December 24: Christmas Eve
Scriptures: John 1:1-5, 9-10, 3:19-21, John 8:12, 9:5,
John 12:35-36, 46
The winter solstice happened this year on December 22 at 4:19 GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) also known as Universal Time, For those of us in Eastern Standard Time, that means winter solstice happened this year at 11:19pm on December 21, the exact moment when the North Pole tilted farthest away from the sun.
It marked the longest night of the year for those of us who live in the northern hemisphere; the turning point before the days lengthen and greater light dawns.
To celebrate the solstice this year, we hosted a simple event at the farm called: Pathways through the Dark. It began right around sunset, and for the next couple of hours guests were invited to walk. We set candles in the center of the labyrinth in the pines and along the edges. And we set a candle-lit meandering path into the woods, beckoning those who wanted a bit more of an challenge. And we offered a roaring bonfire as a gathering place.
I say “we”… all I did was open the farm. Others placed the candles, tended the bonfire and set the stage. And I went for a walk.
It was a dark night… clear… the stars were brilliant overhead. There wasn’t much moonlight to light the way only the candles… They were spaced far enough apart so I could see where to go, but not close enough to light the path beneath my feet. I couldn’t see my feet at all.
In the daylight, the whole path is visible. When I walk the trails in the full light of day, I focus on where I’m stepping – aware of downed branches in the way, uneven ground, rocks, deer scat, mushrooms… but in the dark of night, I think of none of that. It’s all about the next light. There’s no choice but to look up and let the light beckon… guide my steps.
The light shines in the darkness… I didn’t place the candles, but I was thankful they weren’t too close together. That would have been too much light. Life lessons come from both darkness and light and the interplay between them.
In her book Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor calls attention to the pitfalls of practicing a darkness-denying spirituality and critiques churches who only allow for the sunny side of faith. She calls it “full solar spirituality”: answers, certainty, 24/7 positivity, unwavering in language, song and prayer – never allowing breathing room for the deep and profound questions of life and death… the struggles of violence and depression… future uncertainties of aging and job loss… teenage angst… very real demands of parenting and elder care and crises of identity…
The life of faith is not a darkness-denying life. The Bible is filled with stories of very real struggle, heartache, confusion, doubt – offered by people of faith for people of faith. Prayers of lament and confession share the pages with prayers of joy and gratitude. We live both and we hold space for the experiences of both…darkness and light… light and darkness.
Here’s how the story of God begins in Genesis:
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep…
God spoke light into darkness, they said, and order into chaos… pushing it back… setting boundaries for it. Darkness and chaos are still here – not eliminated by light and order. Existing together.
The light shines in the darkness… and the darkness did not overcome it, the gospel writer John says.
Walking in the dark, I trusted in the light.
And, like life the paths aren’t straight lines! They curve and wind through trees and around stumps. I learned quickly to listen to the sound of the crunch beneath my feet. It sounds different on the well-worn path than it does just off the edges. Just off the path are little saplings waiting to catch a scarf… scratch the face…
Trust the well-worn path when walking in the darkness… trust what you know.
Jesus said: I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.
I’d come to the end of the lit walk in the woods. I was at the driveway and a crossroads.
I had three choices: walk up the driveway back to the bonfire, turn around and walk the same path through the woods in reverse, or walk across the driveway onto a non-lit path that I could follow back up to the house. I didn’t have a flashlight or a headlamp.
I know these paths… this is my front yard!
So I crossed the driveway, confident that I didn’t need lights on the path, and entered the dark wood. About 6 steps in and a sharp stick in the eye convinced me to turn right around and head out. It’s all different in the dark. So much for the lessons that may have been waiting for me there.
In her book, Between the Dark and the Daylight: Embracing the Contradictions of life, Benedictine Joan Chittester writes:
We talk about faith but cannot really tolerate the thought of it. It’s light we want, not shadow, certainty not questions…. Where am I going? the soul wants to know. When will this be over? the mind wants to know. How can I get out of this sightless place I’m in? the heart demands.
Whether the choices we make lead us into unfamiliar darkness, or we find ourselves there through circumstances beyond our control, from time to time, we’re deep in the dark, desperate to find our way home.
These are the real opportunities for God to work in our lives… the potential for new life to emerge within us… This is the substance of faith.
Barbara Brown Taylor says it this way: God puts out our lights to keep us safe… because we are never more in danger of stumbling than when we think we know where we are going. When we can no longer see the path we are on, when we can no longer read the maps we have brought with us or sense anything in the dark that might tell us where we are, then…we are vulnerable to God’s protection.
Had I continued into the dark woods, that would have been the real trust walk… no external lights to guide me… the need to take a deep dive inward… to still my fear… to quiet my thoughts and listen.
It was February of 2004 and I was making myself sick as I studied for my ordination exams. I’d developed an eye twitch, had frequent stress headaches and suffered from loss of sleep. I made my family play Bible Trivial Pursuit when I needed a break. I was a nervous wreck.
In Chicago one night I woke up sweating, my heart racing. I don’t know how to describe the atonement!
I knew all the textbook answers, but I couldn’t think of how to describe this fundamental Christian doctrine without using million dollar six-syllable theological words.
I can’t do this, I told a good friend and long-time pastor. She looked at me and said: You know this. And pointing to her heart she said: it’s in here. It’s been there all along.
There is a light in us that only darkness itself can illuminate, writes Joan Chittester. It is the glowing calm that comes over us when we finally surrender to the ultimate truth of creation: that there is a God and we are not it. . . . Then the clarity of it all is startling. Life is not about us; we are about the project of finding Life. At that moment, spiritual vision illuminates all the rest of life. And it is that light that shines in darkness.
St. Augustine says it a different way: My heart is restless until it finds its rest in you.
The genuine work of faith may well be found in sheer darkness, where all of our self-made resources are stripped away and we can finally rest in our True-North, the Source of our Life, The Author of Love, the Light of the World that has been with all along. Learning to trust in the immanence of God… the I will be with you always… Immanuel… to set us free… and lead us home.
Jesus said: I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness.
Back at the campfire, somebody spoke about how surprising it was to see how much light emanates from one small tea-light in the dark. And I remembered how beautiful it was to stand at the entrance of the woods and see several lights twinkling off into the distance.
The journey was lit not by one but one-by-one-by-one – a series of lights – shining just brightly enough for that stretch.
And the absence of light where it needed to be… the two candles on the bridge that had gone out – made an impact – just two lights missing, yet without knowledge that a bridge was there, that part of the walk would have been fraught with danger.
You are the light of the world, said Jesus, No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on a lampstand… it gives light to the world. Let your light shine before others.
Where do you see, hear, feel the presence of light in the world? How can you, how can I, how can we magnify it and multiply it?
Who are the children of light shining upon your path? helping you to see? speaking truth in love? walking alongside you with grace? leading you home?
For whom are you bearing light? and how?
Believe in the light… walk in the light… become children of the light…
We are companions… pilgrims… blessed to be a blessing… led by the Light of the world to be light for the world. May it be so this holiest of holy nights and throughout the year.
December 22: Fourth Sunday of Advent
Scriptures: Luke 2:8-20
My father’s brother was a carpenter. He’s almost 100 now – not working with his hands anymore. He made lovely things – like this flower. In this box is a wooden nativity he made.
One day, years ago when I worked at another church, I was setting up this nativity in my office. The other pastor’s 5 year-old son came in.
Would you like to set up my nativity? I asked.
He took each piece out and put it on the table and then he turned to leave. Wait Bryce, I said, this shepherd’s facing the wrong way.
He stopped and looked and then said: He’s already seen him and he’s going back home.
Going back home to the dark starlit hillside… home to the flock… home to the brothers who stayed back to watch the sheep… home to tell the story… glorifying and praising God for all he’s seen and heard.
What did the shepherds see? They saw what they expected to see – what the angel told them they’d see: a baby lying in a manger wrapped in bands of cloth. Which is probably the main reason they risked leaving the quiet hillside on the outskirts of town to head down into the heart of a crowded village…
Don’t be afraid – I’m not sending you to a typical king’s palace where they’ll take one look at you, sniff and send you away – I’m sending you to a common peasant home – to a place where they swaddle babies like you do and put them in beds of clean straw to sleep like you do. This savior is for all people. This is your savior.
We can hardly hear this story without seeing Linus standing on the stage with his blanket in that Charlie Brown Christmas pageant. We tell this story year after year, sing songs about it, put up our nativities to remember it, but what was it really like?
Before he died in 2016, Kenneth Bailey lived and taught for 40 years in seminaries in Egypt, Lebanon, Jerusalem and Cyprus. He was an ordained Presbyterian minister , professor of New Testament and head of biblical studies at the Near East School of Theology in Beirut for 20 years. He devoted his life to studying the culture and language of the land at the time of Jesus.
In his book: Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels, Bailey attempts to strip the nostalgic veneer off the Christmas pageant stories and ground them in cultural integrity. Here’s how he says the story goes:
You will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.
The shepherds went down the hill into the village of Bethlehem in search of an ordinary peasant home hosting a couple with a newborn baby. They weren’t looking for a stable out back. They knew they wouldn’t find them there.
First century Palestinian peasants didn’t have stables. They brought their household animals – their cow… their donkey – into their houses at night – it’s one of the ways they kept warm on cold nights and its how they made sure their most valuable animals were safe. They walked them into the lower level and tied them to a post. Then they walked up a few steps into the main room of the house. Carved out of the edge of the family room floor next to where the animals were kept, was a feeding trough, or manger.
Most of us keep our dogs – and maybe our cats in the house, but cows and donkeys together with us under the same roof? And yet it was and still is common practice for the poor in many parts of the world.
We saw houses like this in an ancient city in Southern Italy. Families living in poverty—sometimes up to 10 people lived in a small home carved out of the rock. They shared their homes with their donkeys so they wouldn’t be stolen. They tucked chickens under their beds. Imagine the health risks…
Because of the census, Joseph and Mary traveled to Joseph’s family town of Bethlehem to be counted. They had relatives there they planned to stay with. And when they got there, the katalumati was full of other friends and relatives also in for the census. Katalumati means lodging, private and public. In this case, it’s not an inn like a Holiday Inn or multi-room public house – it’s just this family’s upper guest room. And it’s full. So the host family made arrangements for Mary and Joseph to stay in the main family room on the first level — of course you’ll stay – you’ll stay with us — in the center of our home.
When the baby was born, they wrapped him in bands of cloth, put fresh hay in the feeding trough carved out of the floor at the edge of the family room, and laid him in it to sleep. Any decent peasant family would have done the exact same thing.
The shepherds showed up at the door, and they’re welcomed in. They look around – all is well – everybody is safe, clean and cared for. It couldn’t have been more ordinary for peasant life. And that’s the point.
So everybody’s awestruck when they hear who this baby is. The savior of the world is one of us? poor? Everybody knows the rich control the world. How can this be? God is up to something.
And now this shepherd heads home to tell the story… tell what he saw… tell what he heard. What he saw… what he heard.
What he saw was nothing particularly special. Nice people. Did what they could. Took care of all of the needs of the mother and her newborn.
That’s what he does day in and day out takes care of the flock – makes sure they’re fed… counts them to make sure they’re all there… keeps them safe. That’s all he does… For them, it’s a matter of life and death.
It never seemed particularly noble before, but now it kind of does.
They were basic people. People like him. No frills. Practical. Not much to spare… probably sacrificed to take that couple in. And then to go through the labor and delivery with her? That must have really put them out – with all their other guests and all… they did what they could to be with her in her pain… to celebrate new life with her.
