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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Called

Isaiah 6:1-8, [9-13] | Psalm 138 | 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 | Luke 5:1-11

Our scriptures are filled with stories of people who are called, and by “called” I mean that faithful people have discerned that God is offering direction and purpose in their life and making a proposition to them. A “call,” then, might also be described as a divine invitation. A “call” is certainly a mile-marker for where we sense the presence of God intersecting in our lives.

A prophetic call from God, or from the voice of the Lord however we discern it, is a multi-stage process. God chooses a person, usually at a moment of crisis when some intervention is needed and puts forth a message to proclaim or action to perform (typically an impossible task). The person denies it because of their inadequacy. God basically says, “I’m gonna be here with you,” usually offers an affirming sign, and keeps the promise as the calling is fulfilled.

Fortunately, our calls are not typically like Isaiah’s, who came directly in the presence of the LORD almighty. And what did he encounter? The presence of the LORD on a high throne, the LORD’s hem–the LORD’s glory–filling the whole temple. This is saying that God of heaven also fills all of creation with God’s glory, and Isaiah was seeing it. Seraphs are in attendance. Seraphs, not chubby little cherubs but seraphs, six-winged fiery beings. They sang their Sanctus that we sing a version of at every Eucharist. “Holy, holy, holy Lord,” we sing. As they sang, the very ground shook, and the air filled with smoke. Isaiah is struck by his unworthiness, his uncleanliness yet is still awe-struck that he has seen the LORD of hosts. A seraph flies to him with a coal from the altar and touches his lips, departing from Isaiah all guilt, blotting out all sin. And now when the voice of the LORD asks “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” what does Isaiah say?

“Here am I; send me!”

This person Isaiah, whom we know so little about, becomes one of the most renowned of the Prophets, a mouthpiece for the voice of God. And the optional text for today shares that what Isaiah is called to share is not good news, not what people want to hear. There’s a reason not many clamor to be a prophet or even to do the work of God. This passage, this call story of Isaiah is one of the Old Testament lessons suggested for ordinations to the priesthood in our Church. More than likely it points not to the magnitude of God’s commission (which is still great) but rather points to the reality that God calls and equips all of us to holy work, to ministry in our particular context, be it in the church or in the world at large. Isaiah can represent the universal believer.

Peter has a way of filling in for us as a type of “every man,” too. Simon Peter has a very different kind of encounter with God, one much more down-to-earth. Peter’s been working all night and is working with his fellow fishermen tending to the nets. Jesus has come near the Sea of Gennesaret, another name for the Sea of Galilee, and is preaching to the crowd that’s pressing in. Jesus gets in one of the boats and asks Simon Peter to push it out a bit so he can teach the crowd sitting down, perhaps to let the wind carry his voice to the people. Peter and crew hold the boat in place, maybe enjoying a bit of rest after a night of work, listening to the voice of Jesus while they man the boat on autopilot. They do what they do with ease.

Then Jesus tells Peter, calls on him, to go out deeper and to cast the nets, and Peter doesn’t hold back his resignation. “We’ve already fished all night and got nothing,” Peter says. They must have exchanged looks or something nonverbal because Peter goes on to say, “Alright . . .okay . . . if you say so,” as if his mom has just told him to do it because she said so. And they catch more than they can handle. In the chaos of the moment when the weight of their catch is about to sink them, Peter falls at Jesus’ feet, confessing his sinfulness–not unlike Isaiah in the presence of God. Jesus tells Peter, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” Jesus hears Peter confess his inadequacy but still chooses him, calls him to a greater purpose, and in telling him not to be afraid is also affirming what he says repeatedly, “I’m gonna be with you.” Peter, James and John bring their boats to shore and leave everything to follow Jesus and become fishers of people.

The call of the apostles lives on in faithful disciples, including Paul, who knows he’s called to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ. Paul is quick to remind us of his past sins and the grace he’s received. He reminds us today how hard he works, as if he’s the hardest worker of all time. His confidence always strikes me as boastful, but maybe his self-assuredness is an affirming characteristic, one meant to give us strength and confidence, too. Paul never fails to acknowledge his past sins, how he was unworthy, too. Yet  he continues forward, advocating for the faith, shaping the church as one Body in Christ.

Where would we be if any one of these people has stopped at their claims of unworthiness: Isaiah emphasizing his uncleanliness as he must have been where he wasn’t allowed in the Holy of Holies; Peter, who could have stayed with his boat, focusing solely on the fish he may or may not catch; Paul, if he would have let his blindness lead him to despair? Sure, God could move on to the next person, and we don’t know how many were before these chosen ones. But these are the people who answered God’s call in their life and said in one way or another: “Here am I; send me.”

