because of Christ, our veil is removed. We don’t need to hide from the light. It’s not terrifying . . . it’s glorious, and we’re meant to share it. Don’t get me wrong, to live in the Light is terrifying at times, uncomfortable to us and to others. Why? Because it threatens to change the way things are. If we are mirroring the image of God through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are bringing into this world evidence of God’s mercy, experiences of transformation. But if we practice over and over again, it becomes less scary, changing into glory can become our expectation, if not a norm.

But what do we practice?

People like my friend from Hot Springs know what it is to hit rock bottom and have little left to lose. But she found a thread of hope which was intimately linked to her dog, through her love of another, that empowered her to act with great boldness. And as she grew to understand more and more that the love of God was hers, that God wasn’t punishing her, she began to act more boldly for herself. And along this journey she was sharing that she had love of God, that God was working through her to live better, and maybe her witness could help others live better, too. She didn’t get to a place of sharing publicly overnight.

Like Peter, we might experience something truly marvelous and make a claim to capture it then and there, freeze it in time and place. In this action, we, too, might not know what we say or what we mean. In our belief, Jesus wasn’t just a man who lived and died in ancient Israel, doing really great things, many of which are accounted in the season of Epiphany that we conclude today. With his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ continued the story for us. The Transfiguration during his lifetime, when he was radiant as ever and in the presence of figures who had gone before him, gave us a glimpse that in our lives lived in God, amazing things can happen, surpassing human understanding. These experiences happen not just in one time and place but everywhere we go bringing with us the Light of Christ.

In our baptism we are given a candle as a symbol of that light of Christ, that it would go with us into the world. It’s a symbol of the light within because I don’t know anyone who carries that candle with them everywhere. It’s a physical thing that doesn’t have enough wax to last out the day. But that light of Christ, which comes from the glory of God, that’s eternal and everlasting.

So what, exactly do we do? Start small, which is really starting big because we have to train our way of thinking. Do we want to do good? Are we already doing good work? Why? Because we’re supposed to? Because we don’t want to be hard-hearted? We do good because we love. We love because we are loved, and if we believe that, the rest stems from there.

What in our lives has been hard but we lived through? What kept us going? We don’t always or even often start with love of God. Maybe, like me, you had a loving family and lived a pretty sheltered life and have continued to live a good life, given a few trials and tribulations but nothing insurmountable. But we don’t take that for granted. Great religious figures of the past, even when surrounded in comfort and/of luxury, went among the suffering and had empathy, had compassion for them, and it changed their worldview, guiding others to shape their perspective, too.

One time of doing something does not make a practice. My kids wouldn’t be great swimmers or musicians if they just jumped in and swam a lap or picked up an instrument every once in a blue moon. We have to practice our skills, and that includes living a life in Christ without fear. Fear to me is embodied in that unclean spirit from the gospel lesson today. Fear with thrash about and throw us to our knees rather than go boldly into the light of God. But with God’s help through Jesus Christ, we can be healed of our fears, return to the Way of Love, and astound others with the greatness of God, rather than scare them.

This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, and I will share a practice every week that will encourage you to find words to share your story as a child of God. You wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t experienced God either knowingly or because you seek God in your life. Maybe all we need to do is remove the veil to see clearly that God is already at work.

 

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Superpower

Genesis 45:3-11, 15 | 1 Corinthians 15:35-38,42-50 | Luke 6:27-38 | Psalm 37:1-12, 41-42

I can’t help but wonder if, when the lectionary committee was deciding which Old Testament reading to put with today’s gospel, they had to draw straws as to which story was the most gut-wrenching story of forgiving one’s enemy. Because there are loads of stories about people doing wrong by their neighbor but mostly doing wrong by their family, and not every story gives us an illustration of forgiveness, either.

Recall that Joseph, beloved son of Jacob, was thrown into a well and then sold to traders by his brothers, was accused of raping an officer’s wife (because he wouldn’t have an affair with her) and imprisoned, and then because he interpreted Pharaoh’s dream, was released and rose to power, second only to the Pharaoh himself. It was Joseph’s planning through the seven years of plenty that prepared Egypt for the seven years of famine, that not only made Egypt the breadbasket of the world but also saved the people from starvation, including the very brothers who had cast him away, good as dead.