That’s what he does too day in and day out – when crises arise with the flock, he takes care of business. He’ll hold a ewe all night long as she labors – sometimes he even sings to her – some people might think that’s strange – not other shepherds. He fights off enemies… bandages up cuts… separates fights… loses sleep… some people wonder why he would ever want to do such a dirty job.
It never seemed particularly holy before, but it kind of does now.
They were hospitable people – to the couple and to him… strangers they didn’t know. A lot of people judge him by what he does… that’s why he doesn’t socialize much – except with other shepherds. He’s most comfortable around the sheep actually. They know his voice and they get excited when they hear it.
These people… they sure got excited when they heard his voice – when he told them what the angel said: Don’t be afraid…I’m bringing you good news…of great joy… for all people… today is born – savior, Messiah, Lord… in a manger… wrapped in bands of cloth… somebody like them.
He never felt important before… worthy… honorable… and now he kind of does. He heads home the same way he came, but everything feels different.
What child is this?
who lives with the lowly,
Sharing their sorrows,
Knowing their hunger?
Who is the stranger, here in our midst,
Looking for shelter among us?
Who is this outcast? Who do we see amidst the poor,
The children of God?
This is Christ, revealed to the world
In the eyes of a child, a child of the poor.
- lyrics from What Child is This/Child of the poor, The Hound + The Fox
December 15: Third Sunday of Advent
Scriptures: Micah 5:2-5a, Matthew 1:18-2:15
Brene Brown calls it: the story I’m telling myself.
It’s the narrative we spin in our minds that is some combination of what’s happening to us or around us – the external data we’re receiving — and our life experiences – our remembered hurts, old wounds, past joys — our internal data.
They’re stories born out of crisis or offense, shame or some unexpected turn of events. They’re designed to make sense out of chaos, to help us regain equilibrium, and focus our energy.
Mary’s pregnant? What? Here are the facts: Mary and Joseph are publicly betrothed – that means they’re bound to each other by contract and everyone in their small community knows it. They’re both from religiously upstanding families.
And Joseph knows he’s not the father of Mary’s baby. Understandably, he’s upset.
What is the story he’s telling himself? She’s been unfaithful? no – not Mary. What then? Someone from our community has taken advantage of her? Knowing she was betrothed to me? Was it one of my brothers? One of my friends? Who would do such a thing to her? to me? Did some stranger hurt her? a Roman soldier? I’ve seen them watching her… How could they do such a thing?
His mind frantically tries to make sense of this cataclysmic news. And with each thread of the story he’s telling himself, other tendrils unfurl… which, if acted upon, might have far reaching implications – to Joseph’s heart and to the community around him. Because he is upset and afraid.
Another man with different life experiences might have beaten or even killed that shifty Roman soldier.
Even one past experience of broken trust with a brother or a friend, some past jealousy or hurt, mixed with this disturbing news could tell an inner story that sets of a whole chain reaction of projection and revenge… destroying friendships… breaking hearts… devastating family.
That’s how the toxic stories we tell ourselves work: our emotions drive our minds into the stratosphere. Sometimes Brene Brown calls these the stories we make up, because they’re often largely fiction.
Joseph focuses on what he knows:
Mary is in trouble. How do I protect her? What is my most faithful response? I can’t be with her by Jewish law… I have no choice but to divorce her.
And I will do it the most honoring way I know: I will break the contract privately… secretly… without charge… without public shame.
It wasn’t a great solution. Given the circumstances, it was the best for him, but her future as a young pregnant woman alone in a small village was uncertain. God had other plans – a better way – the story rewritten in a dream: Don’t be afraid. This is God’s plan. Joseph: stay with Mary.
What’s that in the sky? A new star? The Magi, Zoroastrian priests — adept at reading and interpreting signs – witness a cosmic event. They are excited. What is the story they tell themselves? Get the maps. Get the charts. Consult the prophecies. Something big is happening! A star will rise… a child will lead them… a king is born… the world is shifting… in our lifetime! Let’s go!
The Magi are people of mystery and exploration… of wonder and quest… the divine is breaking in… they want to know more!
Who are those strangers wandering the streets of Jerusalem, asking shopkeepers, priests and soldiers about a prophesy… a child… They’ve seen a star, they say… king of the Jews they call him.
King Herod hears about it. He is the Roman appointed King of the client state of Judea known as “land of the Jews.” That makes him, in his mind, The Rightful King of the Jews. This news is disturbing. What story does he tell himself?
Who are these people and what do they know? I’m the one and only King of the Jews and have been for over 30 years. Is this yet another rebellion brewing? Another attempt to steal my throne? I don’t trust anyone. The Pharisees talk about me behind my back. My wife betrayed me. My own children try to stab me in the back.
I know how to handle threats to my power – ask my wife or her sons, or her brother, or her grandfather, or her mother – nevermind! None of them are talking – they’re all dead! That’s how I handle threats. A baby king? Where is he?
Herod’s own religious advisors suggest this might be the long-awaited Messiah. Isn’t that good news? Not according to the story King Herod has become so accustomed to telling himself. He can’t or won’t consider another. It’s a trap… a scheme… an uprising… he needs to take control and show Rome who’s boss. These days, it seems he’s only telling himself dangerous stories: search and destroy.
The same event received by three different types of people: a faithful carpenter, inquisitive strangers from another land, an insecure king. Three different perspectives on the same objective story… they tell themselves very different stories.
How we see the world, how we react to things said and done to us and around us is shaped by our past and informs the future.
We tell ourselves stories all the time: in our marriages or intimate relationships… somebody’s late coming home and forgets to call… a tone, a look, an impatient interruption and we start making up stories in our minds – I’ve screwed up again… she doesn’t love me anymore… Do I bore him? Why does she laugh with everybody else but with me, she’s always in a bad mood?
We tell ourselves stories at work: a coworker gets the project we wanted and thought we deserved… she likes him better… she still remembers the time I goofed up on that other project and she’ll never give me another chance… he’s such a brownnoser… why can’t anyone see how hard I work?
We tell ourselves stories at church. They don’t ask me but they ask other people… am I not good enough? Nobody notices me standing alone in the passing of the peace. They walk right on by like I have my invisibility cloak on… Why am I the only one doing all the work? When was the last time anyone thanked me for the hours I’ve volunteered my time and energy? It’s like no one cares.
We never know the whole story. Yet we fill in the details in our minds. Often it’s not helpful or healthy or true. Sometimes, when it goes public, it can have painful and destructive consequences.
So what can we do?
How about a lesson from Joseph, from Herod and from the Magi:
Choose honor. What story can you tell yourself that most honors God, most honors the other person and most honors yourself? How can you best live into that story?
Mary’s in trouble. Period. Regardless of how she got there, she’s there. And Joseph, by his next action, can increase or decrease the chaos. He chooses to act in private. It’s not a coverup. It’s not shady. It’s grace-filled. It’s meant to preserve her dignity and his reputation.
It’s hard to see our way to this strategy when we’re emotionally charged. It’s a step back, an honest look at the story we’re spinning, and a rational choice to rewrite a better and healthier one.
Stop the madness.
Sometimes we fall into a rhythm of repetitive story telling. A perceived affront, hurt or embarrassment lands us back in the same well-worn groove.
When I was in college, my roommate played Billy Joel’s album Glass Houses over and over again. She’d set the arm of the record player on repeat and it would play side one again and again and again. You may be right… I may be crazy… but it just may be a lunatic you’re looking for… I’d hear that glass crashing in the beginning and want to rip it off the turntable and break it over her head.
Herod thought everyone was out to get him: Jews, Romans, even his family members. They were all trying to bring him down. That’s the toxic story he played in his mind over and over again like a record on repeat. Until it drove him mad. He ordered the execution of his own son from his deathbed.
My grandmother was one of the kindest people I’ve ever known and she was deeply insecure. She’d see someone she knew in the neighborhood and if that person didn’t say hello to her, she’d play that same old story in her mind:
That Helen – she never liked me… I was never good enough for her… I think she’s been talking about me to other people… turning people against me… I don’t know what I ever did to her…
It drove my mother crazy. Mom, she’d say, she didn’t even see you! She probably said hello and you didn’t hear her. She’s your friend, for heaven’s sake, mother! Let it go!
My beautiful, sweet grandmother beat herself up on the inside with that same destructive story she probably learned as a child.
You gotta stop playing that record! I’d say to my roommate. It’s driving everybody crazy.
How do you stop? First acknowledge it’s happening. Notice the stories you’re telling yourself. Are they on repeat? Why are you telling that story? Where does it come from? Is that the story God tells about you? the story God gave you to tell the world?
The Messiah was born that night – because God so loved the world – including Herod. And he was too caught up in a familiar story of fear and destruction to allow himself to be saved.
From the Magi:
Pursue reverence. There is a story bigger and grander than any we know… a mystery worthy of our awe. The Magi didn’t know Jewish law. They didn’t know about this long awaited Messiah from the line of David. They didn’t practice the rituals and traditions of the rabbis. But they knew there was a force in the universe that compelled them to take a knee.
We don’t know what we don’t know. Take a lesson from the Magi and let wonder in. Turn toward a new story filled with the light of a divine star rising. Dare to believe in the unbelievable… to see the potential in the vulnerable… to trust that God is about to do a new and wondrous thing.
For unto us a child is born: bearing a new story to be told in and through each of our lives and our life together: of grace… of forgiveness… of love… may it be so.
December 8: Second Sunday of Advent (Guest Preacher)
December 1: First Sunday of Advent
Scriptures: Isaiah 40:9-11, Luke 1:67-79
The moment I stepped into the pine grove I knew. Looking around the empty, grassy space, I could see it… I could feel it… I know the plan for this place: a labyrinth.
Labyrinths are walking paths designed to simulate the spiritual journey. There’s only one way in and one way out, but the route is circuitous.
Following the path will lead you toward the center and away again. Close, you feel like you’re almost there and then the path turns and takes you to the outer edge, where you could not feel further away. If you stay on the path, eventually you’ll get to the center.
Faith, trust, keep walking.
I led a group of graduating seniors through the labyrinth in that pine grove a few years ago. We started in the gazebo talking about the stresses and anxieties they carried as they prepared to enter the next chapter of their lives. They talked about what and who they were leaving behind. They looked deep within themselves and shared some of what they saw there… what they wanted to change and who they hoped to become. Then they each chose a rock to carry into the labyrinth. At the center together they built a cairn of their stones…
From the words of the prophet Isaiah: Behold I have laid a stone… a precious cornerstone… a sure foundation…
Often when I lead a retreat with access to a labyrinth, I’ll invite people to take something in with them: a stone – a burden carried into the center to be released and left behind … a prayer shawl – to walk through a difficult time enveloped in strength, comfort, peace… a Bible verse to think about or pray through as you walk.
One time, I led a group through the outdoor labyrinth at St. John’s Retreat Center in Plymouth: through the gardens and waterfalls… walking in and out of shadows and light, feeling the warmth of the sun and then turning into cool shade… the wind, like the Spirit gently whispering. At the entrance I placed a basket of rocks and Bible verses.
There was a young woman there. She was going through the recent heartache of a broken engagement. She chose a big heavy rock to carry in with her.
She said: I was determined to leave that rock of anger, betrayal and broken dreams at the center and walk out, light and free to start the next chapter of my life. I knelt down and placed the rock on the ground, she said, then I stood up, and I started walking. Every time that path looped back and I got close to the center again, I looked at that rock and it was like a magnet. I couldn’t leave it.
