Whose We Are

Isaiah 43:1-7 | Psalm 29 | Acts 8:14-17 | Luke 3:15-17, 21-22


The words from Isaiah were surely words of comfort and assurance to the weary Israelites. They were weary from being in exile, far from their land, their home, where their God resided. Even upon their return, things were not as they had been, and it was unfamiliar. But these words from God through the voice of the prophet remind the people who they are and whose they are. As people created by God and for God’s glory (as the psalm also reminds), they need not fear.

To be created, formed, redeemed, protected, valued, honored, and loved by God — that alone is enough for us to take as good news. This God in all goodness and glory is on our side. As the favored ones, we have nothing to fear. “Surely it is God who saves me; I will trust in him and not be afraid” (Canticle 9, First Song of Isaiah 12:2, BCP, p. 86). Strength and blessing are promised to God’s people. All prosperity is ours and ours alone.

Is it, though? Is that the full picture of our inheritance and our future? The fullness of our present moment?

If our strength and peace as children of God were solely about our believing in the Word or even about our baptism in water in the name of the Trinity, then perhaps that would be all we need. But of course there’s more to the story.

We’re told that Samaritans accepted the word of God. In the reading prior to the verses we read in Acts today, the Samaritans saw Philip proclaiming the name of Jesus Christ, healing the sick, raising the lame, casting out demons, and they believed in Jesus Christ, Son of God. They were baptized, but it didn’t end there. Peter and John are sent to them. They lay hands on them, and then they received the Holy Spirit. Now they can continue the good work in the name of Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit.

But there’s even more to the story.

A man named Simon had practiced magic among the Samaritans, and they had been impressed by him, “amazed” (Acts 8:9). Like the Samaritans, Simon found himself being impressed by the works of Philip and realized that he, too, believed and was baptized. Simon stayed by Philip’s side.

When Simon saw what happened with the apostles laying their hands on the Samaritans, he saw something he wanted. He offered money to the apostles. “Give me also this power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may received the Holy spirit” (Acts 8:19). But Peter denied his money, incredulous that Simon thought he could buy God’s gift. Peter proclaims that Simon’s heart is not right before God, implores him to repent that he might be forgiven–if it’s possible at all. Simon does ask that Peter pray for him, that the curses not come to pass. We’re not told how Simon’s story ends.

So if we believe in the word of God, are baptized, and receive the power of the Holy Spirit–with good intentions, of course–then we’re good, right? Then we can rest in our blessedness?

It wasn’t like that for Jesus. It certainly isn’t like that for us.

John the Baptist said he baptized with water, but one more powerful than himself is coming to who “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

We like baptism by water. Christendom might not agree on the amount of water, the place, or the age of baptism, but there’s agreement upon water and the invocation of the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to make a baptism valid. We exercise a lot of control and predictability in our baptisms so that they fit nicely within our services and our understanding of our traditions.

But when we start talking about Holy Spirit and fire, people back up really quickly. Trial by fire. Baptized by fire. These phrases don’t necessarily conjure up positive connotations. We’d rather go back to Isaiah and our psalm where we can focus on God loving us and giving us good things; let’s not complicate things.

As soon as we let go to give God the glory, to give God space to work in our lives, we complicate things, and things get out of our control.

Unlike Simon, John the Baptist knew his power would decrease, and gave way to one who is greater. John didn’t seek power or greatness for himself. Not only does he prepare the way for the Lord in his humility, but he also maintains integrity, not bowing down to Herod, calling him out for his cruelty and for taking his brother’s wife. John’s honesty didn’t garner Herod’s favor and actually got him imprisoned and eventually beheaded. John’s simple actions ran contrary to the societal norms. Jesus’s simple Way ran contrary to the norms of the first century. They still do.

Where things run contrary to one another, where there is conflict, there is friction. Friction heats up and can cause fire. Fire can be destructive, but it can also be restorative. Fire can refine things to burn off impurities. Fire gives us heat, energy, and light. Fire is necessary for life. We say our love and our anger burn, and they can burn in destructive or life-giving ways.

When we who are baptized acknowledge that we also have been empowered by the Holy Spirit–gifted in individual and particular ways–and put this power into work in our lives for the glory of God, things are going to get complicated. There’s going to be fire.

The ways of God are simple: Love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and love our neighbors as ourselves. The ways of the world are simple, too: look out for Number One to be the best. Until these two ways are reconciled, there will always be friction. We have the clearest case of it right now in the fight about a border wall. Except here, we don’t have friction, we have stand-off, realized in our government shutdown.

Richard Rohr in his book about the Trinity, The Divine Dance, says that it’s divine wisdom to be three in one because where there is simply duality, there is likelihood of either/or, us/them, one way or another. With a trinity, there can be ebb and flow, a third way that maintains the whole, unity in diversity, a divine dance. With a trinitarian mindset, we can view the world not solely as us against them but recall that we and they are in relationship with God. Ultimately this puts all of us in relationship with God, drawing us all into the divine dance of giving glory and praise to the almighty, giving us all the responsibility of manifesting the kingdom of heaven here and now.

Remember that Jesus didn’t just stroll into the temple palace and blast the rulers for their disregard of Almighty God. Jesus walked among the people, igniting their power by healing their dis-ease, crossing social and demographic barriers, manifesting a culture where anyone could come to the table and break bread together. He was reminding them of their value, their belovedness. While this may have given a sense of strength and blessing of peace within, the tensions mounted outside in the communities.

But all who have heard the Word of God, who believe, who are baptized, and are gifted with the Holy Spirit feel the fire within–even if it’s latent or smoldering–and recognize the fire outside in all the battles being waged, small and large–too many for me to name. The only control we have is over our own use of our gifts and the fuel that we have to fulfill the promises that we’ve made in our own baptisms.

“When (we) walk through fire (we) shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume (us)”–if we realize that the fire is of God and see clearly ourselves in right relationship with God and one another. If we know we are God’s as much as the one we name “other”. If we can say to the “other” that they are as precious in God’s sight, as honored and beloved as ourselves, then we show whose we really are in all of our thoughts, words, and deeds.

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Prepare the Way of Love

Baruch 5:1-9 | Philippians 1:3-11 | Luke 3:1-6 | Canticle 16

“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee (i.e. King of the Jews), and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas” when this was the time of all these people of power, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”

John, from the beautiful, verdant hill country, born to the faithful Zechariah and Elizabeth, left the comforts of his home to wander in the wilderness, where the word of God came to him. The wilderness, a scarce and desolate place, is also a place of safety and divine protection. However dark the wilderness, it’s not a place without the presence of God.

In fact, in the 4th century during the reign of Emperor Constantine, when the Christian church transitioned into the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, there were Christians who also fled to the wilderness to stay closer to God. These people became known as the desert fathers and mothers–the abbas and ammas–to whom people would seek for their wisdom, wisdom acquired from their time in prayer and solitude apart from the political/social scene. These people who fled intentionally decided not to practice their beliefs within a system that offered reward for their affiliation. Where there is favor, there’s tendency toward corruption. The folks who fled to the desert weren’t having any part of it.

I don’t think it’s a far stretch to see John the Baptist as someone who wouldn’t have any part of it, either, as we’ll be reminded next week. But he didn’t stay isolated.

John went all around the River Jordan in the midst of everyone he met along the way, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This wasn’t anything new. The Jewish people had a ritual cleansing signifying a return to God with expectation of forgiveness. His methodology might have been unconventional. I don’t think any of us would go up to a roadside preacher or someone wearing a sandwich board (let alone camel hair), telling us to get baptized in a muddy river. Even the synagogues then had their baths for the ritual cleansings.