You’ll have to go back read Genesis 42-44 to get the full story of how the brothers go to Egypt for their stores, experience the dramatic irony of the brothers not realizing that it is their Joseph who is their lord, their saving grace. The recognition between the brothers does not start with our lesson today. Chapter 45 begins:

“Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, ‘Send everyone away from me.’ So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it.” (vv. 1-2)

And then we begin with today’s reading, when Joseph addresses his brothers, re-introducing himself and inquiring about his father. Is he still alive? But the brothers can’t answer him, “dismayed” at his presence. Dismayed? The Jewish Study Bible contains a more accurate description, I think: “…his brothers could not answer him, so dumbfounded were they on account of him.”

After all he has been through and all that he has done for them, Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers, and he breaks down. Breaking down doesn’t give Joseph credit, though, and perpetuates the stereotype that to show emotion is a weakness. This man who is second to the Pharaoh sobs before his brothers so loudly that everyone in the vicinity can hear him. The floodgates of emotion–of grief, loneliness, heartbreak, anger, worry, fear, anxiety–all of that and more, I’m sure, are finally released. Of course the brothers are dumbfounded. They tried to kill Joseph, and when they finally meet him again, he’s a great man of power, sobbing, and inquiring about his father’s well-being. They don’t know what to do.

They don’t recognize him. Do you think that’s because if he really was their brother, this isn’t how they expect him to react? Maybe Joseph realizes this might be the case, too, so what does he ask them to do?

“Come closer to me.”

Come closer to him so that they can see into his eyes, recognize the familiarities that persist through time. Listen to him as he says he knows they’re the ones who sold him into slavery. Listen to him as he says that he sees God’s hand at work because in all of this, it is Joseph’s presence in Egypt that has saved them. In fact, he says that it was God who sent him there, ultimately to serve as lord and ruler of the whole land of Egypt. He tells them what to do, essentially to go get their father and all their things and come live in Goshen near him, and he kisses them all, weeping with them, and only then are they able to speak with him, covered in his tears and affection.

This story takes any story we have of sibling rivalry to a whole other level, doesn’t it? And it says something about Joseph’s sense of presence, character, and faith. He could have easily recognized his brothers and had them imprisoned, as he nearly did to a different end. The Pharaoh would have his back, as he did on recognizing the brothers and assisting their move. It could have gone the other way very easily. Some decisions are like that, balanced as they are on the edge of life and death.

In our gospel lesson today, we have a mighty checklist of do’s and don’ts for disciples. Jesus tells us to love our enemies. “Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Don’t strike back, give generously, and don’t expect things to be returned. “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Be merciful. Don’t judge or condemn, and forgive.

Are these things that only the ancient Joseph, ultimately mighty in power and favored by God, could do? No. They happen every day. Only God knows the extent to which the Golden Rule helps preserve humanity itself, let alone the goodness conveyed in our true love, mercy, generosity, and forgiveness. And only God knows the strength that these actions have in moving us closer to the kingdom of God.

If you listened to Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s nearly hour-long sermon from the Yes to Jesus Revival that I posted a couple of weeks ago, you heard him share the story from the documentary about Jackie Robinson called 42. Baseball had been divided into all these different leagues to keep it segregated, but there was one man named Branch Rickey who loved baseball so much that he wanted the best of the best to play together. Now, you’ll have to watch the documentary or listen to the sermon for more details, but essentially, when Rickey, the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers made the proposition to Robinson, he acknowledged that there were going to be people who would say and maybe even do ugly things because he was a black man and that’s the way the country was in the 40’s. The man also said that he wanted Robinson not to retaliate. At this, Robinson said, “Oh you want a negro who’s afraid to fight back,” and the man said, “No, I want a great ball player who has the courage not to fight back just like our Savior Jesus Christ.” Rickey pulls from his desk a book of sayings of Jesus and reads to Robinson words that include our words from Luke today. When he put the book down, Robinson shook Rickey’s hands, and as Curry summarized, they went on to change baseball and America because they followed the Way of Jesus, the Way of Love. At our best, we have the power to change the world because of our love, because of Jesus’s love, God’s love.

You might still be thinking that all this is fine and good, but these are extraordinary circumstances with heroes from our past. I’m sorry. I’m sorry that we don’t hear more about our everyday courageous warriors who fight with love. I’m sorry that our news is filled with anger, division, fear, and violence. I’m sorry because for all the time focused on the evil of the world, there are countless others upholding the Golden Rule, doing right by their neighbors, strangers, and kin, and practicing the Way of Love, even if that’s not what they call it.