Send me to proclaim the Good News of God through Christ. Send me to learn the skills to heal and comfort the sick. Send me to build homes. Send me to teach the children. Send me to defend the accused. Send me to raise a family. Send me to change policies. Send me to care for our roads. Send me to protect the citizens. Send me to fill our community with music or art. Send me to fill hunger. Send me. Send me. Send us. Here we are.

Even if we’ve known since we are a child what we want to do with our lives, there will come a point when we want to say, “Whoah. Not that. Not me.” We may think we don’t have the skills, or we may think we’re not worthy. We’re sinful. We’re not the right person. And we may not be wrong. But when we enter into holy work, we’re not doing it because we can cover it all on our own. Actually, we cannot do it on our own. We depend upon God’s help, in any way it comes. It’s going to come from mentors and teachers, friends and allies, and even opponents who strengthen us along the way. There may be those auspicious times when things just seem to align in the perfect way, reminding us that we are where we’re supposed to be, doing exactly what we’re supposed to be doing. There may be times when everything seems wrong and we think we’ve messed up, missed the call, but there’s a still, small voice that reminds us not to give up, that it’s just temptation prowling at our door trying to keep us from doing good work.

When the boats were laden with their catch, Peter turns to Jesus, falls at his feet, and tells him to “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Peter, who had been listening to Jesus, maybe halfheartedly, confessed that he had turned away from God. Peter was working night shifts and probably wasn’t keeping the law as well as he was supposed to be keeping it. But mostly, Peter, in his resignation to do what Jesus invited him to, was hinting at his greater distrust of God. Almost like he was saying, “Fine, I’ll throw the nets in; it’s not like it’s going to make a difference.” Peter didn’t trust, until he saw that it did make a difference, and then he, like the others, was amazed. And if Jesus can lead them to a great catch, what if everything else he was saying was true and could happen? Jesus tells them, “Do not be afraid.” He’s going to be with them every step of their way.

Just like with us when we are called. In all our questioning, all our discernment, all our doubts, and all our resignation or faithful trust, Jesus is with us. God is with us. Yes, it’s scary when we are called to proclaim what people don’t want to hear. Yes, following the Way of Jesus might take us in new directions. Yes, it’s okay to be self-assured and confident in faith, so long as we know that it’s grace that makes us whole and not any effort of our own. Yes, when we discern the call of God, it’s up to us to go through the process and choose whether or not we want to answer or not. We always have a choice, but only God leads us to life abundant, love eternal. This I trust. This I believe, as one who like you has been called.

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Fanatacism & Love

Jeremiah 1:4-10 | Psalm 71:1-6 | 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 | Luke 4:21-30

“Today,” Jesus says, “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

And the people are amazed at his gracious words–more like his prophetic words. In their amazement, they’re asking, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” It’s a question that both questions whether or not they really knew him when he was their neighbor, but it also questions whether or not they can believe him as a prophet or teacher.

Jesus doesn’t mince words or hold back. He’s all in. He is who he is, and he knows their hearts, their questions, their doubts. He knows they’re going to want him to perform a parlor trick to prove himself. He knows the precedents that say it doesn’t go well for prophets, especially in their hometown.

And just like that, the crowd goes from amazement to rage in the presence of  one so self-realized, the embodiment of Truth, a mirror held before them a little too clearly for their liking, if they even understood. The challenge presented in the person of Jesus was too much for them to deal with, so they try to throw him over a cliff. (But Jesus’s time to be killed has not yet come.)

When I say that Jesus is “all in,” I can’t help but think about all the fans gathering in Atlanta that we’ve been hearing about on the news. Maybe you know a fan or two, if not for the Rams or Patriots, at least for the Razorbacks, right? One of my faults as an Arkansan is that I’m not fanatic about sports. Don’t get me wrong: I can be competitive, and I’ll cheer for my kids with gusto. I’ll also cheer for the “other” team and wince when anyone gets hurt or makes a bad move. I’ll watch games, even play games with focus and presence, but it’s not what I consider myself fanatic about.

When we’re “fanatic” about something, our enthusiasm defies all reason, doesn’t it? A quick definition search reveals that “fanatic” is defined as “a person filled with excessive and single-minded zeal.” It’s easy to shorten the word and end up with something that sounds harmless, right? A “fan” just sounds like someone who’s rooting for a certain team/party/religion. Surely they aren’t zealous, are they? But “zealot” is a synonym for “fanatic.” Paul was zealous for his religion. Paul took his fanaticism to an extreme and persecuted those who didn’t conform to what he thought was the only way. I hope that all the “fans” at the big game this weekend keep their fanaticism in check and don’t lose sight of the common humanity and sportsmanship to be shared between good neighbors and responsible adults.