But John is intent and hearkens to the Prophet Isaiah, as he conveys the traditional hopes for Israel’s restoration into a place of favor as God’s people. These are their hopes; this is what Baruch offers words of encouragement for; even Zechariah’s song places John in a position to proclaim the goodness to come. There is hope for God’s people.

Valleys shall be filled. Mountains made low. The crooked made straight, and the rough made smooth. And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

John believed it with all his heart and all his life, even if he couldn’t fully comprehend what it meant that such a promise is open to everyone, to all. Still, he lived it. I don’t see John asking a lot of questions at the border of the river. I don’t see him playing favorites with those in positions of power. He does what the word of God guided him to do, and when he comes face to face with Jesus, he continues to do what God tells him to do and baptizes Jesus, then fading into the background, even with his tragic death, knowing that as he decreases, Jesus will increase, even if he doesn’t know exactly how. It will be done. All this in the midst of the people.

We have a president and a governor. We have rule-makers for our regions, counties, cities, and towns. We have priests and pastors of all kinds, who similarly have their systems of governance. We rejoice that we have a system of governance in both our nation and our church that gives voice to many so that decisions aren’t made by a top few or even a top one. But there are powers at play that have fallen prey to corruption in the name of what is right or even Christian. Even as people flock into metropolises to plug into a system of bigger, better, more, there are people simultaneously saying no and moving off the grid or into communities that work together for a common good. It seems that it’s all or nothing.

Those of us who had the honor and privilege of listening to Bryan Stevenson last night at Crystal Bridges heard directly from one who has heard the word of God.

Disillusioned by law school, Stevenson told us he went into government policy. But there he said they were studying how to maximize benefits and cut costs, regardless of whose benefits and costs were affected. As someone who knew it was a privilege to be in college and knew the plight of those who lived in struggle, he returned to law school determined that he could make a difference, even if he didn’t know how. In his book Just Mercy, he details events of his work in the South that one could describe as wilderness experiences but also account for all the difference he has and continues to make.

His lifetime of experiences, starting with his mom and grandma and going on to today with all the people he encounters in his endeavors, teaches and affirms that while we could isolate ourselves or ignore the world around us as we pursue personal gain, that lifestyle won’t change the brokenness that is. And when he really hit the core of his own suffering and grief, typically when sitting in the midst of someone else’s suffering–like the pending death of an inmate whom he had tried to save–he realized that not only had that person’s life been broken, but he himself was a broken person, too. Not only that, but he worked within a broken system. But brokenness revealed makes way for mercy. What are we all called to do but to do justice (what he called the opposite of poverty), love mercy, and walk humbly? (Micah 6:8)

It sounds a lot like filling valleys of poverty, addiction, and despair and lowering mountains of pride, gluttony, and greed. It sounds like clearing a way through the twist and turns of bureaucratic, convoluted systems and calming storms of anger, fear, and distrust to get straight to the heart of matters and work efficiently. Rather than focus on what’s broken and what needs to be done, though, Stevenson provided four characteristics on how to meet the challenges we face when we are preparing the way for the kingdom:

> Get close to those who are marginalized,

> Change false narratives that are out there,

> Stay hopeful, and

> Do things that are uncomfortable and inconvenient.

Oh, Bryan John-the-Baptist Stevenson, you’re gonna get a lot of people beheaded. But for this man who still feels the hugs of his grandmother, speaks truth to those who face death, and won’t back down from his charge from a civil rights veteran to keep beating the drum of justice, he knows what it means to be in proximity to those who are pushed down and beaten back. He hears the stories we tell that some people are worth fighting for or defending while some people–some of our neighbors–are disposable. He has sat in the shadow of the valley of death and wanted to give up, but he learned that we can either be hopeful or be part of the problem. So he does what he’s gotta do. He’s found his vocation, his purpose in life. He’s living out the prophecy.

And I sat in that crowded room of people, and I slouched back in my chair, angry. Angry because I was sad, and I realize it’s a selfish sadness because I’m sure many of these people are doing good and great things in their own time, but I can’t see it and don’t know about it. Maybe someone else was sitting across the room thinking the same thing about me. But for this sold out lecture, I don’t know who is also beating that drum for justice with hope, guiding us toward a future where our neighbors don’t have to worry about being wrongfully imprisoned, profiled, discriminated against for housing or work, fed a story that convinces them that they are the ones who need to apologize and be grateful for the so-called worthless life they have.

Advent is about preparing the way for the Lord to break into our lives. Not just our own blessed life but the lives of all. How willing are we to go into the midst of the oppressed, to speak up when false narratives are told about us or even of strangers, to keep faith and hope alive in the darkness, and to do that which is uncomfortable and inconvenient?

From prison Paul wrote to the Philippians who had disagreement among themselves and doubts and struggles. Paul reminded them of his joy for all of them. When he thought of them all, of sharing in God’s grace with all of them, he was even more inspired to pray for them all. All of them, he keeps repeating. His prayer: “that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that come through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” For Paul, faith in Jesus Christ was more important than following the letter of the law. Determining “what is best,” I found, actually translates better as determining “things that matter.”

Paul’s prayer for his companions in faith is that they love one another and have wisdom to discern what matters most. Without love we are but a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal, right? (That’s what he told the Corinthians.) John’s love for God opened him to hear the word of God in the wilderness that called him back into the midst of the people to kindle in them hope in their forgiveness. Bryan Stevenson, fueled for love of justice and mercy, works in the trenches of law and everywhere that takes him to confront the narratives that we’ve misshapen to the detriment and brokenness of one another.

We’re called to wake up. We’re called to heed the voice and voices of those crying out in the wilderness. The Word of God is coming to us all. May we be grounded in Love for God and one another so that we don’t miss what matters most.

 

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Thoughts for the Journey – Advent 1

Jeremiah 33:14-16 | Psalm 25:1-9 | 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 | Luke 21:25-36

Contrary to what my children may think, being Episcopalian at this time of year is not solely about waiting until the last minute to put up Christmas decorations or shaming others who put up decor right after Thanksgiving (if they even wait that long!). As with any culture, there are likely to be particular practices that are different from the norm, and since they’re different they stand out, setting us apart. But all of what we do means something and speaks to who we are and what we believe. We light the candles on the Advent wreath one week at a time, watching the light grow until finally we get to light the Christ candle at Christmas, our anticipation fulfilled. In a society that can get anything right now, intentionally waiting says something. Sitting in the darkness means something. Making the intentional journey through Advent shapes us and forms us year after year.

People of faith commonly refer to our lives as journeys, and we’re no different. Like I said, we “journey” through Advent and also through Lent. We have the Season after Pentecost, which as a “season” implies growth. We have a church calendar that cycles round and round through the years and phases of the moon. We are constantly moving, traveling on a path, walking in the Way. It’s no wonder we can feel exhausted if we keep plowing forward at breakneck speed.

We need time to slow down. We need the darkness reminding us to rest. We need a mother heavy with child to remind us we can’t get anywhere too fast and might need help along the way . . . and patience as we trust in God’s timing, not our own.

Our readings for this first Sunday of Advent spoke to me about this nature of our journey.

In the lesson from Jeremiah, one is foretold who “shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” God’s promise will be fulfilled when there is a way of justice and righteousness. In the Psalm, we recite with the psalmist that we lift up our souls, putting our trust in God, as we try to live faithfully as believers. We trust God to teach us God’s paths, to lead us along God’s path of love and faithfulness. And in the letter to the Thessalonians, there’s a prayer that “our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to” one another. The prayer continues, that the Lord might “make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” As we journey along, there’s genuine compassion for our brothers and sisters along the way but not just family but also neighbors and strangers.

And where are we going with all this journeying?

The Thessalonians heard that we’re anticipating the coming of Jesus with all the saints. We hear today in our gospel reading that redemption is drawing near, that the time is coming when we will have the opportunity “to stand before the Son of Man.”