Finally she turned around and went back to pick it back up again. Not yet, she said. Yet even as she carried that rock back out of the labyrinth, she said it felt lighter. She knew that as long as she needed to carry it, she wouldn’t be carrying it alone.
From the words of the prophet Zephaniah: The Lord your God is in your midst… he will quiet you with his love.
Another woman randomly chose a Bible verse out of the basket. She said later, the verse chose her – from Jeremiah: I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. She’d had a difficult year. She carried that verse through the twists and turns of the labyrinth: I know the plans I have for you… a future with hope… She read it over and over again.
For her, it was like light breaking through darkness… a promise laser targeted to her heart… God had a plan for her life that would yet unfold… a future that would yet be… a future with hope.
The prophet Jeremiah wrote those words in a letter to his people. After the Babylonian empire sacked Jerusalem, they carried off prisoners of war: elders, priests, prophets, artisans, the best and brightest of Jeremiah’s people in chains. It was bleak. All seemed lost. And the letter said:
I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.
Prophets know the truth of the ancient proverb: Where there is no vision, the people perish. So, they listen to the Spirit, and they speak God’s vision- God’s relentless dream: of peace, justice, security, wellness, reconciliation… hope.
Throughout the Old Testament: Elijah, Elisha, Hosea, Amos, Micah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Habakkuk, Zephaniah… for hundreds of years, God raised up prophets to speak truth to evil and wayward kings, to remind the people of God’s promised and steadfast love… and to call them to return to God’s way of living with and for each other. A day would come when all would be made right. Wait for it and in the meantime, live with hope.
And then, after Malachi the record went quiet.
For 400 years between the Old and New Testaments, while empires rose and fell: Persians, Greeks, Romans, there’s no record of God’s voice. It was life on the outer edges of the labyrinth… referred to by some as the silent years.
The village priest was silent too, struck dumb for lack of faith, a symbol for the silence of God’s people.
Who could blame him, though? Zechariah was old and his wife Elizabeth post-menopausal. They’d given up hope for having children. He was alone in the sanctuary when a messenger from God paid him an unexpected visit.
Don’t be afraid, Zechariah (whose name literally means the Lord has remembered). Your prayer has been answered. Your wife Elizabeth is pregnant. You’re going to have a son and you will name him John. With the Spirit and Power of Elijah he will go before him… to make ready a people for the LORD.
For not believing this unbelievable, illogical, biology defying news, Zechariah was rendered mute for the duration of his wife’s pregnancy; to wait in silence. Imagine not being able to share the immense joy welling up inside him… not being able to tell a single person the good news of what was coming…
Nine months later, the baby’s born and his name is proclaimed: John, meaning – God is gracious. Now dad is free to speak and all he can do is sing. Words alone will not do justice to the emotions of his heart.
Music is the language of God, said Beethoven. We musicians are as close to God as man can be. We hear his voice, we read his lips, we give birth to the children of God, who sing his praise. That’s what musicians are.”
Holding his son John, a special child called by God’s grace to continue the line of prophets, this proud papa, this man of God—how can he keep from singing?
Over time Zechariah’s song became known in the Church as Benedictus, Latin for the first words of the song we translate in English as Blest be. It has been sung for hundreds of years in the Roman Catholic liturgy of morning praise as the dawn breaks forth through the shadows of night – reminding people of God’s faithfulness and remembered promises.
It’s recorded in the gospel of Luke chapter 1, beginning with verse 67. In our hymnals it is set to music in hymn #109. Let’s sing it together — forte!
Imagine Zechariah singing with emotion filling his voice as he looks down upon the tiny bundle of promise in his arms. Looking not only at the future of his people, but at his own future now infused with hope – holding a gift he never thought would be his and Elizabeth’s:
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Today we begin the season of Advent, from the Latin word meaning coming.
2000 years ago, the music began again with a father’s Spirit-filled song; a song that broke the silence and joyfully ushered in a season of expectancy… of informed waiting… renewed trust… renewed faith… a labyrinth turn from the outside edge toward the center… from the shadows into the light… not yet there, but confident of God’s grace, God’s call, God’s dream taking shape.
Advent invites us to hear the music again, awakening us, compelling us… filling us… reminding us anew: I know the plans I have for this place… and I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope…
Tonight’s concert of explosive praise is a fitting kickoff to the season:
Get you up to a high mountain!
Lift up your voice with strength!
– basses, tenors, altos – more! Think about what you’re singing!
Herald good tidings!
“Here is your God!”
Tonight, we herald the good news: Gloria, Gloria!
Let every instrument, every voice proclaim praise: for a God who has never stopped loving the world… whose mercy never fails… whose light, the darkness cannot quench.
The baby in Zechariah’s arms grew up to be John the Baptizer – the prophet whose voice cried out in the wilderness – calling people to examine their lives. Wake up! He cried out. There is a purposeful way of life unfolding around you – and you are needed in it. Don’t sit it out. Suit up. Get ready. Look into your heart… into your soul… God is about to do a new thing – with you, in you, through you… The Word of all Words is about to be spoken to lead you into real and abundant life.
This Advent season, may we join the company of those first listeners nearly 2000 years ago: hearing that voice… that call… looking deep within… and walking forward into the unknown future with faith, hope and trust, carrying our burdens, lighter now… wrapped in a deepening sense of God’s presence… holding onto steadfast promises of love… wondering with each step: who am I? what do I bring? what role can I play in the revealing of God’s dream for the world? what new thing is yet unfolding in me, with me, through me even now?
Scriptures: Matthew 9:10-17; Romans 15:1-7
In the heart of the Portrero Hill neighborhood of San Francisco, sits a church. In the heart of the church, sits a beautiful hand-built polished hardwood table in the style of an early Palestinian altar. It’s the first thing visitors see when they walk through the doors.
They wanted it that way because they wanted every person who entered their church to know they were welcomed to the table to be fed by… nourished by the Body of Christ.
There are two quotes carved into their table:
On one side in Greek, from the gospel of Luke: “This guy welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
On the other side, a quote from seventh-century mystic, Isaac of Nineveh:
“Did not our Lord share his table with tax collectors
and harlots? So do not distinguish between worthy and unworthy.
All must be equal for you to love and serve.”
Into that church walked a woman one day. She hadn’t been raised in the church. One morning, at age 46, for no earthly reason, she wandered in… ate a piece of bread, took a sip of wine and her life began to change.
They welcomed her and fed her as a stranger. Not knowing anything about her past, not asking anything of her present, she was freely given a place at the table…
a taste of the feast… and she wanted more.
Week after week she went back. This congregation was open and friendly, smart, professional, financially well-healed and creative; most of those things she found somewhat irritating – maybe even a little clubby.
What kept drawing Sara Miles was that, in her words, “they were committed to letting in clueless and unprepared strangers like me: because they believed in the absolute religious value of welcoming people who didn’t belong.”
The woodcarving was the first thing I noticed when I walked into this church. It struck me when I first saw it: welcome to the table. It beckons us to sit around it… to find our place at it… to join the company of disciples at the table of Jesus. There’s an open spot at the front as if to say, this place is for you.
In 2013, the reorganizing team of this post-split church wrote a Mission Information Form describing the kind of church they dreamed we would become:
We desire to be a welcoming, inclusive church, with various views, following the teachings of Jesus Christ… nurturing our neighbors, our worshipping members and ourselves. They talked about creating a worshiping culture of hospitality and comfort… about reaching into the community with pastoral care, education programs and mission and outreach.
By fostering a culture of openness and inclusivity and remaining outwardly focused disciples, we hope to reach the un-churched, disenfranchised, and disillusioned, wrote people who knew something about what it meant to be disenfranchised and disillusioned.
They wrote: We see ourselves as a new, developing worshipping community…committed to Jesus Christ, understanding that our strength comes from his teachings and the faith he provides. A new wineskin for a new life-giving message of the love of Christ.
My heart stirred when I read those words in 2013, and now one week shy of my sixth anniversary with you, I’m blessed at how, by God’s grace, we’re living this out together in so many ways.
One of the polarizing issues of the schism was how to welcome and love people who do not self-identify as heterosexual. I’ve heard story after story about the heartbreak you who were here felt as you listened to words preached from this pulpit, sermons that sounded like the critique of Matthew’s dinner party – excluding, marginalizing, dehumanizing… a heartbreak that fueled your passion for radical welcome.
Over the last six years, this church has grown in our commitment to being an open and affirming church. Open and affirming what does that mean? it means supporting full inclusion of LGBT persons and their partners, as they are, in the life and ministry of the church and the world. It means advocating for dignity and humanity in the greater society. It’s a fervent belief that an insult to some among us is an insult to all of us – because it is an insult to the openhearted love of Christ.
A couple of years ago Ben Hollenbach, a PhD student from the University of Michigan worked with our congregation on issues of hospitality and welcome, teaching us the importance of having “no conversation about us without us.”
Inclusive ministry depends on including all voices at the table. I cannot imagine this church without the gifts, prayers, stories and leadership of our gay family members.
Let me tell you a story about the importance of this welcome:
In the spring of 2016, I preached a sermon from this pulpit called Through My Eyes on Acts 3 – a healing at the Beautiful Gate. Among other things, I said:
I have a friend in this town who grew up in this church and has been away for many years. He’s made it into the Gathering Space and into my office, but so far, he’s not made it back into the sanctuary. It’s too hard for him.
The experience in here was too painful. It’s hard to feel and believe God’s love is real when you don’t feel loved by God’s people.
I continued: He’s not the only one I know like this. We all know people like this. Friends, family members, neighbors. For them, the church is like a gated community and they’re on the other side.
So many gay Christians remain outside the church – hurt, confused, angry, feeling forsaken. One of my dear friends, a gay young man who grew up in the youth program I led and later served as a counselor in the Christian camp I co-directed used to say this of the institutional church:
It’s not Jesus I have the problem with, it’s the people I’ll encounter when I go to his church.
Crossing the threshold and entering the sanctuary is step one, I said. Staying inside- that’s step two. We all know all kinds of people wounded by the church – The Church and this church.
People who say they believe the ceiling’s going to collapse if they walk into the sanctuary…that they’ve lost interest in God because God’s people have judged them, or ignored them or left them feeling awkward and out of place.
It’s not walking through the doors that unsettles them the most, it’s what they’ll encounter when they get inside. What will they hear from the pulpit? How will people look at them? What will happen at the passing of the peace? What will they feel when they sing the songs? What will the space itself trigger within them?
When you see them, love them as I have loved them. When you see them, reach out to them with grace and joy. When you see them, at the threshold –your brothers, your sisters– lost, scared, angry, hurt, discouraged — welcome them home.
Do this, Jesus said, in remembrance of me.
The Wednesday after I preached that sermon I received an email from a name I didn’t recognize with the subject: April 10, 2016 sermon. Knowing what I said in that sermon, it could go lots of ways. I took a deep breath and read on. In the interest of his privacy, I will not tell you his name. I will read you his email:
I wanted to share with you a little story, and your sermon from my eyes sitting in the pews this last Sunday.
I grew up in Tecumseh, Michigan before leaving for college, and ultimately moving to New York City to become an NYPD officer, where I currently work as a Sergeant in Midtown Manhattan. My mother still lives in Tecumseh, and this past weekend I was visiting her before returning home. I probably have not been inside a church in almost 20 years but suggested we attend your service as I know how important church is to my Mother, and she feels uncomfortable attending alone.
So there I sat, near the back, uncomfortable being there, nervous as to what the message might be on that particular Sunday. As a gay male, I’ve been told too many times that what I am doing is an abomination.