Paul has much to teach us about maturity. “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child,” he says, but “when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” If you’ve ever tried to reason with a two-year old, you get what Paul is saying here: the efforts are futile with an unreasonable child, likewise with someone excessively and single-mindedly zealous, for whom there is no other way. But, “when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end,” Paul also says, when we can “know fully” even as we “have been fully known.” What happens when we can see in the mirror fully, when we have a clearer picture, a broader view, a fuller perspective of the greater picture?

And what is it that enables our completion, our fulfillment, our knowledge, and our perspective?

Love.

Love of God. Love of neighbor. Love of self.

That’s why Love is the greatest of all gifts, as Paul says, the most excellent one, the one which if we don’t have, we can scrap all the rest because it won’t bring us closer to God.

Often First Corinthians 13 is used in weddings as one of the readings because of the emphasis on love and the characteristics that are exceedingly helpful in maintaining a successful relationship. But this love isn’t the romantic (eros) or brotherly (philos) love; this is agape love, the highest form of love, of charity–the kind of love that exists between God and all of us. It is this kind of love that completes us because it’s what we all seek.

With the love of God, we know whose we are and who we are. We are more likely to find what our calling is because we have an honest, open relationship with God. Self-knowledge and self-awareness are powerful things, particularly when lived in relationship to God. It doesn’t mean we don’t doubt or question–all the prophets do that, as we heard in Jeremiah and can find in every call of every prophet. But there’s clarity.

Following his baptism and temptation, Jesus was fully known and beloved publicly, for all with eyes to see and ears to hear, and he was coming out to his family and friends in his wholeness. In his openness and honesty, in the fullness of his being, there were people who couldn’t handle it, who couldn’t comprehend what he meant, what he was saying, what he was representing. It was “other-ness” to them that was threatening, and their survival response was to get rid of it, even if that meant killing a person.

Singleness of vision doesn’t always present itself in such fanatic ways. Status quo is upheld by a majority’s concession to one way of being as the norm. It can just be the way things are, and people go politely about their way. It can be unnoticed, latent, until something happens, and a greater truth is revealed. And someone comes along and says “this is who you are” and “this is what you’re standing for,” and it’s unrecognizable as Truth because we’ve conditioned ourselves to see ourselves as good people who could never do or be something so ugly and unrecognizable. It’s not what we meant.

Again, we need–we rely upon–that agape love, that unconditional love to see us through the hard work of seeing ourselves and being who God created us to be. It’s a given that we are beloved children of God as we are right here, right now, but if you’re like me, we have a lot to learn about being Christ-like, about being the best Christians we can be.

I say this because it’s Black History Month. I know woefully little about black history in Northwest Arkansas or in Arkansas generally. At the bishop’s suggestion, I researched Bishop Edward Demby, the second black suffragan bishop in The Episcopal Church, who was here in Arkansas in the early 20th century. He was one man to support the segregated congregations, initially without receiving compensation or housing. I plan to attend as many events as I can throughout the month, starting with Raven Cook’s talk in Fayetteville Sunday entitled “Celebrating Black Women’s Resistance.” I have a stack of books to read, including White Fragility by Robin Diangelo, which will be the focus of our next few Continuing the Conversations, and the community college has a section of books relevant to black lives for everyone’s greater understanding. If we don’t understand why having a Confederate Statue at the center of our town square is offensive to many, I guarantee that we have a lot of work to do on self-awareness individually and as a community. And we need agape love to see us through the learning, the healing, and the reconciliation that will take us into a more beloved community.

I also say we need the kind of love that Paul speaks of and that Jesus embodied because we’re about to show a documentary about homelessness. In Northwest Arkansas. To present such a film and discussion says that maybe everything here isn’t wealth and abundance, roses and sunshine. When temperatures dropped into the single digits on Wednesday night, Padre Guillermo called me to ask me where a homeless person goes in Bentonville because a parishioner was trying to help someone from sleeping on the street. Apologetically, I told him that the Salvation Army is the only place in Bentonville. Otherwise, you have to go out of town. If you’re not a domestic abuse victim, the women’s shelter isn’t an option. If Soul’s Harbor or any of the other homes are full (for which there’s usually an application process), you’re out of luck. A hotel room is often your only choice, which is what they did that night–not unlike the generous donors in Chicago and probably thousands of other untold cities and towns. Holding up a mirror and realizing the reality of a situation is one of the first steps to addressing a solution. Identifying common practices, common hurdles, and characteristics of poverty are all part of being able to look honestly at homelessness and start chipping away at creating pathways to safe and stable environments for everyone. They might not look like what we think they should look like, but with love and mutual respect, we can create relationships that honor one another and bear fruit for the kingdom.