And how do we know if the time is ripe? If the time is near?

Are all the earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, climate change reports, refugee crises our summer fig leaves telling us the time is nigh? Don’t you know that there were likely signs such as these in the decades and centuries following Jesus’ death. Since the Ascension faithful Christians have been proclaiming the second coming of the Son of Man, anticipating when things would finally change from the nightmare that is, especially if you are one oppressed. With such hope for something radically different, we want to be aware, to be the first to notice that the tide is turning, the tables shifting, the kingdom of God coming near.

Is this what we’re running toward? Our spiritual marathon is so we can run into the kingdom of God?

“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away,” Jesus says, and for those of us who are looking for a little more tangible goal, we might be puzzled at his words.

In case you didn’t know this about me, I’m not a runner. 😉 But I know runners, and they train and fuel and know the race courses, like all good athletes. There’s a definite beginning and end. Especially for marathons, the last leg of the journey is gruelling; I’ve heard folks describe out of body–or at least out of mind–experiences. There’s a loss of self, a loss of control–there’s just the movement and the breath and the hope of reaching the goal. Like I said, I’m not a runner, and the closest thing I’ve ever done to running a marathon is birthing my children. In that, too, once you’ve hit transition, there’s no going back. The pain is insurmountable, the control over the body gone, and there’s nothing but complete surrender to the process at hand. If we’re lucky, though, we have people nearby reminding us to be present, to breathe, and to keep going one moment at a time.

We don’t always lose ourselves in the journey in good, productive ways. We can lose ourselves to any number of distractions or temptations, drunkenness or worries and fall to the wayside, veering far off the Way that leads us to God. As much as we want to focus on distant goals, something out there or 24 days away, it’s much more difficult to live with the expectation that this might be the moment I realize Christ has broken into our lives.

All this talk of journeying and how to be along the way and how to be a loving, good neighbor, is really practice for how to live with presence that God’s promise wasn’t exclusively for back then or for them or for some distant time in the future, but God’s promise is fulfilled right now. Advent reminds us that it’s not just the work that we do throughout our lives as we follow the path we believe is leading us toward God. It’s preparing ourselves to meet Christ not only at the feast of his nativity but also at any moment when we’re so deep in the Way of Love that we’ve completely given ourselves over to God’s will that the Word that was present at the beginning and made flesh at Christ’s birth is as present now as it always will be.

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On Conversion and Climbing Trees

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4 | Psalm 119:137-144 | 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12 | Luke 19:1-10

With faith the size of a mustard seed, with the slightest measure of hope in our heart and desire to see Jesus, we meet Him and our salvation.

I mentioned in the Faith Journey class that in the Episcopal Church we don’t really focus on conversion experiences. We’re not what you call “born-again” Christians. We recognize that when we are baptized in the name of the Trinity, we’re baptized into the Christian church, whether we’re infants or adults. When we’re mature enough to publicly proclaim responsibility for our own life of faith, we’re confirmed by our bishop. If we’re coming from another church where we were already confirmed, we’re received into The Episcopal Church. If we’ve turned away from the church for a good long while, maybe we seek to be reaffirmed. We’re going to celebrate most of these Christian milestones next week when the bishop visits. But don’t let our Episcopal terminology and propriety fool you; we are a saved people.

But I was wrong about something.

Of course we focus on conversion moments. Conversion is change and transformation. We people in the Jesus movement are people transformed by the love of God into disciples equipped by the Holy Spirit to share the Good News. This is fundamentally who we are and what we do. We are changed by Christ and seek to change the world. How could I miss the important process of becoming God’s dream???

It might have something to do with the fact that becoming who God intends us to be isn’t a neat and tidy process, nor is it the same for everybody. It’s not linear or predictable, and sometimes it’s not even rational. The truth of the matter is that as we become what God intends, we loosen our control over the outcomes, and we really don’t like even the perception of vulnerability or weakness on our part. Wouldn’t we rather just keep things as they are, even if they’re a bit restrictive, than turn the whole thing upside down and over to the unknown?

In Christian Ed this morning, we talked about “breaking through,” as in breaking through from one stage to the next. I guess it could be viewed as gradual conversion. We don’t wake up one birthday morning suddenly mature. We don’t take one step to the left or right and immediately change our worldview. We move, learn, grow, and make decisions that form and inform our worldview, and at some point, if we’re truly learning and growing, we reach critical mass and something gives way. It can be painful. Our physical body does this naturally: growth can be excruciating, awkward, and uncomfortable. Spiritually, socially, intellectually, emotionally–in all aspects of our lives–we go through various ages and stages, too.

Maybe you never want to change, and if you have grown into the full stature of Christ in the glory of God, I hope you never change, either. But for most of the rest of us, no matter who we are, we reach a point of being tired. Not tired in a I’ve-had-a-long-week kind of way but in a I-just-can’t-keep-playing-this-same-old-game kind of way. We’re tired of being a scorned tax collector. We’re tired of betraying our people. We’re tired of pretending to be wealthy and happy. We’re tired of acting like one size fits all. We’re tired of deceiving ourselves. We don’t have to be a dealer or hustler or user to be tired. We can even be the upright, pious, outstanding citizen, employee, parent, child, who is doing everything by the book and is completely exhausted by self-righteousness.

Today, we can take a cue from Zaccheus. Zaccheus was tired of upholding an air of callous authority and of depraving his neighbors of their hard-earned wages. He was tired of playing the game, but Jesus was resetting the rules. Jesus saw the outcasts and made them whole, healed the blind, and proclaimed even a tax collector justified. By the new rules, Zaccheus had a chance . . . not just a chance but a promise at a different life, a new life, one that would truly take him to new heights. The humble would be exalted. It’s like climbing the tree was a trial run. Could he risk running and climbing a tree, suffering the humiliation for doing so? It was better than putting himself directly under the feet of those who hated him. Could he actually be deeply changed? He wouldn’t know until he saw Jesus, but Zaccheus was ready for a change, uncertain yet willing. He was ready to be honest and to turn toward Jesus for help, whatever that looked like. He had to climb the tree. He needed to see Jesus. He needed Jesus to see him.

Early church father Cyril of Alexandria said,

“We all have to climb the sycamore to see Christ.”

How right he was.

In climbing the tree we shed whatever pretense of self-righteousness we thought we had. We rise above the crowd of judgement and the mire of our sins. In a sense, we climb the tree and are perched there in our nakedness, suspended by the branches of God’s creation. We see Jesus below us as man, feel Jesus with us as one crucified, and know Jesus as our resurrected Lord and Savior. How can we have a moment like this and not be transformed? By going through the excruciating motions of vulnerability, we break through the hard and fast rules we set for ourselves, allowing ourselves be changed by Christ.

But it’s not just one tree-climbing experience that brings us to the table with the Lord in a one-and-done salvation experience. (And please know we don’t all literally have to go out and climb actual trees!) Our life in faith is complex, as is our understanding of God. Paul said, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” Paul was speaking about love and our understanding of love in and through Christ. It’s easy for me to imagine Zaccheus as the “wee little man” from my childhood Sunday School songs and story Bibles. A cartoon face with wide, eager eyes, barefoot, and a colorful tunic, Zaccheus sits in a two-dimensional tree with thin but secure branches and bright green leaves, Jesus smiling up at him from below, the crowd blurry in the background. As a child, the important thing to me was that Jesus saw the oh-so-happy Zaccheus and called him down so they could go have supper together. With more mature eyes, I see the scene differently. Zaccheus took a risk to see Jesus who embodied Love in all its patience, kindness, generosity, truth, strength, perseverance, belief, hope, and endurance. Maybe Zaccheus hoped to be whole in a way he had never known before. He didn’t know how it would work exactly, but he was willing quite literally to go out on a limb with everyone watching.