My partner was almost forced into conversion therapy by his christian parents, who believe that he simply suffers from a mental disorder and refuse to accept our now 5 year relationship for what it is, two adults who love each other. Amazingly, I’ve said the line, “It’s not Jesus that I have a problem with, its his followers.” more than once.
So you can imagine my shock when you started to talk about a message of love, and inclusion, and bringing LGBT people to your church with open arms. I can honestly say that I was there for my mother, and just planning to sit there for one hour, get nothing out of it, and leave. But if it made her happy, that was my sole purpose of attending.
Instead, I got a sermon that felt like it was prepared specifically for me to hear, a congregation that was told they need to love thy neighbor, and a Reverend who made ME feel welcomed into her church.
Instead of leaving after one hour and not attending church again for another 20 years, I sat in the back, tearing up multiple times, listening intently to every word, and feeling welcomed with open arms.
As somebody who has felt like I was not welcomed, and a total outcast. I wanted to share with you, your sermon Through My Eyes. Thank you for your message, thank you for allowing me to come in, thank you for preaching a message of love and not hate. just ….. Thank You!
We never know who… we never know when… we never know what God will do. This is the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is but one example of the life-giving, life-saving power of God’s work through this new wineskin church called to preach the message of this woodcarving over and over again: this open space at the table? It’s for you.
My first week as pastor here I referenced this woodcarving in a funeral sermon I gave for 15-year-old Justin who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. We’re coming up on the six-year anniversary of his death. His family had moved from Tecumseh to Manchester between Justin’s middle-school and high school years. People from his middle-school in Tecumseh said he was the king of the lunch table there. No one knew him In Manchester. I said:
Look at the carving on the front wall.
These guys don’t look very much like the guys around Justin’s lunch table – some of whom are probably here. But here’s the thing about lunch tables:
– sometimes there aren’t enough seats
– some people are welcome and others aren’t
– they don’t span across school districts – the Tecumseh kids can’t sit at the Manchester lunch tables – and vice versa
– sometimes the people sitting there really, inside don’t feel like they belong, sometimes they wonder if they belong anywhere…
There is another table that this table on the front wall points to, I said, – a table where everyone is welcome… a table with people who come from the north, south, east and west… a table where everyone has a seat and everyone knows deep in their soul that they belong… a table where our risen Lord Jesus is host. A table in the kingdom of heaven.
Everyone there knows fully how deeply they are loved. One day, we will meet you there Justin. And until then, may our hearts beat with the hope and the vision of that table and may we live into that hope this day and every day.
After that day Sara Miles walked into the church in San Francisco, she was baptized and became a lay minister. She started a food pantry ministry at St. Gregory’s church, welcoming the hungry into the sanctuary around that very table that first fed her. She’s written books and poetry about her life with Jesus. Her words are our charge today:
At the heart of Christianity
is a power that continues to speak to
and transform us.
As I found to my surprise and alarm,
it could speak even to me:
What I heard, and continue to hear,
is a voice that can crack
religious and political convictions open,
that advocates for the least qualified,
least official, least likely;
that upsets the established order
and makes a joke of certainty.
It proclaims against reason
that the hungry will be fed,
that those cast down will be raised up,
and that all things,
including my own failures,
are being made new.
It offers food without exception
to the worthy and unworthy,
the screwed-up and pious,
and then commands everyone to do the same.
May it be so for you and for me and for us together as church.
Scriptures: 2 Kings 2:1-15, Psalm 23, Acts 1:1-11
Samuel Wells, Vicar of St. Martin-in-the-fields in London, tells the story about a famous preacher who preached great sermons… except no one knew they were actually written by a paid assistant. Finally the assistant’s patience gave out.
The day came when the preacher stood before thousands of eager listeners and after reading the words on the bottom of page two: and this, my friends, takes us to the very heart of the book of Habakkuk which is… the preacher’s heart sank like a rock when the third page revealed nothing more than this simple phrase: You’re on your own now.
Imagine Elisha standing there, covered by the dust of the whirlwind that took his beloved mentor away… standing alone on one side of the Jordan River while the company of prophets looks on from the other side… and that sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach: you’re on your own now.
What if I’m not ready? What if I don’t have the right words to say? What if I’m not courageous enough or strong enough to stand for my faith? What if people come to me with needs and I don’t have answers? What if I let everyone down? What if I’m a fraud?
What if you were wrong when you said God chose me… when you came out into the field those years ago and placed your mantle on my shoulders while I stood with my hands to the plow. I was a farmer. I wasn’t a prophet. Even now after these years of walking with you – you, you were a real prophet. I can’t do this without you… I don’t want to do this without you.
Fear, doubt, grief, resentment, inadequacy, loneliness – standing there on the side of the Jordan – You’re on your own now. How many times have you felt that?
Leaving home, bringing home a first child, sending the last child off to college… starting a new job, the night before an important presentation or a courageous conversation, after a relationship ends, a dream shatters, a mentor dies… You’re on your own now.
There on the ground is the mantle… Elijah’s magnificent cloak that draped his shoulders as he laid his hands on a dead widow’s son and raised him to life… as he challenged the prophets of Baal on the top of Mt. Carmel… as he confronted the corrupt king of Israel for stealing a poor man’s vineyard. There it was, the coat of the man known throughout Israel as a hairy man with a leather belt, Elijah the Tishbite, the great prophet of God.
Elisha picked it up. His hands must have shaken as he held it – so much more than a mere garment. Only moments ago, Elijah touched this mantle to the water and it parted – as if the mantle itself was charged with power.
Holding it in his hands – was it… could it… would it… Once years ago Elijah placed that mantle on Elisha’s shoulders and hadn’t he felt it even then… the weight of blessing.
That phrase: take up the mantle or assume the mantle in our culture comes from this biblical story. It literally means to put on the robes of the office and more. It’s about assuming the responsibilities, living into the calling, claiming the blessing.
Every year, we install a new moderator for our presbytery. During the worship service, there’s a ritual whereby the outgoing moderator takes off the stole and places it on the next moderator. It’s more than a simple transition of leadership. It’s an assumption of the mantle… the mantle of God’s blessing: blessed to be a blessing, in service to the presbytery.
Similarly, every year we transition leadership in this church. Next week you, the congregation, will vote on the slate of new leaders. Then, next January, as a part of their installation service, we’ll call up all of the previously ordained elders and deacons to surround them and lay hands on them. There’s a photo of this in this year’s pledge booklet. There are about 30 people in the picture – sometimes 2 and 3 deep laying hands on the 5 incoming leaders while we call on the Holy Spirit to fill them with all that’s needed for their service.
It’s more than a mere change of leadership, it’s a multiplication of blessing. People talk about sensing the weight of it, humbly kneeling under the strength of it.
Later in January, those same 5 people will be sitting in their committee meetings, maybe now chairing them… or they’ll be sitting at the table of deacons looking around the room and wondering what they’ve signed up for.
Maybe they’ll resonate with Elisha – his doubts, fears, inadequacies… maybe they’ll wonder if somebody got it wrong – really I’m just a retired teacher, nurse, retired engineer, suburban housewife, librarian… who am I to lead God’s people?
That’s the time to remember the mantle.
In his hands, Elisha feels the power of it… on your own now? No. Far from it. Touching the mantle to the water, once again it parts and Elisha crosses the Jordan into the company of prophets waiting on the other side. The blessing transfers. The Spirit of the Lord is upon you. Blessed to be a blessing.
I remember the feeling in the pit of my stomach as I prepared to preach my very first sermon. I was driving at night a couple of days before that Sunday… I was filled with fears and doubts.
In seminary they had preaching competitions. I never entered any. I always thought it was strange – kind of an oxymoron to the humility of the gospel. But the truth is there’s a lot of ego in preaching.
Maybe that’s why people might pay someone to write what they believed they were not capable of writing, so they could preach award winning sermons week after week to adoring crowds. Isn’t that why athletes take steroids and politicians turn corrupt?
That night I was terrified as I thought of giving my first sermon. I was no stranger to public speaking. In my corporate job I regularly gave presentations. Executives didn’t scare me. Preaching did. Who am I to do this? I’m just a former sales manager, a wife and a mother… someone else has much better words… can open the gospel much more effectively than I can. Why am I doing this?
As I drove on that night, praying and sweating, I heard these two words in the center of my soul: give it. Whatever emerged out of the fodder of my life and my study of the Bible in the form of a sermon was not about performance but a gift to be given. And it was mine to give… the witness of my life, my testimony, my way of opening the word of God for the people of God. Give it to me, that I may give it away, I prayed, that by your Spirit someone may receive it.
Thinking about Sam Wells’ story this week, I thought that’s not true. Who would forego any part of the grace of the preaching process by paying an assistant? Yet knowing what I also know of the struggle and ego in it… it surely could be true. So I looked into it and stumbled upon an article written earlier this year by Scot McKnight for Patheos, an online magazine on religion and spirituality entitled: Hey Preacher, Is that Sermon Really Yours?
In it, he revealed that several well-known preachers actually do pay assistants a good amount of money to do their biblical research, find their illustrations and even write their sermons. They don’t give credit to their assistants. In fact no one knows that the words they preach are not their own. McKnight called it scandalous.
Is that sermon really yours? Twice in my life I’ve been asked that question. The first time was early in my preaching. I’d finished seminary and not yet begun my first call to a church. My pastor reached out to me and offered to give me opportunities to practice preaching for my home church. He said I could preach one of their three services each month – for free– as a learning experience. I was grateful.
You’ll have the 8:30 service, he said, it’s Pentecost, the text is Acts 2 and the sermon title is “Flat Tire Christians”.
What if the sermon I write doesn’t fit that title? I asked. Can I have my own title?
There’s not space on the bulletin, he said, Don’t worry, though, nobody cares about sermon titles.
I preached that Sunday at 8:30am. After the service, one of the members came up to me and asked me if I wrote the sermon or if the Sr. Pastor did. I was taken aback.
I wrote it, I said somewhat indignantly.
I thought so, the person said, it didn’t sound like him. But the bulletin said his name. Sure enough, the bulletin only listed one title and one name – not mine.
From then on, whenever I preached there, I chose my own title and my name appeared next to it.
The second time happened a few years later, I preached my first first-person narrative sermon. After the service, somebody in the congregation asked if I wrote it.
Yes, I wrote it, I said, if I ever incorporate parts of somebody else’s work, I cite it.
It was just so different than anything you’ve done, he said. That same Sunday, another person complimented me on the delivery of that story. I’ve heard it before, she said, but you did it really well.
You couldn’t have heard it before, I said, I wrote it this week. This was the only time I’ve preached it. And she looked at me incredulously.
Is that sermon really yours? Every one of us has been given sermons to preach with our lives that are only and uniquely ours. Whether we are preachers, teachers, elders, deacons… whether we sing in the choir, tend the garden, knit prayer shawls, or slip quietly in and out of church. Artists, carpenters, engineers, poets, doctors, lawyers, custodians and students… from every walk of life… called to bear witness to the saving love of Jesus with our own words from our own experiences with humility and grace.
It was a critical moment for the gospel enterprise of Christ, there on the hillside in Jerusalem as his followers looked up into the clouds. You will be my witnesses, Jesus said, in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
Would they pick up the mantle? Would they carry forth the vision? Would they preach the sermons they’d been given to preach?
Will we? Each one of us is blessed to be a blessing… here and now… for the sake of the gospel. We are not on our own. We are together, empowered by the Spirit.
What is your sermon? What is your gift to share? The sustainability of the mission depends on each and every one of us lifting our own voices, finding our place, joining the company of prophets.
May we meet one another, make space for one another, learn from one another, grow with one another, and continue to be a family blessed… to be a blessing.