To do this work of being Christian, the only thing we need to be fanatic about is keeping love at the front and center. In all that we say, think, and do, does it reflect love of God, neighbor, and self? If not, why not? If so, what’s the next step?

We might have people who want to push us over the cliff, but we mustn’t forget that God is our crag and our stronghold, that rock jutting out to give us footing when we’re on the edge of our comfort zone and entering the dangerous territory of doing truly good work. God is our hope, our confidence, and our sustainer. Let us never be ashamed of the work we do in the name of God and for the sake of Love.

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Fulfilled and Yet to Be

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 | Psalm 19 | 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a | Luke 4:14-21

When my oldest child is home and knows I’m ruminating on the scriptures for the week in my sermon preparation, she’ll most likely ask, “What’s the gospel reading for this week?” I offer her a quick headline or summary statement. This week, in a kind of frustration, I said, “It’s when Jesus is in the synagogue, reads from Isaiah, and says the scripture has been fulfilled in their hearing.” And I kind of shrugged my shoulders as if to say, not that exciting, huh? It’s not like he turned water into wine like he did last week–that’s the good stuff.

So I read yet again, and the words Jesus chose to read from the scroll stand out anew:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, 

because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Not only the words but what happens afterwards–the attention to his movements of rolling up the scroll, handing it back to the attendant, and sitting down with all eyes fixed on him–slow time. There must have hung a pregnant pause in the air before he says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

We might be tempted to say, “Jesus, you’re getting ahead of yourself. Your ministry is just beginning.” He was baptized and survived wandering in the wilderness for 40 days, and now he’s filled with power of the Spirit to teach with authority in the synagogues, even in his hometown. But at least in the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus has yet to perform any miraculous deeds of liberation or healing.

While we might be inclined to focus on the remarkable acts, what Jesus reads from Isaiah is about having the Spirit of the Lord upon him, being anointed to bring good news, being sent to proclaim liberation and restoration. If anything, he’s likening himself to the Prophet Isaiah, who was called to bring the good news to the people of Israel, to announce their deliverance. But those prophecies were already fulfilled

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” Jesus says with both continuity and disruption of tradition. Continuity because he calls to mind the familiar words of Isaiah, pulling from Chapters 61 and 58 (as we know them), and disruption because he’s saying that today the scripture has been fulfilled. There’s yet another era of people who need good news, who need to be freed from their prisons and oppression, who need vision, and who need restoration. And those people were likely sitting among the crowd or would be among the people who heard the reports of this man proclaiming good news. Also sitting among those in the synagogue were likely people who felt uncomfortable at the calling out of those who are oppressed, people who would be uncomfortable with someone filled with spirit and chosen by God to be the one to bring about the year of the Lord’s favor for those vulnerable people, a year of jubilee when people’s fortunes would be restored, debts forgiven. A year of jubilee sounds an awful lot like valleys being raised up and mountains brought low, and those in position on the top don’t necessarily want to move lower, even if it means a more level playing field. We’ll continue with this moment in Jesus’s ministry next week to recall the response of his teaching.

“Today,” Jesus said, and that “today” was over 2,000 years ago. “Today,” our scripture reads in this time and place, and the power of the Holy Spirit hovers about us, waiting to see if we are willing conduits for the work at hand. I imagine it has similarities to the moment there in Nazareth when the people listening to Jesus got to contemplate what he meant.

Of course I’m not saying I’m Jesus in this moment! What I am saying is that I am a child of God, having been baptized in the name of the Trinity like most of you, I presume (if not, we need to talk about baptism!). I’ve been given gifts of the Spirit, marked as Christ’s own forever, and confirmed by the bishop to assume responsibility for my journey in faith. I strive daily to live into the promises I’ve made, and some days are better than others. And like you, I am one of many who make up the Body of Christ in this world.