We can be whole in Christ, too, but we still have to climb the tree to see Jesus, as Cyril said. It’s not easy to climb trees, to be vulnerable. We don’t want to climb because as adults, it’s embarrassing. Someone’s going to see a not-so-flattering angle of us or laugh at us. We might not be able to reach that first branch (because we’ve kept the trees perfectly trimmed), so we need help. We need someone to hear our plea, to help us call rehab, to take us to therapy, to make sure we haven’t given up. Accepting the offer to give us a boost, trusting someone to spot us should we lose our balance humbles us and prepares us for following the way of our Savior. Just getting to that first branch can be enough to change our perspective, putting us face to face with Christ.

We’re not able to do this thing called life on our own. We’re not expected to. We are expected to grow in faith. We are expected to trust God who has been faithful to us from the beginning. Any time we get caught up in a way of life that isn’t the way of Christ, we return to our sycamore and struggle to rise above our petty selves, to do the work of converting and transforming, breaking through to deeper understandings of our place in God’s dream, our work for God’s glory. We can thank God for strong trees and good friends, but most importantly, we thank God for meeting us where we are and still holding open the way of salvation.

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From Our Deepest Hurt to Our Greatest Love

 

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 | Psalm 66:1-11 | 2 Timothy 2:8-15 | Luke 17:11-19

The first experience for first year seminarians in Sewanee is to make a pilgrimage to Hayneville, Alabama, in honor of Jonathan Myrick Daniels, a young white Episcopal seminarian from New Hampshire. Daniels saw the inequality in the South and believed so strongly in advocating for civil rights that he left the comfort of his home and school and went to join the movement in 1965. After being released from jail and going to get a soda, Daniels was shot in Hayneville in front of a convenience store, shot because he took the bullet aimed at a 17-year-old black girl named Ruby Sales, whom he had pushed out of harm’s way. Daniels became one of our modern day martyrs, and Ruby Sales has since continued advocating for civil rights and has become a public theologian, perhaps living into some of the roles Daniels would have, had his life not been cut short.

In reflecting on her youth, Ruby Sales says* she grew up with black folk religion “that said that people who were considered property and disposable were essential in the eyes of God and even essential in a democracy, although (they) were enslaved. And it was a religion where the language and the symbols were accessible, that the God talk was accessible, to even 7-year-olds.” She describes her parents as “spiritual geniuses who created a world and a language where the notion that (she) was inadequate or inferior or less than never touched (her) consciousness” and a world where “hate was not anything in (their) vocabulary.”  This “black folk religion” was her foundation and was ingrained in her so much that later when she thought she had left the church, she realized that even though she had left God, God had never left her.

Ruby reached this moment of realization, she says, “When I was getting my locks washed, and my locker’s daughter came in one morning, and she had been hustling all night. And she had sores on her body, and she was just in a state, drugs.

“So something said to me, ‘Ask her, “Where does it hurt?”

“And I said, ‘Shelly, where does it hurt?’ And just that simple question unleashed territory in her that she had never shared with her mother.”

Such an honest, open question given to her by “something” that we might call Spirit, opened Ruby to the reality of the person before her, this equally essential child of God. As Shelly shared the source of her pain, a relationship was forged, not only between Ruby and Shelly but also between Ruby and God. Ruby was reminded of her foundation in God and guided to pursue a way to do her work not as a Marxist but as a public theologian. In a moment of intimate relationship, Ruby went back and gave thanks to God maybe not in so many words, but her life work became about fighting to maintain this intimacy in relations, being able to look at matters straight on and ask, “Where does it hurt?” In the midst of this relationship-forging and soul-sharing, God shows up, and despite the pain, healing begins.

In nearly every conversation I’ve had in the past week, whether it’s been asked directly or offered willingly, people are sharing where they hurt. The images we see, the rhetoric we hear, the experiences we are having are chipping away at our resolve to be people of faith, people in relationship with one another and with God. It is so much easier to close our eyes to that which offends us, close our ears to that which assault us, close our minds to that which challenges us, and close our hearts to that which pains us. Perhaps like me you get caught in those moments where your heart physically hurts. Even as an enduring people who remember Jesus Christ, we are tired, and we are hurting. We may not have leprosy, but we know that we are sick, that we need Jesus’s mercy now more than ever, that we have no part of the kingdom of God without God’s grace, our only hope of salvation.

Getting to the kingdom looks like it’s a long way from here, looks pretty impossible, actually, but Jesus has shown us that it doesn’t matter who we are–black, white, or brown, native or foreigner–our faith makes us well.

Our faith saves us. Our faith makes us whole.

Our faith that says when we are baptized and die to ourselves, we live life in Christ; that when we endure all manner of suffering, we reign with Christ; that no matter how faithless we are, God remains faithful to us because God cannot deny God’s self. Our being in relationship with God depends on us, on our faith.

I tell my kids when they don’t want me to go somewhere or when they were younger and didn’t want me to leave them alone at night, that I am never separated from them because our heartstrings are connected. I would place one hand over my heart and my other hand over their chest, and they would almost always lay their hands over mine, holding me close. So when my heart hurts over images I see, over the discourse I hear, over the suffering of family, friends, and neighbors near and far, I imagine my heartstring to God being pulled, being strained. Even in the pain, I’m grateful that I still feel this connection to God in my care and love of others. I know that I can invite God into this pain to give me strength, to strengthen my hope and faith. But perhaps our heartstrings can be pulled so much and so often that they become numbed, that we forget we are connected to God from the beginning. Perhaps we can lose our foundation or close ourselves off in isolation, being turned away from God.

When we ask, “Where does it hurt?” we are asking so many things.

Where are our relationships strained or broken with ourselves, with others, and with God? When were we told that we aren’t essential? When was the accessibility of God taken away from us? When were we told that we aren’t valuable, that we aren’t beloved? These are incredibly powerful questions, and answering them honestly makes us vulnerable and weak . . . and yet creates space for God to restore us to wholeness, to restore and strengthen our heartstrings–our relationship–because God is reminding us that God’s still here, has always been here: won’t we just turn toward God, perceive God’s power at work in our lives, offer our thanks and praise, and get on with the work God needs us to do?

God already knows our hurt, feels our pain, and has already laid out the path to our health and salvation. As we are restored to wholeness and affirm the great power of God, we testify to others how our salvation is already accomplished. It’s not cheap grace or easy love. Jonathan Daniels saw what was hurting in our society and was determined to show up in a place that needed a witness of God’s love. Two months before his death, Daniels wrote, “I lost fear … when I began to know in my bones and sinews that I have truly been baptized into the Lord’s death and resurrection, that in the only sense that really matters I am already dead, and my life is hid with Christ in God.” Such is the union of a saint with God and the life of one burning fiercely with compassion for others. Ruby Sales took for granted her foundation in God’s love but witnessed the power of that Love when extending it to others. In asking and answering a simple question that touches on our pain, we open ourselves to receive God’s mercy in our weakness. No matter how undeserving we think we are or how unessential society has marked us to be, salvation in Christ is offered to all who endure with Him and glorify God.

We may not have grown up in black folk religion, The Episcopal Church, or any religion or church at all. But if we are here today, we are plunging into relationship with Christ, because if there’s something we are good at in this place, it is in remembering Jesus Christ and giving thanks and praise to God. We open our ears to hear God’s Word, we open our hearts to forgiveness, we open our mouths to proclaim, and we open our hands to receive. In all this we affirm our lives rooted in God, centered in Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and we give our thanks. We have the security of our relationships with one another in Christ to share where we hurt and to see the way forward with hope through God’s grace, through Love, our heartstrings firmly connected.