Scriptures: Deuteronomy 7:1-11, Matthew 15:21-39
Early Wednesday morning I turned over in bed and it was like the whole world was spinning and spinning and spinning. I wasn’t moving, but it felt like I was being tossed out of bed. In less than 30 seconds, it settled down and I fell back to sleep. When I turned over again, it happened again. And later when I bent into Aidan’s crate to tickle his tummy before letting him out, I lost my balance and fell against the door. I learned pretty quickly that if I kept my head up and straight, I was fine. If I bent down and looked down, I was back in the funhouse.
I was out of balance, physically. Anybody who’s ever suffered from vertigo knows – it’s scary and disorienting. Things we thought we could trust feel uncertain.
Something similar happens when long-held beliefs or convictions collide with new experiences that challenge them. Psychologists call it cognitive dissonance. Educators call it a teachable moment. Prophets and preachers might call it kairos – a point in time where real transformation is possible. These experiences are destabilizing and can be scary and threatening and they can be opportunities for real growth and adopting whole new perspectives.
Like when Jesus met the Canaanite woman on his way to doing important ministry with the people he was sent to meet. After his encounter with her things changed… he changed. After Jesus left that place, metabaino in the Greek, literally his feet, his walk, his path, his way changed… That moment for Jesus was transformational.
Like it was for Tom a lawyer from Montana and a Presbyterian since the 1980’s. One Friday night he decided to take a meal to a local skateboarding ministry he’d heard about at a Rotary meeting. They gathered every week at a local couple’s garage.
I used to be a prosecutor, Tom said, I used to prosecute skateboarders… I thought they were little terrorists… vandals… until that night when he began to really listen to their stories and see them as God’s children. After that he encouraged others in his church to get involved.
When the couple couldn’t pay their rent, the church helped and when the couple eventually moved out of state, Tom’s Presbyterian Church applied for a grant to set up an indoor skate park in an abandoned warehouse to continue to minister to the skaters.
The skateboarding ministry is in its tenth year – like family to a fourth generation of skaters… a safe place to go when things are rough at home… a sanctuary. In August of 2016 17 young people were baptized. And Tom, who once saw them as criminals, is now their champion. They changed my life, he says. Metabaino – the trajectory of Tom’s life changed after that Friday night.
Like it did for my friend Pat after she began to write letters to people serving life sentences in prison. She was a suburban housewife and retired English teacher who loved to read. I invited a guest from a prisoner advocacy group to come to our church to talk about prison letter writing and Pat asked to be matched to a woman. There weren’t any women available for her so she was asked to be pen pals with a man serving a life sentence in Coldwater.
She wrote. And he wrote back. He told her about his childhood and his choices and his challenges. He was so thankful for her letter. It reminded him that people outside still cared. She wrote again and he answered again.
Each letter opened her eyes and heart more. She sent him books to read and they talked about them. He had a friend inside in need of encouragement. Would she write to him too? Often she shared the letters with me. You have to read the way he writes… she’d say… it’s changed the way I think… about people… about systems… about myself… it’s changed my life. After she read that first letter… after she began to see him as a child of God… Metabaino.
Last week our daughter Courtney met with a woman from El Salvador. She has been in this country for four months after fleeing her home country because gangs took over her neighborhood, stole her house and hurt her. The police there are corrupt, she says, and if you contact them, they will report your name to the gang and they will retaliate. Desperate, she ran.
A church financed her journey. She was sent through Mexico and crossed the border into custody where she transferred to Michigan. Here she was held in detention for three months. Local people found a place for her to stay while she awaits her asylum trial. Courtney speaks Spanish and met her as a conversation partner, to help her with her English.
They spent a few hours together… talking… having lunch. After that, Courtney is now thinking of a career change. I can help, she said. She saw in the face of an undocumented immigrant, a young woman not much older than her… with an entirely different life to this point… yet Courtney recognized the familiar loneliness of being far from home… a stranger in a foreign land… the need for a friend.
After that encounter, Courtney’s beliefs about immigrants… about privilege… about choice… about complexity at the border changed. Metabaino… how will it change the trajectory of her life?
Shane Claiborne wrote: It is a beautiful thing when folks in poverty are no longer just a missions project but become genuine friends and family with whom we laugh, cry, dream and struggle.
The Canaanite woman was loud and insistent and she was part of that tribe that his faith ancestors believed they’d been given justification by God to not only ignore, but completely destroy. Yet here she was, pleading for mercy from Jesus… not for herself, but for her daughter.
A mother’s love for her child is like nothing else in the world. It knows no law, no pity, it dares all things and crushes down remorselessly all that stands in its path, says Agatha Christie. Jesus stood in this Canaanite woman’s path, not a threat to her daughter, but maybe her last hope.
She represents that which does not, in the hearts and minds of his people deserve mercy and yet she is right there before him pleading for mercy, and his first response is to say nothing.
In silence Jesus beholds the woman: he listens to her words and to her heart. He sees and he feels her desperation. Silence allows him to hold the cognitive dissonance within him without rushing to resolution.
Trust and learn from the silence, is one of the touchstones we’ve been using to create hospitable space in our meetings over the last year or so. Silence is a gift in a noisy world, and a way of knowing in itself. After someone has spoken, take time to reflect without immediately filling the space with words.
Then the woman falls down on her knees. Despite the loud insistence that she be cast away… despite his initial reluctance… nevertheless, she persists with urgency, with humility, with exposed vulnerability and heartbreaking need.
What will it mean for Jesus to respond? What floodgates will open? What slippery slope will unfold? If he shows mercy to her, how many other Gentiles will suddenly appear and what will that do to the focus of his ministry? How will this change the trajectory of his life?
In that kairos moment, Jesus sees her… hears her… feels her pain. And over and against his ancestral traditions, the peer pressure of his disciples, the uncertainty of what may come, he blesses her.
After that, metabaino, his walk, his path, his way changes. The floodgates indeed open and great crowds of lame, blind, maimed, and mute… outside his faith community… seek and receive his mercy — now without hesitation. He opens his heart and lets God’s abundant love flow through him that all may be filled. On that hillside, that day, Jesus embodies what it is to be blessed to be a blessing.
In his book, Irresistible Revolution, Shane Claiborne writes: Not too long ago, I was speaking at Princeton, and some of the students asked me how they were to choose which issue of social justice is the most important. The question made me cringe. Issues? These issues have faces. We’re talking not only about ideas but also about human emergencies. My response to the well-intentioned Princeton students was, “Don’t choose issues; choose people. Come play in the fire hydrants in North Philly. Fall in love with a group of people who are marginalized and suffering , and then you won’t have to worry about which cause you need to protest. Then the issues will choose you.
Tom was a lawyer and he became a champion for skaters. Pat was a retired English teacher and she became a gospel-infused pen pal for lifers. Courtney’s sea turtle work has taken her to Spanish speaking countries with a heart to heal the world and she became a friend to an asylum seeker.
Frederick Buechner says: Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.
That may well be the place of cognitive dissonance… the place where what you thought you knew, believed, or felt to be true is challenged by what actually is: the place where blessed to be a blessing becomes embodied and metabaino happens.
November 3: All-Saints Day
October 27: Reformation Sunday
Scriptures: Exodus 3:1-15; John 8:1-11, Galatians 5:1, 13-15
I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump. I ran over and said: “Stop. Don’t do it.”
“Why shouldn’t I?” he asked.
“Well, there’s so much to live for!”
“Are you religious?”
He said: “Yes.”
I said: “Me too. Are you Christian or Buddhist?”
“Me too. Are you Catholic or Protestant?”
“Me too. Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?”
“Wow. Me too. Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?”
“Baptist Church of God.”
“Me too. Are you original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?”
“Reformed Baptist Church of God.”
“Me too. Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915?”
He said: “Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915.”
I said: “Die, heretic scum,” and pushed him off.
In 2005, that joke won a contest for funniest religious jokes out of 951 submissions. Makes you wonder what else was submitted.
Welcome to Reformation Sunday. Each year on the last Sunday of October all branches of the big world-wide Reformed family tree celebrate the anniversary of the event that sparked the Protestant Reformation. It was 1517 in Wittenberg Germany when Martin Luther walked up to the door of the Castle Church and nailed his 95 theses to the door, challenging his own Catholic church and changing the course of Christian history.
Centuries of splits and reunifications, holy dissent and sectarian pride, shame and triumph, humility, grief and chaos followed – to this day. That joke – is all too close to the truth of our family history. It could easily have been about Presbyterians: Orthodox or Evangelical Presbyterians… or Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians… Are you Presbyterian Church in America or Evangelical Reformed Presbyterian Church or Cumberland Presbyterian Church or Presbyterian Church USA. We all call ourselves part of the Reformed family. And sadly we’ve called each other heretics too.
Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda: Church reformed, always being reformed according to the Word of God and the call of the spirit. It’s our family motto since the 16th century. It’s lovely and liberating!
We will be free: free from anything that enslaves us; free to be changed by the way of Christ in and for a changing world. And it’s fraught with controversy and challenge:
— According to the Word of God: What version? Which interpretation? The literal Word of God, the metaphorical Word of God or the Living Word of God?
— and the call of the Spirit? who by nature blows where she will? Doesn’t that muddy the waters even further? Who’s to say how that’s discerned?
Add to that the complexities of a changing world and a faith tradition that has always been engaged in it and we see the importance of Paul’s words – to the church in Galatia – to any church in any age:
We are called to be free: not to use our freedom self indulgently; rather, to serve one another humbly in love.
Let my people go, that they may worship me – the Lord God sent a message to Pharaoh through Moses and Aaron. Let my people be free… free… free to worship.
Worship is at the heart of our sacred life together. For one hour-ish a week we come together to be shaped and formed as God’s people in community: to remember the story of God’s love, to practice forgiveness, to sing about a kingdom of hope and life, to pray with the saints of every time and place, to be moved by God’s ancient words whispered to us in the contemporary context of our lives: you are welcome… you are loved… you are forgiven… you are called… you are sent… you are blessed to be a blessing.
Church reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God and the call of the Spirit – how does that apply to worship? Very carefully…
I remember attending a church visioning meeting years ago and the facilitator said: This is not your grandmother’s church. And a woman in the group turned to her neighbor and said with sadness: but I want it to be my grandmother’s church. Some of us deeply resonate with her. Others of us could not be more grateful for the ways the church has changed.
I’ve said several times recently, if there are 80 people here, there are 80 different experiences of worship… and 80 different grandmothers. We come from different traditions and no tradition. Music hits us differently – some like gospel, others classical… some love contemporary and others the old favorites.
Although a note on the “old favorites” – I grew up in the PCUSA and when I came to this church, Joan and Sandy often referred to the old favorites everybody loved to sing—some of them I’d never heard of.
The language of liturgy strikes people differently. Some love King James English and others the Message… some hear the voice of God in secular poetry and others find it distracting. Some love the screen and others refuse to use it. Passing the peace goes on too long or is too intimate for some and it’s like a good long drink of embodied welcome to others. Some crave silence and others find it awkward. Some love to applaud in appreciation and others say “amen”… still others offer a silent prayer of thanksgiving. What’s the protocol here? newcomers ask.
Could we say: As the Spirit moves?
Reflecting on the previous Sunday’s worship service, a woman from a former congregation said to me: When we were singing ‘Just as I am’ it was all I could do to keep from getting up out of my pew and walking down the aisle to kneel on the steps.
Why didn’t you? I asked her. Because people would think I was weird, she said. Would they? Maybe if you’d done it, others would have joined you. Who knows? Why, when the Spirit moves – why hold back? Why allow what you think other people might think of you to take precedent over what the Spirit intends to do through you?