Paul, advising the church in Corinth, is trying to maintain cohesiveness among the peoples. He’s told them there are many gifts, and now he’s telling them there are many members, each with their own role to play, individually and collectively. Not only is Paul trying to overcome personally competitive behaviors, but he is also trying to overcome a communal mindset that is governed by a top-down political view that was inclined to see Jesus as Caesar more than Jesus as shepherd. An egalitarian view of the body, incorporating all members be they weak or strong, was not normative. Striving as a corporate body for a greater good challenged the Corinthians then as much as it challenges us today.

So here we are, members of the Body of Christ, lingering in this holy place with the Spirit of the Lord hovering, ready to course through all of us and each of us like a central nervous system activating us for a greater good.

How does that make us feel, knowing that all of us, rich or poor, weak or strong, are an invaluable component of the Body of Christ?

How does it feel to hover for an extended moment at the threshold of what is yet to be?

In that kind of moment, do we feel vulnerable? Scared? Intimidated? Would we rather put our head down and pretend we haven’t seen or known or experienced delight in the Lord our God, effectively hiding our light under a bushel? Do we feel helpless? Or, do we feel well-equipped, ready to rise to the challenge? Elizabeth Gilbert in her book Big Magic writes about creativity seeking outlets and how if one person doesn’t latch onto it and run with whatever idea is trying to be conceived, that it will find another conduit through which to be birthed.

Thankfully, the creative Holy Spirit with which we identify is already finding willing conduits in this place and in our community, and because of that, the work that Jesus began continues. The work of Christ continues to be fulfilled, but it’s not yet complete.

Work like sharing good news to the poor. The food pantry at Christ the King, our discretionary assistance, our openness to everyone regardless of their financial or spiritual portfolio are ways we share the message that God loves–inclusive of and especially–the poor, be it in body, mind, or spirit. The simple message of “God loves you” is a powerful one. There are other churches and organizations that share this message, too, and collectively we partner with them to be advocates for the poor because we have the privilege to do so. Because if people of privilege don’t advocate the poor, who do you see in our governance that does? If I am an immigrant from Guatemala, who do I see in our city/state/nation who represents me and my interest, my struggle?

Work like release to the captives, setting the oppressed free. This doesn’t mean that we go to the jails and release all prisoners. When we commit crimes, we do suffer consequences. We also, however, offer means of reciliation, and when it’s called for, priests and bishops can offer absolution. We believe in being released from the bondage of sin, of making way for reconciliation. This is why we support recovery and rehabilitation programs. We’ve already put word out that when there’s an AA or Al-anon group who needs a meeting space, we’re available. Padre Guillermo and I have ability to go into our county jail. David Myers, a deacon at St. Andrew’s, is instrumental in the gardening program at the Benton County Jail. The Episcopal Church advocates for the abolition of the death penalty, incarceration reform, and support of refugees, those seeking asylum. Remembering that our prisons or what binds us aren’t always visible opens the gates of empathy and compassion to relate to one another on a level plane. We all stand to benefit from the message of liberation from the bondage to sin, captivity to our self-will. We have the Way to be released to something greater.

Giving sight to the blind can be enabling one another to have the vision to see God’s dream for us, the “something greater” of which we are all a part. Enabling each other in hope and imagination helps restore the ability to see things that maybe we thought were impossible or had lost sight of given the way we’ve always experienced the world. One way we do this is through Continuing the Conversation, where we talk about racism and prejudice and where we see that our eyes are being open to see injustices that take place in our lives and in our world. Sure, Jesus restored literal sight to the blind, but we are much more likely to remove blinders in our worldviews, revealing the Truth of what really is.

The work of revealing the year of the Lord’s favor would be a tremendous accomplishment. Imagine erasing all student loan debt and mortgages. Imagine everything being returned to its natural state so that we remembered that all of Creation is actually God’s, and we are merely stewards of Creation, no one of us more entitled to “ownership” than another. God’s blessing is unbounded by human limitations and is available abundantly to all. In our burial rite, we offer the same message of resurrection, offer the same liturgy, use the same pall, whether you were a high level CEO or a homeless addict with multiple felony charges. God’s favor is for everyone.

As always, it’s up to us to decide what we do in any given moment. Maybe it’s our moment to be on the receiving end of the good news, liberation, and abundance. If that’s the case, you’ve come to the right place–the table is set for you. Maybe it’s our moment to rise up, and bow our heads and lift our hands in “Amen” like the people listening to Ezra, receiving the law, repentant for their disobedience, and turning the to joy of the Lord for their strength. They were hungry for guidance, for direction, and the law of Moses filled them.

What are we needing now? Personally and communally? The Holy Spirit surrounds us, waiting to fill our hunger, waiting to empower us, if we are ready to receive and be sent to do the will of God.

 

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