 

* Krista Tippett’s interviews with folks have a way of speaking to what is true in so many aspects of our lives. I am grateful for this podcast that captures not only Sales’ experience but also the questions of other public theologians. http://www.onbeing.org/program/ruby-sales-where-does-it-hurt/8931 

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Holy Discomfort

 

Lamentations 1:1-6 | Psalm 137 | 2 Timothy 1:1-14 | Luke 17:5-10

“Increase our faith!” the apostles say to the Lord. Is it because they have seen Jesus heal so many times and heard him proclaim that faith has made one well? Is it because they don’t want to end up like the rich man across the chasm from Lazarus, suffering in death? Or is it because in this chapter of Luke, Jesus has just told his apostles not to be a stumbling block to others and to forgive continually those who are repentant? For all of these, YES! We can’t be healed, have eternal life, and empower and forgive others on our own: help us, Lord Jesus. “Increase our faith!”

Jesus says, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to the mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.’”

The disciples look around at each other. It doesn’t sound like Jesus is granting their request. They have asked their faith to be increased, yet Jesus implies that they have no faith at all. That’s got to be a little awkward, and when things are awkward, the air seems to close in around us, our clothes fit weird, and we start looking for the nearest exit. If we can’t dismiss it or laugh it off, we want find the door.

But Jesus isn’t done.

“Think of your slave,” he tells them (presumably they all either had a slave or at least knew how the system worked). “Don’t you expect them to do their work without reward, without a ‘thank you’? You, also, are to do your work, and nothing is owed to you.”

Now in our minds we hear Jesus telling us we are worthless slaves. We’re not laughing. We’re ready to dismiss him and walk out the door without further thought. Or, we could sit in the discomfort a while.

Courtney Martin, considered “one of (today’s) most insightful culture critics,” emphasized discomfort in an interview I listened to recently. She said that discomfort is important and that it’s most often a “call to get back in relationship.”

So I find it interesting that Jesus goes from making us uncomfortable to talking about a master-slave relationship, which makes us even more uncomfortable. But this is Jesus talking, God incarnate. If God is making us uncomfortable, there’s probably something to it, something “of which our conscience is afraid.”

Our conscience, our inner voice sends us warning sirens that Jesus is telling his apostles, and therefore us, that we don’t have faith . . . because if we did, miraculous things would happen. Our conscience doesn’t like hearing that we are worthless slaves. Our inner voice is screaming to run the other way at the notion that we’re not good enough, worthy enough, or capable of doing enough to please God. And God won’t even give us thanks, anyway, since we don’t deserve it. Our conscience fears that which threatens us.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams said many brilliant things during the DuBose lectures in Sewanee last week, some so brilliant they went right over my head! (I blame the lack of coffee during the first lecture.)* In the second lecture, Williams spoke about how we as finite humans encounter God, the infinite Divine. If I followed right, he referred to the philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard who said that the “passion of human reason longs to encounter that which we cannot conquer or control.” Williams emphasized this point that “our mental processes search what we cannot overcome, namely the God, the Divine.” It sounds to me like they’re saying we can’t help ourselves in our yearning for God, who will always be more than we can handle. Most strikingly, however, Williams said, “Humanity seeks death of divine logos because we can’t stand it,” and this, he said, figures significantly in how German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer came to say that the cost of discipleship is that the disciple “must either die or kill Jesus.”

Lest you think this is completely unrelated, again consider our discomfort at Jesus’ response to the apostles. Is Jesus really threatening us or our ideas of us, our illusions of the world as we create it, even our illusions of ourselves? In the presence of Christ, Williams says we panic; at once we are being asked who we are, and we are being called by Christ. We thought we knew how things worked, who we are and what we’re doing, but in the face of God, we find ourselves being asked, “Who are we to think that faith is ours to possess? What kind of relationship is Christ calling us into?” Everything we think we know can be shattered in the face of God, breaking open to what is really real, to what is true.

In this moment of discomfort, God is calling us into relationship through Christ in God’s own terms. The measure of our faith doesn’t empower us to work miracles: even a little “faith enables God to work in (our lives) in ways that defy ordinary human experience.”** Rather than focusing on increasing our faith, we are called to see ourselves as people of faith, empowered by the Holy Spirit to do God’s work in the world.

And what of our relationship to God as slaves? Maybe this comparison above all inclines us to want to destroy the Jesus before us. Our associations of master-slave relations have generations of stories to tell, most of which are incompatible to a sense of confident thriving in the world. How can one have a positive sense of self in complete subservience and submission to another?

Our associations and understandings of God as master are not the same as God as Master. Jesus reveals to us who God is. Williams said, “Jesus is God communicating. …Jesus makes us know what we didn’t know.” He reveals to us rather than remind us. Williams described it as a great “scandal,” that God “appeared in suffering, failing humanity, without power and in weakness.” But that’s what God had to do to reveal God’s overwhelming power. We couldn’t and can’t be forced into relationship with God; we get to choose it willingly. For God to express powerful, unconditional love, God had to be manifest in nonviolence, be helpless, be entirely for other. The divine is so much for other (for us), that it destroys the power of my illusion of being solely for myself.

The illusion of myself for myself alone is what dies in the presence of Christ if I accept the outpouring of God for me. That I would do this willingly, endlessly, without reward, and without demand might look and sound like servitude, but the reality in Christ is that it is mutual love grounded in grace. There is no question about who is Master and slave in this relationship, but the relationship is entirely redefined in the person of Jesus. We can give ourselves completely to One who gave of Oneself for humanity. That God is so selflessly for us speaks to the immense value of grace and the worth that imparts to our lives in relationship with God. We can scarcely conceive of such selflessness and grace. We might even fear it enough to kill it, as we did on a Friday so many years ago and as we do each time we turn away from or deny God.

The apostles are rather silent after Jesus speaks to them, but we know they kept following him; we do, too. We keep encountering uncomfortable moments, because if we think about it, we are always encountering God. These moments of discomfort are invitations to pause and discern where God is in the moment and what illusions are being shattered. This act of discernment of our holy discomfort is necessary so that we become accurate assessors of what is real and what is helpful. With practice, we become more adept at seeing whether what we want is aligned with or is in tension with “God’s dream” for the world.

And our vision is clearest when our focus is set on Christ.

 

* Quotes from the lectures are derived from my lecture notes

** R. Alan Culpepper, The New Interpreter’s Bible, “The Gospel of Luke,” p. 322.

 

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Shrewd Stewards

 

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1 | Psalm 79:1-9 | 1 Timothy 2:1-7 | Luke 16:1-13

We all have those teachers or authority figures in our lives who seem so hardheaded and resolute that we just don’t know if we can tow the line they set. We might grumble about them, but we can’t help but learn from them and thus come to respect and maybe even love them. One such professor in seminary (who shall remain nameless) emphatically stated that there is no such thing  as “Stewardship Season.” We have the Season after Pentecost, and we have Advent; we have no distinction or color for “Stewardship.” And that was that. So I guess over the years church leaders have hopped onto the “stewardship season” boat despite the best liturgical advice, undoubtedly at the behest of vestries looking forward to making balanced budgets come January. It probably helped that the lessons coincided with a focus on wealth and money-management, and if they didn’t, there’s plenty in the gospels to choose from to work in a line or two. In fact, there’s actually lots in our tradition about being a good steward, period. We’ve come to realize that it’s not just about managing our pocketbooks but about managing all of our resources: our health, time, relationships, environment, you name it. Everything that we have–all of it, tangible or intangible–has some sort of value.

Today we’re being schooled on how we manage our valuables.