Is that freedom?
Lots of people apologize to me for crying in church. Why push down or away deep and profound emotions provoked by the Spirit? Is that freedom?
Instead, how might the Spirit use your tears – for your own healing or someone else’s?
Years ago a man met me at the back of the church after worship: I’m going to pray for you, pastor. I don’t know what you’re going through, but the prayer you offered was the biggest downer I’ve ever heard. Where’s the hope in that? he said. And the very next person hugged me with tears in his eyes: Your prayer touched me so deeply this week, he said, It was like you were speaking for me. His 40-something year-old son was dying of cancer.
The speaker at a youth conference said: You’re going to go back to your home churches and wonder why you’re not singing these songs every Sunday. Just remember this: the hymn you don’t like might be saving the life of someone right down the pew from you.
The woman sternly told my colleague after worship one Sunday: I’m so tired of all these prayers about brokenness. I’m not broken!
And the young couple whose 15-year old son ended his life with a gunshot to his own head said to me: We’ve been away from church for a long time. Do you think we should come back? Is it for people like us? I sure hope so,
80 different people, 80 different experiences of worship.
We are called to be free: not to use our freedom self indulgently; rather, to serve one another humbly in love. Let my people go.
Several years ago I bought a book at the Calvin Worship Symposium called The Africana Worship Book. In it are 21 considerations when designing worship. I don’t use it as a check-list every week. I’m not slave to addressing every issue. I do find it helpful. I hold the concepts in here. As I review the list this morning, I can hear the voices of the Reformers in several of these:
- Is the worship biblically resonated?
- Is the worship theologically sound?
- Is it ritually profound?
- Is worship invitational?
- Is this worship contextually relevant? Does worship reflect the culture(s) lands, and people gathered for worship?
- Does the worship open to the presence of God? Have we created space for God to work, and speak and encounter us, and us God?
- Is the worship participatory? Or, are there simply “talking heads” up front that we may “tune out?” John Calvin, Swiss Reformer and considered to be the father of Presbyterians was intent on the participatory nature of worship. That everyone would be free and able to take part – understanding the words spoken and sung.
- Does worship pull people from the outer edges into the center?
- Does worship incorporate gifts from the larger church (worldwide) into our local church?
- Does this worship challenge our local church to be a witness of God through the universal church? Does the worship point to a more inclusive reality than the one the congregation currently knows?
- Did we leave appropriate space for stillness and silence?
- Does worship incarnate God in Christ, begging participants to be reconciled to God? I offer you my heart, promptly and sincerely, was John Calvin’s motto.
- Do the words of the liturgy bog down and drown out rhythm and mystery of the liturgy? Or, are litanies and prayers easy to enter, with refrains and rhythms that hold the central message in place?
- Is worship hermetically sealed? Does it have one way in and one way out, and is it over when it’s over, not carrying worshipers into the world to continue to praise, worship, repent, grow, and work?
- Is worship permeable? Are there several entry points into Divine mystery and is it portable into the rest of the worshiper’s life?
- Is worship democratic? Does it allow voices from the center and the margin to commingle in such a way that there is no clear dominant voice? Have we invited the communion of saints from the beginning of the church’s existence to the present day to speak? Do we have a word from the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Now Testament? Do we believe God continues to speak?
- Does the music we sing, pray, and dance reflect the reality of more than a “village” God? Are we creating theology by our worship that says God is truly the God of all universes, places, and times? Regarding music, in Calvin’s words: songs should be neither light nor frivolous, but have gravity and majesty… not dull or utilitarian… infectious enough that men, women and children find themselves singing them outside of church.
- Did we use technology wisely and economically? Did we allow the “bells and whistles” to get in the way of the simplicity of grace?
- Is worship visionary and prophetic? Does this worship service point us to God of the whole creation, God who loves diversity in color and sunsets,, in temperature and foliage? in mountains and valleys, in rushing waterfall and gentle-flowing brooks?
- Is worship sensory-rich? Does worship use art in ways that God is danced back into the consciousness of people? Do we sing God into the room? Do we vision God into the room with banners and clips? Do we act God into the room?
- Does this worship return us to the miracle of hearing on the day of Pentecost, and to the great celebration around the throne of God when the reign of God is fully and completely realized and we out of every tongue, language, tribe, nation, gender, and age, lift our voices in awesome wonder of God who is majestic, powerful, holy, generous, friend, glorious, wonderful, and worthy of all this worship?”
This is the Church of our ancestors in that we are grounded in, saved by and sent to proclaim the same old, old story of Jesus and his love. And yet, by the Spirit’s call, we do it with fresh and relevant language. We draw on ancient practices in contemporary communities. Reformed and always being Reformed – to be authentically who we are as children of God in this day and in this place.
Jesus was in the middle of a sermon that day, in the Temple, during worship when the woman’s accusers dragged her in. Can you imagine?
One time in my life, a small crowd stormed the sanctuary on a Sunday morning. They were angry neighbors protesting the church’s proposed use of a piece of property. They came uninvited to speak before the congregational vote.
The meeting was set to begin right after the final benediction. They stood up from their seats and began shouting immediately after the Amen. As I recall, they were quickly silenced so the business could continue. But that all happened after the formal frame of worship – which I guess had been hermetically sealed.
I’ve never in a lifetime of Sundays seen a sermon interrupted by an angry mob.
I wonder what I would do if I were preaching. I wonder what you would do. Chances are we’d get them under control – usher them out – maybe call the police – get back to what we were doing… minimize the disturbance.
What did Jesus do? He let the Spirit work. He turned the men into a living illustration – an embodied confession. They became the object lesson for all to see God’s liberation in action.
The worship was participatory: Jesus invited everyone in… begged them each to be reconciled to God – each one to sit in the discomfort of his own sin. Where they had dragged her to the front, Jesus pulled all of them from the margins into the center – each one answering for his own life before God. The prayer was easy to enter – not bogged down or overly wordy – the central theme couldn’t be missed: Let anyone among you without sin, be the first to throw the stone. There was no dominant voice but his. One by one they dropped their stones. And she was free.
And that was worship. By grace alone. Through Christ alone. To the glory of God alone.
October 20: Children’s Sabbath
Scripture: Genesis 50:15-21; Matthew 15:31-40
Marian Wright Edelman has devoted her life to caring for the “least of these”: the most vulnerable, the smallest in stature — children — all children — from every religion, culture and tribe.
She is the daughter of a Baptist minister, a 1963 graduate from Yale University Law School, and in 1964, she became the first African American woman to pass the bar in Mississippi. In 1973, Marian Wright Edelman founded the Children’s Defense Fund to advocate for the rights of children.
This year marks the 28th anniversary of Children’s Sabbath, a national Children’s Defense Fund interfaith initiative. Today we join churches and communities of faith around the country, uniting our voices in prayer, support and advocacy for the safety and health of children.
If you don’t like the way the world is, you change it, says Edelman. You have an obligation to change it. You just do it one step at a time. In 2005, she wrote a book called I Can Make a Difference. It’s a collection of poems, quotes, songs and folkstories from around the world– written to let every child know: whoever you are and wherever you’re from, you can make a difference. You can change the world.
Stories like this one – from China– called Heaven and Hell:
A curious man once asked to visit heaven and hell.
Expecting hell to be a terrible, frightening place, he was amazed to find people seated around a lovely banquet table. The table was piled high with every delicious thing one could possibly want. The man thought, Perhaps hell isn’t so bad after all.
Looking closely, however, he noticed that everyone at the table was miserable.
They were starving, because, although there was a mountain of food before them, they had been given three-foot-long chopsticks. There was no way to carry the food to their own mouths with such long chopsticks, and so no one could eat a bite.
The man was then taken to heaven. To his surprise, he found the exact same situation as he had seen in hell. People were gathered around a banquet table piled with food. All the diners held a pair of three-foot-long chopsticks in their hands.
But here in heaven, everyone was happily eating the delicious food, for the residents of heaven were using their extra-long chopsticks to feed one another.
Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom, Jesus said, there will be famines and earthquakes… many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another… Because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold. But anyone who endures to the end will be saved. And the good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations (Matthew 24).
That’s how Jesus began the last teaching for his disciples in the gospel of Matthew. That’s how he set the stage for the final act — the sermon to end all sermons, or as one commentator called it: The sermon at the end of the world.
The curtain opens on the Son of Man standing before the nations with people on his right and on his left. The ones on his right are destined for the kingdom he has proclaimed from the beginning of his ministry.
And they’re confused. It’s the big reveal and surprise! The Son of Man isn’t who they thought he was – not some distant holy judge or savior – but one who has walked among them – a man of many faces – intersecting their paths throughout their lives… one who has come to them, from time to time, in need of mercy: hungry, lonely, sick, vulnerable, in chains. You didn’t know me, and you loved me. And not with words, with action: practically – physically and emotionally –you let your hearts be moved by me and for me. Come into the kingdom destined for you.
There they all are, people from every tribe and nation… every culture… every language, ethnicity… rich and poor, from every political party… every walk of life… differences that do not matter. What matters is what they have in common: righteousness. Not right doctrine or dogma or ideology, right hearts… for “the least.”
Who are the “least”? the smallest, lowest, most insignificant… those without resources, without status, without ability to reciprocate… the underserved, invisible… fragile, vulnerable, voiceless…the littlest of the little ones of the flock: Feed my lambs, Jesus said. Just as you do for one of the least of these, you do for me.
Today we turn our hearts and minds in prayer and advocacy to one of the “leasts” in our society: children.
What happens to children when nation rises against nation? What happens to children when kingdom rises against kingdom? What happens to children when there are famines and earthquakes… when they watch adults betraying one another… hating one another… killing each other? What happens to children when lawlessness increases and love grows cold?
Last year, 7 year-old Ais climbed on a motorcycle with her mother and brother. Her father and her other brother climbed on another. Both carried packages. They drove to a police station in the Indonesian city of Surabaya, a city of mixed religions in an otherwise mostly Muslim country. In the packages were bombs and they were set off just outside the police station.
Ais flew through the air and did not die, although every other member of her family did. ISIS claimed responsibility. Ais is now part of a deradicalization program for children of suicide bombers and people who went to Syria intent on joining ISIS. It’s run by the Indonesian Ministry of Social Affairs. Ais is one of thousands of vulnerable children indoctrinated into extremism by their parents.
Indonesia, you might remember from our mission partners, is a democratic nation committed to eradicating religiously inspired extremism. Our mission partners work alongside people of all faiths, educating children in the ways of peace. Yet family ties are strong.
Some of the students have been taught by their relatives how to assemble bombs. Counter-terrorism police have killed some of their parents. It’s natural for them to want revenge. They’ve been taught to hate the Indonesian state and its constitutional religious freedom.
Funding is sparse, the need is great – and daily getting greater with recent instability in the region — and the teachers are committed to their work, to feed these vulnerable children a steady diet of love, forgiveness, and grace. Day after day, these teachers believe they’re making a difference in the lives of children for the healing of the world.
What kind of people do we want to be? What kind of people do we want our children to be? begins Marian Wright Edelman’s book I Can Make a Difference. It’s divided into twelve chapters:
- I can make a difference by loving myself and others as God loves us and treating others respectfully and fairly
- I can make a difference by being courageous
- I can make a difference by aiming high and holding on to my ideals
- I can make a difference by caring and serving
- I can make a difference by being honest and telling the truth
- I can make a difference by persevering and not giving up
- I can make a difference by being determined and resourceful
- I can make a difference by being grateful for the gift and wonders of life
- I can make a difference by working together with others
- I can make a difference by being compassionate and kind
- I can make a difference by being nonviolent and working for peace
- I can make a difference by being faithful and struggling for what I believe.