And I bet there are times in your life when that’s just your m.o., and I also bet that there’s a time in your life when you felt it more poignantly. When these words of Jesus, that have revealed themselves to be written in your heart, revealed your belief of them in your actions and proved yourself to be a warrior for love, too.

Someone I love dearly was in an abusive relationship, and she had escaped–not her first time to try to get out, but this time it was sticking. (It typically takes 7 times before a woman leaves her abuser.) I received a call from the abuser late one night. He was looking for her. He was saying things, telling me what I thought of him. And I don’t know if you’ve ever had an encounter where you felt like you were facing demons, something truly evil, but my heart was racing. I felt stunned, but I stayed on the phone, words coming out of my mouth that came from a place I didn’t know I had. At one point, I said, “No, I don’t hate you. I love the good person you can be, that you are at your core, but I do not like what you’ve done. And I won’t tell you where she is or help you get in touch with her.” There are other times in my life when I realize how much I love people, especially people I don’t like, and there’s a sadness that washes over me, a lament at the loss of what could be.

The Way of Love, following the Way of Jesus, does not make us passive doormats. It doesn’t mean that we will always be protected from danger, nor does it mean that we see everything as sunshine and roses or always see the silver lining. What it does mean is that we know that love is a powerful thing, that God’s love is our superpower when we find ourselves tapped into it.

God’s love enables us to be wholly in relationship with others, even if that person is so other that we can’t see eye to eye. God’s love enables us to act in ways of justice and mercy, to heal and seek reconciliation rather than bury ourselves in grief or anger or grudges. Most importantly, God’s love transforms us, turning us into Christian superheroes capable of amazing feats that most often won’t make the headlines but make all the difference in someone’s life. I hope this week or even today that you get the chance to share a moment when you tapped into that superpower, when you did something you didn’t think you could do but were keenly aware–if not in the moment then at least in retrospect–that it was God working through you, living through you, loving through you.

Come closer, and recognize the power of God’s love in our lives.

 

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Good News in Level Places

Jeremiah 17:5-10 | Psalm 1 1 Corinthians 15:12-20 |Luke 6:17-26

Isaiah’s call to lift valleys and lower mountains, to make the rough land level and the rugged plain so that all might see the glory of God (Isa 40:4-5) to me is about making sure everyone has equal opportunity to experience that glory, maybe even bask in it. That kind of terrain provides a level playing field. We want everyone to have equal access to God, and Isaiah gives us a vivid visual.

So when I hear in today’s gospel lesson that Jesus and his disciples go down to a level place to be with the multitude of people from all over the region, I’m not surprised. Of course Jesus is going to give everyone a fair chance. He’s here to fulfill scripture, and there’s no time to waste.

But there are a few things to notice.

  1. A level place means more than geography.

The connotations for what a “level” place means, doesn’t necessarily refer to the lay of the land physically. It might well be an even place, but what it could have meant at the time was that it was an unclean place, a place for corpses. A “level place” is for the suffering, the disgraced, the mourning, misery, and hunger. The place where idols were located were often in a plain, a “level place.”

This is where Jesus goes, into the midst of the suffering, according to the Gospel of Luke, unlike that of Matthew where he goes to the mount. It is in this level place that the people come to Jesus, bringing their suffering, seeking his healing power. Jesus goes into a place where one might least expect God to be.

2. The people who were in this level place probably haven’t come from the mountaintop.

Whether the people who were coming to Jesus in this level place were probably already there or felt they had nothing to lose in being there, chances are these weren’t people of privilege who had other options. The people coming to this place likely didn’t have strict codes of conduct telling them not to be seen in certain places, not to risk their reputation, their purity, and/or their honor and dignity–not just theirs but also their family’s.

Yet this is where Jesus chooses to go and take a stand, and there’s a multitude of people who come to him.

3. Jesus looks UP at his disciples and speaks to them, probably with everyone looking on these beatitudes.

Jesus stood on a level place and still looks up at his disciples. Geographically, this isn’t a level place. He went down. He’s looking up. Maybe he’s kneeling in the middle of the crowd. Maybe he’s so far into the crowd, the disciples can’t quite bring themselves to go into the thick of it. Still, there Jesus is.