The dishonest manager or unrighteous steward has to provide an account to his master or lord because he’s been accused of squandering his master’s property and is getting fired. He knows he’s too weak to dig and too proud to beg, so he comes up with a way to provide for himself after he gets the boot. I couldn’t help but imagine this manager being a kindred of the former Wells Fargo consumer banking chief Carrie Tolstedt; perhaps you’ve read about her in Fortune or the Washington Post. Some squandering has occurred, but 27 years in the business with a seven-figure income didn’t come about because she’s a fool. Think fast and get out fast. After 27 years, who isn’t ready to retire, especially if it comes with something to the tune of $124.6 million in assets? That’s a lot of olive oil and wheat. It still remains to be seen if she has to give any of the payout back. (I wonder if any of the 5,300 employees who lost their jobs in the past five years because they didn’t meet quotas for opening new/fraudulent accounts have any input.) The CEO of Wells Fargo conveyed praise for Tolstedt, saying she “had been one of the bank’s most important leaders and ‘a standard-bearer of our culture’ and ‘a champion for our customers.’” His words sound an awful lot like a master’s commendation.

Jesus gives us this parable. When Augustine pondered why Jesus gave us this parable, I imagine him imploring with disgust as he preached that Jesus “surely did not approve of that cheat of a servant who cheated his master, stole from him and did not make it up from his own pocket.” Perhaps after a moment of composure, he suggests that the focus isn’t on the servant’s cheating but rather “because he exercised foresight for the future. When even a cheat is praised for his ingenuity,” Augustine says, “Christians who make no such provision blush.”

The cheat of a steward gets praise even from Jesus for exercising his shrewdness and insuring his future. The steward in the parable lowered the bills by getting rid of interest or commission and garners goodwill from the debtors. By the time the master realizes what’s happened, he’s going to honor the accounts as they are or lose honor with his customers. (Even Wells Fargo is paying back its fraudulent charges.) The master is saving face, so to speak, and even the manager gets by with his misdeeds that ended up bringing about goodwill toward himself. It’s like when two villains look at each other and say, “Well played.”

Jesus doesn’t deny the good move.

With this parable, Jesus points out that the corrupt masters and managers are getting away with their misdeeds while the people are suffering under the weight of all our systems and even our best intentions. The words ring a little too true, a little too clearly:

“…the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”

It’s like Jesus is challenging his proclaimed “children of light” to up our game. He did this 2,000 years ago, and it’s as true today as ever. “You can serve God and act shrewdly,” he’s telling us. “Think fast and act on my behalf, which is your behalf. We share eternity together.”

That choice to serve God is our first shrewd move, managing our free will by aligning it with God. Rather than promote our own agenda or save our own face, we serve God. As children of the light, we “have seen the kingdom dawning in Jesus’ works and in His calls for a radical commitment to God’s power to deliver people from corruption and oppression.” We stand up for what is good; we love our neighbors; we come to church; we pray. We collaborate with those who differ from us, reconcile with those whom it’s hard to love, and help those whom we are uncertain about. We manage our diversity, hospitality, and generosity knowing that we are merely stewards of God’s creation.

Jesus isn’t necessarily telling his followers they and we aren’t being faithful and serving God alone. He’s showing us how easy it is to fall to the wayside, how significant a little dishonesty can be, how easily we can fool ourselves.

In her book The Soul of Money, Lynne Twist shares her meeting with Mother Teresa, her lifelong role model and inspiration. Upon arriving at the Old Delhi orphanage, Lynne picked up the crumpled newspaper at the door, finding within it a newborn baby girl. She removed the newspaper and wrapped the tiny infant in her shawl before handing her to the nun who greeted her. While waiting for Mtr. Teresa to return from bailing two girls out of jail (because they had turned to prostitution), Lynne worked alongside the nuns in caring for the 51 children under the age of two. She noticed the cooing and singing before turning to her work, and found herself in what she called “a state of grace.”

Finally, Mtr. Teresa emerged from a shadowed hallway with “her familiar figure stooped over. She was smiling and glowing,” accompanied by a devoted black lab. Lynne kissed her hands and “instinctively kissed her sandaled feet” before they sat at the simple table together. Lynne thanked her for being her lifelong inspiration, asked for prayers for her family, and talked about her work with The Hunger Project. “In her presence,” Lynne writes, “I felt an unconditional love and connectedness to the whole world so profound that I could not hold back my tears and so I spoke to her through them.”

This beautiful, intimate moment was shattered by a large and flashy couple–wealthy, loud, and demanding–barging in to get their picture with Mtr. Teresa. Lynne was given the camera to take the picture and watched in horror as the rich woman tried to force Mtr. Teresa’s stooped frame upright. They didn’t even say “thank you,” not even to Mtr. Teresa. Lynne says that Mtr. Teresa continued with the conversation after they left as if nothing had happened but that she hardly heard her through her own rage toward the intrusive couple.

Weeks later, Lynne received a letter from Mtr. Teresa, handwritten. In it Lynne is admonished by Mtr. Teresa because while she shows great compassion for the poor, Lynne showed no compassion toward the wealthy couple. She took no heed “of the suffering of the wealthy: the loneliness, the isolation, the hardening of the heart, the hunger and poverty of the soul that can come with the burden of wealth.” From that point on, Lynne vowed to open her heart and have compassion for the wealthy and the poor and hungry alike. Mother Teresa opened Lynne’s eyes to see how she had surrounded the rich couple with her anger and hatred, while Mtr. Teresa showed them as much love and respect as the orphans she tended.

MtrTeresa-and-childIs there a better example of a child of the light than Mother Teresa? Well, she is one of many. She embodies one who is smart/wise/discerning/shrewd enough to tell the difference between what will pass away and what will endure. She shows us how with God’s help we can act decisively, committed to God’s power to end corruption and oppression. No, we won’t all be saints, but we do all have a choice as to whom or what we serve. The most powerful, valuable thing we have is our love and devotion.

Jesus keeps teaching us how to use them well.

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Crisis and Good News

 

Jeremiah 2:4-13 | Psalm 81:1, 10-16 | Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 | Luke 14:1, 7-14

If you were in Christian Ed last week, you heard Jill Johnson from CCMC (Cooperative Christian Ministries & Clinic) talk about the Bridges Out of Poverty program. She pointed out that if we have our sight set on a goal, be it getting out of poverty or simply finding our way on a map, it’s tremendously helpful to have that “You are Here” star pinpointing our location so we have an accurate picture of reality and can establish a sense of direction.

If we know where we are, we have a better chance of getting where we want to go.

So, where are we?

Are we, like Jeremiah’s audience and like the Hebrews, at a time of crisis? Like the house of Jacob, have we defiled our land, transgressed against God, and chased after that which does not profit? Like the Hebrews in the epistle, have we become frustrated with or suffered shame for our faith? If we evaluate where we are right now, maybe it’s not too far of a stretch to say that we are in crisis, too. These past weeks in Christian Ed we’ve intentionally highlighted the poverty crisis, which is closely linked with the homeless crisis, the unemployment crisis, the mental health crisis, and so on. There’s also the refugee crisis, water crisis, and other humanitarian crises worldwide.

You probably realize by now how much I like to know what we really mean by the words that we use and say. So when we say things are a crisis or in crisis, do we mean that they are situations in dire straits, with no simple solution or easy way out? Or when we use or consider the word “crisis,” do we borrow from the medical connotation and see “crisis” as meaning a turning point–as in a disease–that indicates an outcome pointing either toward recovery or toward death? We seem to have blended the two: I understand a crisis to be a situation at a tipping point that could either lead toward that which is life-giving or death-dealing in some way, shape, or form, depending on the next move. If every issue we face is at a point of making or breaking it–“it” being life itself–then we have very important decisions to make.

Jeremiah calls his people out on their crisis. Even though he thought he was just a boy, God empowered Jeremiah to speak out, to be the voice of God among the people. We hear today that two evils are proclaimed: the people of the house of Jacob have forsaken the Almighty, “the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.” Their crisis? Do they even recognize it? Without God, they will perish. Without God, their life abundant will devolve into conflict, death, and destruction. Forsaking that which gives them life, the people have sought to provide for themselves, taking it upon themselves to choose and to control their lives, their laws, their loyalties. Their point of crisis hinged on whether or not to live in relationship with God. Jeremiah tells them, speaking for the LORD, that they stand at the precipice and choose death by turning away from God.