All our children need to know that goodness and wisdom come in all colors and countries and genders and sizes and do not belong to any single person or group or nation, writes Edelman, and she concludes the introduction with a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson: What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.
Our congregation makes a promise to every child we baptize. We’re asked: Do you, as members of the church of Jesus Christ, promise to guide and nurture this child, by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging them to know and follow Christ? And we say we do. And the truth is over time, we seldom if ever see some of these particular children.
What if we consider our baptismal vows to extend far beyond the particular into the general… far beyond our children to all children: guiding and nurturing, serving alongside, modeling and inviting, listening and welcoming, sharing and healing… teaching them to know and love and see and be Christ — to recognize the face of Jesus in others and even in themselves…
How might this focus, broaden and deepen the mission of our church toward children?
How might this impact our budget planning? our discipleship ministries, our courageous conversations?
Don’t be afraid, Joseph said to his brothers, I will provide for you and your children. May it be so, church, may it be so.
In 1993, the General Assembly of the PCUSA adopted a guiding statement for our church’s life and ministry with children. Let us unite our voices in proclaiming together “A Vision for Children and the Church.” After each statement, we’ll pause as I light a candle.
“A Vision for Children and The Church”
-adopted by the 205th General Assembly (1993)
Because we affirm that all children are a gift of God,
created by God and created good;
all children are a gift to the whole of the human community;
all children have a real faith, and gifts for ministry;
all children have the right to be children;
and all children are not just tomorrow, they are today…
Because we believe that all children depend upon adults
for safety and security
in a world that does not always value children;
all children are affected first and most deeply
by those things that work against health and wholeness:
where there is disease, children sicken and die;
where there is homelessness;
children sleep on the streets and in other dangerous places;
where there is war, children are frightened and without a safe place;
where the air and water are polluted,
children feel the effect in their bodies and in their futures;
where there is shame, children’s spirits are wounded.
Therefore we hope for a world where all children can find a safe place;
where all ages, races, genders, creeds, and abilities
are recognized, valued, and celebrated;
where all adults hear the voices of children
and speak with as well as for them;
where all children have “first call” on the world’s resources
and first place in the minds and hearts of the world’s adults.
Because Jesus welcomed children and encouraged us
to welcome them in his name;
Jesus lifted up a child as an example of what the realm of God is like…
Therefore we hope for a church where we take seriously our baptismal vow
to nurture all children committed to our care;
where we bring good news to all those places where children are in need;
where adults and children alike share in ministry.
We covenant to act so that this vision may be made real for all children,
now and in times to come.
Scripture: Genesis 18, 22 selected verses; Acts 17 selected verses
What is God like?
If someone were to ask you that question:
What is God like? What would you say? Loving, merciful, angry, vengeful, absent, uninvolved, disinterested, creative, ever-present, empowering, idealistic, jealous, capricious, demanding, ruthless, violent, peaceful, out there, in here…
What would you say?
Does it depend on the day? on your mood? on world events? on life events?
Who influences what you believe about God? Parents? Teachers? Coaches? Pastors? Your spouse or partner? What influences your beliefs? your good or bad fortune? sickness or health? politics? family dynamics?
What role does the Bible play in teaching you about God? What do you learn about God through worship? through Church doctrine? through poetry? through nature? through Jesus?
Theology is the study of the nature, the essence, the character of God. Theologians ask questions about God’s activity in the world and the purpose and meaning of life in relationship to God: why are we here? where is God in the midst of suffering? why is there suffering? You don’t have to be an academic to be a theologian. We are all theologians whenever we explore who or what or how God is.
Theology matters. It shapes the way we see the world and the way we respond to events in it. We pray according to what we believe about God. Listen to the words you hear in prayer… you say in prayer… what do they imply about what the one praying believes about God’s heart and character?
Theologies don’t emerge in a vacuum. Culture, language, history, families, communities, and life events influence our theology.
Years ago I worked for hospice as a chaplain. I visited with a woman whose husband’s Parkinson’s Disease was advanced. She was angry. What did I do to deserve this? She asked. Why would God punish us like this?
She grew up in a strict church and a strict household. In her view, God was the taskmaster. She was clear: Step out of line and expect lightning to strike.
I asked her about her family – the photos in her house. Her youngest son had been killed in a car accident a few years earlier – 39 years old.
She blamed God for that too.
Was she open to envisioning God in other ways? Merciful? Kind? Would she explore with me the possibility that God might actually love her? No.
What kind of loving merciful God would take my son and inflict my husband with that horrible illness? she asked me. Our friends don’t even visit us anymore. I’m alone.
God is angry and punishing us. For what? I don’t know. She was done negotiating and pleading into the silence.
I visited with her several times throughout the fall of 2004. I listened to her weep as she shared the last words she said to her son before his death. She poured out her heart about what she’d lost and I listened. We held space in our visits for unanswered questions.
Over time she began to open up to the possibility that there might be another side to and way of experiencing God’s heart… that God might be speaking to her in unexpected ways through a book or a song… maybe even gracefully present in our times together.
I was gone over Christmas break that year when the tsunami hit Indonesia.
Where Was God? the news headlines screamed as over 200,000 people died. The first time I visited her after that tsunami, she waved the paper in my face and she said, Where was God? I’ll tell you where God was: God was behind it all, killing all those Muslims.
She said the hospice nurse who visited that morning agreed with her – they’d talked all about it.
No, no, I said, That’s not who God is. God is grieving in the midst of all of the loss and devastation. They’re all God’s children. And what about the prayers, the comfort, the teams of support pouring in from around the world? Isn’t God there too? I asked her.
That’s not how I see it, she said. And that’s not how the nurse saw it either.
I was furious. I went storming back to the hospice office: Please tell the nurses to stick to medicine and stay out of theology, I said to my supervisor.
The truth is, within the Bible, you can find justification for any number of theologies. If you’re looking for punishing, angry, vengeful, you can find it. If you’re looking for comforting, merciful, loving, just, you can find it… tribal or inclusive, you can find both.
As we continue making the road by walking… we’ll read story after story in this sacred text and we’ll see a host of different ways the biblical storytellers describe God and God’s actions.
And the truth is, we’re all free to be theologians — even that nurse. We can’t stop anyone, nor should we, from picking up a Bible and reading it. We’re children of the Reformation. We’re thankful to have this inspired word in our own native language — accessible to any and all.
Yet with that access comes an awesome responsibility. How do we interpret these ancient stories faithfully and fruitfully?
Some say there’s an Old Testament God – the God that got up on the wrong side of the bed… and a New Testament God—introduced in Jesus– a makeover, a kinder, gentler caffeinated God.
That’s not how we see it. We believe in One God from the beginning: One God of Abraham, Moses, the prophets and Jesus… one God and Father of all in whom we live and move and have our being.
Our challenge is to liberate the voices of the ancient storytellers; to let them speak out of the fullness of their humanity: influenced as they are by their culture, traditions, tribes and personal experiences; to let their words leap from the pages of Scripture and by the Spirit’s power, come to life in our hearing.
Our challenge is to listen to the way, over generations, these ancient storytellers came to know God – not as one who takes but as one who gives… one who despite full-scale human rebellion, saves a remnant to start over…
As one who doesn’t demand more and more blood sacrifice, but rather desires justice, mercy and a deep and abiding relationship with the world and every living being in it… one who is out there – creator of the universe – and at the same time, in here– as close as our breath… always present with us, for us, within us.
In Jesus of Nazareth, this God was fully pleased to dwell… to speak through and live through and heal through and save the world through.
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, Jesus said. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.
Another day, another visit, another woman whose husband was dying. She called me in as a chaplain to read Scripture to her. From the moment I met her she talked about how good the Lord was. How blessed they were. How active they were with their church.
How thankful she was.
What Scriptures would you like me to read to you? I asked her. Whatever you’d like, she said.
I had only just started reading when she began to cry… just a little at first and then she began to really sob. Why? she asked. Why throat cancer when he loved to sing? How could God do this to him he was so faithful.
Then just as quickly as she started, she stopped, wiped her eyes and said, I know, I shouldn’t be angry with God. I shouldn’t question. I’m sorry.
Like the other woman, she too had been raised not to question God, but rather to hold back… to push down feelings of anger, questions, grief… not to take it all to God in prayer because to do so would be a lack of faith or trust in God.
What kind of relationship is that?, I asked her. If we hide our feelings from God are they really hidden?
What do we believe God can handle?
Together we turned to the psalms and in the psalms of lament she found solidarity and comfort to speak what she had not dared to say; what Jesus himself said in his darkest hour:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Later the whole family gathered around her husband’s bedside. It was the day before Thanksgiving. We sang hymns to a man who’d sung in church choir for years.
When will your pastor be here? I asked his wife. I planned to be on my way before he came to be with them.
Oh not until after he dies and I’ll call to make the arrangements. He’s too busy with all kinds of other things to be here now.
I was studying to be a pastor and when I heard that, my heart broke. Too busy for such a sacred time as this? Had she asked or did she assume? I stayed awhile longer.
What if your dad dies tomorrow, I asked his daughter. What if he dies on Thanksgiving Day, how will that be?
She thought for a moment: I think it would be perfect, she said, it was always his favorite holiday. He lived his life as an offering.
With what shall I come before the Lord
and bow down before the exalted God?
Asked the prophet Micah.
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
October 6: World Communion
Scripture: Genesis 12:1-9; Galatians 3:6-9; Mark 11:15-19
Our daughter Courtney is on quite the journey. She left just after Labor Day on a one-way ticket to Paris.
We knew how she would be spending the first couple of weeks and we’d met at least one of the people she’d be traveling with in France and later in Spain. But even she didn’t know what she’d be doing after that. Maybe I’ll connect with friends in Berlin, she said. Maybe I’ll do a work-away on a farm or two. Maybe I’ll take a train to the Czech Republic.
When will you be home? I asked her. I don’t know.
Who will be traveling with you? Where will you be staying? How will we communicate? I had a hundred questions. I was excited for her to see parts of the world she’d never seen. But so much was unscripted and… well… I’ve seen Taken and Andy’s not Liam Neeson. I forget she’s 24 she’s already traveled extensively on her own.
So she marched in the climate strike in Barcelona last week, she’s learning how to speak Italian, make wine and drive a stick shift in Sardinia this week. She’s traveling to Germany to meet friends for Octoberfest and taking a train to the Czech Republic next week. And then she’s working on an organic mushroom farm in Austria the following week before she flies home.
She’s in touch with us daily through Whatsapp and I follow her on Instagram. Her ever-increasing world family is amazing. She’s blown away by the kindness extended toward her. I’ve never seen her so happy.
She talked the other day with me about luck… how she feels so lucky to have met all these people and had these beautiful experiences… wondering when her luck will run out.
Why does she think that way?
I asked her that. Because this just isn’t life, she said. It doesn’t go on like this forever.
Actually, this is life. And she’s living it. Rather than thinking of it as luck, I suggested she consider thinking of it this way: Maybe you’re learning what it feels like to be blessed by the hospitality and kindness of strangers now friends… blessed by the freedom of health and youth… blessed by an open schedule and in-country guides to open the world to you… blessed to see and feel more.
Maybe you’re learning what it is to be blessed in order that you might pay it forward… that you might be a blessing to others. She liked that.