Not that we blame the disciples. Ever since I was pregnant with my first child, my nose has taken on some kind of supernatural maternal sense of smell. My husband makes me smell the milk or food and watches my face for my instant reaction. Imagining first century Israel, given its hygiene practices of the time, given the sickness of all those seeking Jesus, I almost get one of those instant reactions: that place isn’t going to smell like someplace I’d want to go. Don’t we often hear the adage, “follow your nose”?

But I remember one of those powerful moments when I was in the deep water of my discernment, trying to decipher if I would really enter into the process of discerning if I was called to ordination, Suzanne from St. Paul’s was listening and talking with me, the wonderful mentor that she is. I don’t know if she said it and I visualized it, or if something she said prompted me to see it. But in my mind’s eye, I was keenly aware of the putrescence of humanity, a cesspool of manure, so to speak, and there were people in it, going to and from it, though nobody wants to go there because it’s so awful. With tears in my eyes and speaking through my sobs, I managed to say that I feel called to go there, that I have the stomach for it–which makes no sense because I don’t think I have the nose for it! But it was a visual that I believe the Holy Spirit gave me because in that near waking dream, I saw myself being present in a way not many can or will. When I go to stand up for controversial matters or sit with someone in a hard place or hear or experience things that I don’t think anyone should have to bear witness to, I know that I am not alone, that there’s no place I can go that Christ hasn’t already been. Jesus didn’t avoid the level places, and his presence goes with us when we go there, too.

Where are our level places here in our community? Where have you been or seen that was a place of suffering? The ER? The walk-in clinic? The DMV? Walmart or the Dollar General when you meet the gaze of the person or the child with the sad eyes? The street corners not far from the Salvation Army? The cafeterias where kids are surrounded but alone, insecure? The jail, the bus depot, the camps in the woods? The gym with everyone plugged in and trying to sweat away their worries and fears? The nursing home or rehab?

If we start thinking about it too much, we might begin to think that we don’t live in such a well-off community after all, that we’re really surrounded by suffering and disease. We might be tempted to cloister ourselves in our nice little bubbles of blessedness. We might rather stay on our mountain tops.

But Jesus looked up at his disciples and proclaimed blessedness upon the poor, the hungry, the sad, and the defamed. Jesus cautioned woe to those who were already fulfilled and self-sufficient, those more likely to trust in the flesh and material world than trust in God. Jesus not only had the power to heal the sick and the diseased, but he also knew that there was more to this life, more to the story, that the suffering and death that everyone feared and knew was coming was not the end. There was hope. Hope in the kingdom of God. Hope in the fullness of time. Hope in the joy of the Lord our God. Hope in the glory of heaven. The kind of hope of believing that Christ was resurrected on the third day–beyond all our reason or comprehension but that there is Truth in that Resurrection–speaks to the triumph of life over death, of love over fear and hatred. God loved us so much that God gave the only begotten son to walk among us, to live among us, to be present in all the suffering and also the joys . . . and to die only to rise again. This is our Good News: that we are loved. That the love we know gives us life and liberation, and this blessedness is ours to share, even and especially among the suffering.

Evangelism was the focus of our diocesan convention keynote addresses. Jerusalem Greer asked us,

“Who stays up all night waiting to hear the Good News?”

We got the socio-demographic data of our area in a handout at our table, and we began looking at the map and the numbers, but we didn’t have enough time to get at the heart of the question. We didn’t go quickly to seek out the level places in our midst or brainstorm ways we are particularly suited to meet the suffering and share our Good News with them. And that’s okay. A handful of us from All Saints’ aren’t going to figure out exactly how we evangelize to our community in 15-20 minutes.

But if you love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and you have an experience of knowing where the story of Jesus intersects with your life at least on one occasion (and hopefully time and time again), then you have something to share with your friend and neighbor, something to share even with a stranger, if they look like they’re hungry for some good news, especially if they look like they’re alone and are hungry for the kind of love that only God gives.

We might not want to follow Jesus into the “level places,” but what does Jesus often remind us? “Do not be afraid.” If we love the Lord with all our being, we are also invited to trust in the Lord. Rather than imagining cesspools of suffering, we start imagining pictures of trees planted by rolling streams. Trees strong in their roots, nourished by the life-giving water. Trees green with leaves, not anxious, not fearful, continually bearing fruit. Trees extending a branch to those in need, offering good news in their level place, showing the way of love.

 

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