I’ve probably told you before that I often tell my children to “make good choices.” I’m thinking that I want them to do what is right and good, but if I’m completely honest with myself, there’s part of me that knows they can reach a crisis moment when they least expect it, and the choice they make will hinge on the cusp of what is life-giving or death-dealing. I could probably rationalize every moment as life-giving or death-dealing: are we relating in the moment in a way that promotes life, especially life in Christ? Or are we turning away from God in the moment, even in how we look at a person? If sin is turning away from God, and sin leads to death, is every moment I turn away from God and toward death a moment of crisis? It would seem so. Maybe I should start telling my kids to “make life-giving choices” in case they lose sight of what is good…because we are so easily lost when left to our own devices.

Our self-made cisterns aren’t enough. We cannot create a holding tank for God’s love or grace or mercy. Our self-interest isn’t enough. We will never have enough, be enough, understand “enough” unless we know in the depth of our being that there is always enough in God. There’s enough water, enough food, enough shelter, enough employment, enough opportunity, enough resources, enough love . . . for all of us.

The crisis of our moment in history hinges on whether or not we are willing to sacrifice our self-sufficiency that we might tip the scale toward that which is truly life-giving and in full relationship with God. Are we willing to evaluate whether our personal agendas, however great or small, are for a greater good or for our personal glory? And, yes, we do so much good in this place and in this world. Yet for all the good we do, why is our society, our world overrun with systemic crises?

There is brokenness in the systems, just as there is brokenness in each of us.

There’s a beautiful sculpture that I’d love to see in person. It was in one of those videos on Facebook highlighting the most fantastic sculptures in the world. I searched out the artist’s page, where she has more images of it. A naked woman, sitting upright with her head uplifted, is cracked, as if fissures throughout her body just split open. Having been thinking of crises all week, I couldn’t help but think of cracked cisterns and of brokenness. I thought of all the women I hear stories about in the realm of human trafficking, particularly sex trafficking. Women who are trapped in a situation where they may have shelter and something to eat but who are depleted in value, respect, and love. Women who reached that point because at some point in their life, they were violated. Maybe they were molested or raped at a young age or were neglected as children and adolescents and found solace in whatever addiction numbed the pain. Maybe they were trapped in a moment of vulnerability, kidnapped completely, or blackmailed into a situation they couldn’t escape. This broken woman represents to me all victims of crisis–male and female–wounded . . . but not yet dead. In the sculpture, light shines brightly through the cracks. And is it a smile on her face? This woman knows the source of life and the reward at the resurrection of the righteous. Maybe she’s not a victim. Maybe she’s just bursting forth with light, exposed and vulnerable, but so filled with light, she cannot contain it herself; I think this is more what the artist has in mind for the sculpture titled “Expansion.” To me, it is a powerful image of brokenness overcome.

All of our crises point toward what is broken and cracked, and all of our crises present to us a choice on how to proceed. We choose where we are going, either toward death or toward life. Thanks be to God, there is that ever-flowing fount of life that shines forth and pours through our cracks if we allow it.

The letter to the Hebrews was written to a people in crises, a people beginning to lose faith. After addressing the concerns of the community, the writer advises them to “Let mutual love continue,” as if to say, “Remember, church, where you are as a community of faith…whose you are as a community of faith.” Remember hospitality, compassion, fidelity, generosity, contentment, and faith. For the Hebrews as for us, these are fundamentals in our relationship with God, essentials in living in covenant with God, the light that shines through our brokenness. “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” Our greatest sacrifice is our willing surrender to live in relationship with God, to show up at a moment of crisis and pray and say, “Here I am, Lord,” even in our uncertainty and imperfection. With the fount of Light pouring through our humanity, we do our best to do what is good, what is life-giving, knowing that the source of our strength and power is not ourself. We do good and share what we have, and this is pleasing to God

We are, each of us, in a crisis. The good news for us is that we know it, and we know where we want to go. We follow that living water to life eternal. We choose life in Christ when we pray, “thy will be done,” and this is part of our daily prayer. Please pray the Lord’s prayer every day, three times a day if you can. This helps keep our personal GPS on track so we can “make life-giving choices,” pleasing not only our mothers but our God.

We know not only where we are but whose we are, so we head in the direction of life, not death.

That’s what we do as a community of faith, as people of faith. We choose to share what we know gives life. We help one another stay connected to our Source. And in our times of crisis, we stay oriented to God and move forward, taking our own steps in the direction God leads but also moving forward together as one body, into the flow of life abundant.

 

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On Listening

Amos 8:1-12 | Psalm 52 | Colossians 1:15-28 | Luke 10:38-42


How grateful I am that we are able to come together this morning. We may have an altered location, but we have set apart a time and place to come together in worship and prayer, no matter what is going on in the world around us. We have set apart a time and a place to engage the Word of God, to offer our thanksgiving, and to receive the body and blood of Christ into our person. All this we do as is our habit, our custom. For most everyone here, it’s just our Sunday morning routine. Many could do it without a prayer book or bulletin. Indeed, you can do it without saying anything at all. You could just go through the motions, literally, but I invite you this morning

to be fully present.

In this holy place where more than two or three are gathered, I assure you that the presence of the Lord is here. I invite you this morning

to open your heart.

As sure as the presence of the Lord is here, so also is the Spirit speaking to us. I invite you this morning

to listen.

If we are present, open, and listening, we will not leave this place the same person as when we first entered. A true encounter with God leaves us a changed person.

Getting to that place of encounter, though, can be difficult. Even now, some of your minds may have already wandered, my voice a blur in the background to the interior monologue of your mind playing your tape of things to do, reminding you of things you might have forgotten. Or maybe you’re still struggling to be present, as I invited you to do just a minute ago. No, it hasn’t been long, but our brains these days are wired to focus for a max of about three minutes. If we were communicating online, our focus would only last about 45 seconds. I’m not making these numbers up. I listened to a program a couple of weeks ago called “Infomagical: BOOTCAMP.” “Infomagical” was about a 5-day challenge to fight information overload, but in this particular podcast bootcamp, they focused on the one thing that was most effective for being productive and anxiety-free: single-tasking. They interviewed a neuroscientist who affirmed that we truly only do one thing at a time, though we can shift quite quickly between our many tasks, cashing in a bit of glucose in exchange each time and increasing our stress levels. It’s no wonder Martha gets frantic. If we continue to follow the pace set by media Martha&MaryWindow-StLukesHSoutlets and social media networks, we’re all on a trajectory leading to burnout and exhaustion.

Then there’s Mary, who has chosen to listen to Jesus, devouring his every word. Mary knew how to single-task. We might say, like Augustine, that she is feasting on the Word before her. Mary sat at the feet of Jesus so transfixed upon him that we don’t hear her speak. Whether her mind is racing with questions or whether she’s struck with awe, we don’t know. But Jesus knew. Jesus knew she chose to stay attentive to his word, completely abandoning her duties as a first century woman. Jesus probably knew the weight of her heart and the truth of her soul.

For when we are present and open-hearted, we tend to reside in truth . . . vulnerable, naked truth.

When we listen in this state, it feels like another dimension opens up. It feels like an alternate reality because the walls that divide us are let down. My armor is cast aside; our barriers disappear. I don’t need a hearing aid or a microphone to hear or be heard because my whole being is attuned to you. Our minds track our thoughts, our eyes speak volumes, our hearts beat in time, and our voice when we speak gives voice to our soul. I hope with all hope that you’ve experienced this kind of listening with another. It is a gift. I can only imagine what Mary experienced listening to Jesus, both in what was said and unsaid.

Reflecting on this act of listening, I am reminded that the invitation to sit and feast on the Word is always available. CB last week reminded us that amidst all the distraction of the media and our own worries and concerns, that it is the Bible to which we should return for our guidance. Even as Jesus last week reminded us of our command to love our neighbors, this week he reminds us, too, to be attentive to Him, to be present and open to Him, and to listen to Him.

If you think that you’ve gone too far away from a life lived in truth or that it’s been too long since last you felt the presence of Christ as the word whispered in your heart, I share this story with you.

There is a practice of holy listening that I’ve experienced. I learned it through Parker Palmer’s work. As a Quaker, Palmer is quite familiar with the art of listening. He explains that often we need a third thing, something between us and Wisdom to invite that suppressed or too quiet voice to be heard. Like a wild fox in the forest, Wisdom waits for us to be very still, waits for us to be ready for the truth so we can hear it with love and without fear.

A poem makes for an excellent third thing because a good poem captures a moment yet reveals a universal truth which can then relate to our lives in myriad ways.

To a few men at the Garland County jail a couple of months ago, I brought a poem. Before I brought the poem, I brought the desire to hear their truths. I brought the belief that each of them is a beloved child of God. I brought the desire to listen to them and to help them listen to God.

With mutual trust we read the poem aloud. We highlighted words or phrases from David Whyte’s poem “Sometimes.” Some of the phrases that stood out were “move carefully,” “frightening requests,” and “questions that have no right to go away.” We shared what the phrases made us think of and what the images might mean to us individually. Each of us entered that sacred dimension of holy listening.

The poem is set in the woods. I invited the men to imagine walking in the woods with a beloved companion, someone they loved, trusted, and truly respected, someone who always had their back. And we asked questions of this beloved companion, honest, open questions that I didn’t know the answers to. We also let the companion respond to our questions. After a period of silence, most shared their responses, and I wish you could have felt the stillness of the room, how even in a cinderblock, windowless space, there was the presence of the holy.

Daring to break the silence, I invited them to regard their companion as their own best self, the child God created them to be. If that was too hard, they could regard their companion as Jesus. Either way, the encounter they had was with the Wisdom within, the Truth that abides in the Word, the Truth in which we are all held together through Christ Jesus.

With an “Amen,” I brought our exercise to a close. One of the guys looked at me directly and said, “I’ve never done anything like that before. That was intense.” Other guys nodded, and I saw in their eyes that some truly had encountered something. It wasn’t necessarily joyful and awesome. It wasn’t something they could necessarily give voice to beyond affirming its intensity. Whether their encounter changed them or not, that’s up to them to choose, but God was there to speak to them, to offer an invitation.

We don’t have to have a third thing to get to the one thing that matters most: opening our heart to Christ. It doesn’t simply mean opening the door to let Jesus in then getting on with our agenda. Opening our hearts to Christ means deeply ingesting the Word of God and receiving the fire of the Holy Spirit.

Opening our hearts to Christ means living in this world with a love so fierce that our hearts break in the suffering and bleed in the violence, trusting that our love in Christ remains steadfast and true and heals us all.

We listen to the Word as it fills our hearts and minds and then . . . and then we rise to do the work we have been given to do.

When we leave this place today after our prayerful encounter with God, we leave changed that we might change the world.

Amen.

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Priceless Discipleship

1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21 | Psalm 16 | Galatians 5:1, 13-25 | Luke 9:51-62


Rarely does one walk into an employment obligation without really knowing the full range of requirements, expectations, and compensation. Sure, a teenager might take a summer job and not know what her hourly wage will be, and her mother might sign up to be part of summer camp staff for a couple of weeks without a clue as what exactly to expect. But most people most of the time know what they’re signing up for. We want to make sure that we’ll be able to fulfill expectations and that the effort we put into something will be justly compensated. Our needs and abilities are paramount when we make these important decisions about how we invest our time and energy. When it comes to how we make our living, it’s a matter of getting the math to work in our favor. When it comes to how we live a life, however, especially a Christian life, it’s a matter of something else entirely. When we signed on to be Christians, we signed on to a life of discipleship. Even though discipleship is spelled out for us in the Word, we’re still trying to figure out what it means for us … and what it will cost us.

From what we learn from Elisha and the would-be followers of Jesus, one has to be crazy to be a disciple. Crazy because it doesn’t make sense in our fight or flight world to leave what is comfortable, to surrender oneself, or to let go of control. Who gives up everything to take on something new and unknown? But that’s what Elisha did when Elijah called him. Maybe not right at first, but when he realized that Elijah meant business, Elisha cut his ties quickly and followed Elijah completely, becoming his servant. Likewise, Jesus makes no qualms about the expectations of his followers. It’s going to be difficult. There are going to be times of alienation, and it’s going to require everything, all of their being, all of their focus. It’s all or nothing, and the same is true even today: Jesus demands our all with a focus as determined as he was with his sight set on Jerusalem.

This full demand of ourselves perhaps doesn’t sit so well with us because humanity’s evolutionary process and technological advances strive to make our lives successful and efficient. “We live in an environment of ease and abundance,” says National Geographic explorer and Blue Zones author Dan Buettner, but it turns out that ease and abundance are not serving us well. As we focus on making a living to keep life easy and abundant, we can end up caught in a hamster wheel of stress, illness, and discontent, chasing an illusion. Continuing that cycle seems crazy, too.

The Blue Zones that Buettner studied are places where people live longer, healthier, and happier lives. Yes, diet and natural exercise are important factors, but so are one’s outlook on life and sense of belonging. Having a sense of purpose, knowing what one’s purpose is, along with belonging to a family and practicing a faith tradition are crucial components of living a fulfilling life. (I’m fairly certain some of you are already in on these not-so-secret ideas.)

There was also a recent article about an assistant professor of psychology at Sewanee who conducted a study to compare “the emotional efficacy of strategies that people might use to make themselves feel better–doing something nice for themselves, doing something to benefit another person, and doing something for the betterment of the world.” Again, not-so-surprisingly, doing something for others or for the world enhances one’s well-being by increasing experiences of feelings like love, gratitude, and trust. Contrary to media and advertising, doing something self-indulgent like getting a massage, going shopping, or eating a decadent dessert has the same long-lasting effect on well-being and happiness as doing nothing.

So where does that leave us? I think it leaves us pondering upon Paul’s words to the Galatians. “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another” (Gal 5:13). We have the freedom to do what we want, which means we can remain contained in a finite web centered upon ourselves. But we also have the freedom to seek and to serve the kingdom of God, opening our lives to the infinite. We cannot open to the infinite on our own but only through Christ. We are invited to be willing servants to one another through Christ, through love, and it’s not without compensation.

As disciples of Christ, we follow his way, expressing our love of God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind. We follow his way, loving our neighbors as ourselves. We follow his way, teaching the Good News of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension, making way for more disciples. We use the resources and gifts that we have because we realize that they are all from God. Even in our feeble understanding and humKeller Dining Hall, Camp Mitchell, Arkansasble efforts, God sees fit to nurture within us fruits of the Spirit. These are our rewards in our faithful service: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. When manifest, these fruits further empower the works of the devoted disciples to do things we didn’t think we were capable of. Moments marked with signs of these fruits are beyond precious and remind us how near and dear God moves through the Holy Spirit.

It’s okay to be the crazy Christian. We can all be the disciple who accepts the call of God, who embarks upon the thankless, sometimes dangerous, and unpredictable adventure of discipleship. “If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit” (Gal 5:25). We can trust the work that we do or the hobbies that we have to enrich our witness to Christ as we proclaim the name of God and not only make disciples of others but become better disciples ourselves.

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