Go to a land I will show you, God said to Abram. There weren’t a lot of details to his itinerary either, but there was a promise, and in the promise is the purpose: I will bless you and you will be a blessing. The world will be your classroom and the lesson is two-fold: 1: you are blessed and 2: you are to bless others. Go and learn.
We are descendants of this family, this promise and this life purpose. And we’re far-flung like the grains of sand on the beach or the stars in the night sky. We have family across the whole world.
This morning, this World Communion Sunday morning, I want to share with you stories from some of our family members serving the church of Jesus Christ… sent by God to make the way by walking… to learn as they go about being blessed and being a blessing. You can read about these and lots more on the PCUSA World Mission Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/PCUSAWorldMission/
Go to a land I will show you, God told Janet Smith Dickerson Stephens in 2014 when she joined other members of the Witherspoon Presbyterian Church in New Jersey on a pilgrimage to Ghana.
We were on a mission to learn and serve, searching for our roots and for understanding. Four of us were African-American. Three were retired. All five of us were senior citizens, mature in our faith and deeply imbued in the history of a country, our country, that was built on the backs of slaves — ancestors ripped from rural villages like those that hosted us, taken forcibly from inland territories to the expansive African shore. None of us were prepared for the sensory-jarring shock and emotionally tumultuous nature of this experience.
She had read about the history and even researched her own family tree, but it wasn’t until she stood before the castle reading the words etched in the granite slab:
IN EVERLASTING MEMORY
OF THE ANGUISH OF OUR ANCESTORS.
MAY THOSE WHO DIED REST IN PEACE.
MAY THOSE WHO RETURN FIND THEIR ROOTS.
MAY HUMANITY NEVER AGAIN
PERPETUATE SUCH INJUSTICE AGAINST HUMANITY.
WE, THE LIVING, VOW TO UPHOLD THIS…
It wasn’t until she breathed the air and smelled the ocean and stood in that space that she began to imagine the horror of it all: the separation of families, the torture, the stripping of dignity, the steel bars, the shackles, the shame.
Standing before the tunnel leading to the door of no return, labeled: “Slave exit to waiting boats,” Janet felt blessed. She felt gratitude that she carried within her the DNA of her ancestors and with it their unrealized yet relentless hopes and dreams and prayers.
Her journey to the space where they had been forcibly broken renewed a deep commitment within her spirit to turn over the tables of injustice in the name of Jesus and devote her life to advocate for dignity and freedom.
Janet returned and came out of retirement to work on a college campus with a new generation of student leaders, encouraging them to travel the world; to use their privilege to right wrongs… to be blessed to be a blessing.
Go to a land I will show you, God told Bob Rice in 2017 when he joined other African missionaries at the regional gathering in Rwanda. Bob and his wife Kristi are among mission co-workers serving the church of Jesus Christ in South Sudan. Dr. Musemakweli, President of the Presbyterian Church in Rwanda, was a speaker.
He talked of being summoned out of a doctoral program in Belgium to return home to Rwanda in 1994 after genocide took the lives of more than 800,000 Tutsis including his mother, brother, nieces and nephews. He was a theologian and he returned to empty churches. Pastors had been killed or fled.
What theology are you now going to teach us? asked a young student. The country was in ruins. Several of the graduates of the theology department of this college had participated in the mass slaughter. What will you teach about God and faith to a broken people and a broken nation?
How do you teach theology to a traumatized people? How do you teach the presence of God when people have profoundly felt God’s absence? How do you teach God’s justice and God’s mercy and God’s love… God’s blessing in that darkness?
He walked into the classroom and began to turn the tables of warped ideology. He courageously righted the wrong of placing ethnicity over humanity. He introduced “The Rwanda Seminar”, asking What is our true identity? What does it mean to be Hutu? What does it mean to be Tutsi? What makes us who we are? He focused on God’s love and heartbreak in the midst of suffering, human responsibility for the suffering and God’s power for healing beyond the suffering.
In 2017 when Rev. Rice and the other mission co-workers to South Sudan heard his story, they recognized it as their story. Since the birth of South Sudan in 2011, over 50,000 people have been killed, 1.9 million internally displaced 1.8 million have fled. How do you teach theology to a traumatized people – broken and hurting from decades of war?
They invited Dr. Musemakweli to South Sudan to work with them. And they invited fourteen women: seven genocide survivors and seven wives of genocide perpetrators to work together developing a new story of reconciliation and love.
Together we are creating a vision for the future, and what our role could be in promoting healing and peace, said Rev. Rice, from Rwanda to South Sudan and well beyond: blessed to be a blessing.
Go to a land I will show you, God told Jeff and Christi Boyd when they left for Central Africa in 1990. They’ve lived in Tanzania and Cameroon and now are in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ministering in Central Africa has taught them what it means to be a Matthew 25 church.
Matthew 25 is a denominational initiative based on the words of Jesus: whatever we do for the least of these we do for Jesus. Its underlying premise is that a vital church of Jesus Christ ministers to the whole person, neighborhood, community and world: mind, body and soul. We are a Matthew 25 church.
Recently Jeff Boyd wrote about a conversation he had with Congolese pastor and fellow mission co-worker Isaac Kalonji Mukendi about Matthew 25. Pastor Isaac said:
In the name of Christian ethics, we have the obligation to respect the dignity of all human beings as created in the image and likeness of God. In our country, the law requires free primary school education for all children. But curiously, every day there are children who are chased out of school because they have not paid the fees. It’s not the children, but the parents who cannot pay the fees because they do not have the means to do it.
When you look at these children who are chased out of school day after day, they’re not happy. They regret it. They ask themselves why they are outside while others stay in the classroom studying. They wonder how they differ from those in class. They speak the same language, they have the same skin color, but they feel totally different from others. Rejected. Marginalized.
We ask that justice surround these children, that we uphold the law. That we give free education to all children because it is their right. Otherwise, those children who think society is unfair, they will not be grateful to this society. And their frustration leads to violence.
You cannot talk about the student without talking about the teacher. A teacher who comes to teach children but leaves his own children at home because he has no money to pay for their schooling. How can he teach correctly? And for what kind of a salary is he coming to teach? Did he eat in the morning before coming to teach? Has he had time to prepare the lessons at home? No, because the salary is insufficient.
These are urgent matters that are before the new leaders elected to run the country. But they can also draw the attention of all people of goodwill in this world to associate with the cries of children in the DRC. The cry for social justice.
Pastor Isaac is a father, a teacher, a pastor and a denominational leader operating 350 primary and secondary schools. When he hears about the poor, the hungry, the naked, he sees real children… he sees Jesus in these children and he is compelled to listen to their cries and love them well.
Jeff Boyd says: we are blessed to have global partners who share from their context and help us gain perspective on scriptures in this complex world.
I knew a woman years ago. She was in her late 80’s and lived alone. On the wall of her living room, above the tv, was a giant map of the world. When I asked her about it, she said: it reminds me of how big the world is and how small I am. Every night as I watch the news, I hear about something happening somewhere in the world and I look up and find it on the map. And I pray for the people there.
She didn’t drive anymore and didn’t leave her apartment much. But she traveled the world. She read book after book about different parts of the world and shared them with other residents so they could learn together. It kept her humble. It kept her heart open.
The only journey is the one within, said Rainer Maria Rilke, and this woman’s inner journey always took her beyond herself: blessed to be a blessing.
Go to a land I will show you, God says. We go with a promise. We go accompanied by a big, beautiful global family. We go in faith… making the road by walking… following Jesus. Thanks be to God.
Scripture: Genesis 4:1-17; 6:5-8; 7:1-5; 8:1; 9:7-17; James 4:1-8; Psalm 51
The headline read: Climate change threatens nearly 40% of world’s primates, study says. Primates play a critical role in the ecosystems and economies of the countries they inhabit, the article said, and referencing a study from the scientific journal “Nature Climate Change”, it continued: Their populations are already devastated by human causes: deforestation, palm-oil farming and illegal hunting. Despite their high capacity to adapt, extreme weather patterns leading to storms and droughts are overwhelming them.
Researchers call on conservationists to focus advocacy and action in hotspots across Asia, Africa and South America to help save these primates.
WITH MAN GONE, WILL THERE BE HOPE FOR GORILLA? – read the sign on the wall in Ishmael’s room.
Ishmael is the title of a 1992 book written by Daniel Quinn about a gorilla of the same name.
The story begins with an advertisement in the newspaper: TEACHER seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person.
The man who saw the ad threw it in the trash immediately. He scoffed: By noon, two hundred mooncalfs, softheads, boobies, ninnyhammers, noodleheads, gawkies, and assorted oafs and thickwits would doubtless be lined up at the address given, ready to turn over all their worldlies for the rare privilege of sitting at the feet of some guru pregnant with the news that all will be well if everyone will just turn around and give his neighbor a big hug.
Once upon a time this man believed the world could be saved. During the children’s revolt of the 60’s and 70’s, he was just old enough to understand it and just young enough to think it could really happen. He wanted a teacher then.
But as time went on he learned that the cynical adults were right: Nobody’s out to save the world, because nobody gives a damn about the world; that was just a bunch of goofy kids talking.
Yet something still nagged at him enough to go back to the trash, pull out the paper and drive to the address on the ad. There he met his new teacher: a thousand pound gorilla named Ishmael who through mental telepathy, revealed to him a whole new way of living in and for the world.
I read Ishmael nearly 15 years ago. It ranks up there as one of the most impactful books I’ve read. In 1999, Anthony Hopkins and Cuba Gooding Jr. starred in a movie loosely based on the book called Instinct.
We have only one thing to give up. Our dominion. says Ethan Powell, played by Anthony Hopkins, We don’t own the world. We’re not kings yet. Not gods. Can we give that up? Too precious, all that control? Too tempting, being a god?
I remembered Ishmael this week in one of our We Make the Road by Walking small groups. Ishmael, the wise gorilla talked about Cain and Abel.
Abel represents the category of people Ishmael calls leavers: hunters and gatherers… tribal nomadic culture from the beginning of humanity until just over 10000 years ago.
They live as if they belong to the world; taking only what is needed when it is needed and leaving the rest for the rest of the world. There are still leavers in our world today, though mostly in other cultures.
A clergy friend of mine wrote recently about someone who returned from a church mission trip to Haiti and reported: While in Haiti, our accommodations were quite humble. On the wall of our spartan dormitory room hung this sign: “If you need something we do not have, ask us; we’ll show you how you can live without it.”
Leavers live lightly and respectfully on the earth for the well-being of the earth and all those with whom they share it.
Cain and the children of Cain are people Ishmael calls takers: founders of the agricultural and industrial revolutions who live not as if they belong to the world, but as if the world belongs to them.
Abel and Cain, and the people groups they represent, live according to different cultural stories. Ishmael says: Given a story to enact that puts you in accord with the world, you will live in accord with the world (Leavers). But, given a story to enact that puts you at odds with the world…you will live at odds with the world. Given a story to enact in which you are the lords of the world, you will act like lords of the world. And, given a story to enact in which the world is a foe to be conquered, you will conquer it like a foe, and one day, inevitably, your foe will lie bleeding to death at your feet, as the world is now.
Just like the bulletin cover photo.
The Lord, in the biblical witness of Cain and Abel, had no regard for the story enacted by Takers. Knowing the terrible temptation that lies at Cain’s door, the Lord warns: its desire is for you and you must master it.
Over time, the story unfolded and the Lord saw that the evil, wickedness, and misery of the Takers mastered them, destroying them and through them, destroying everything else. And the LORD was sorry he had ever made them. His heart was broken over what he had created… the dream turned nightmare.
That was then and this is now:
The teacher Ishmael summarized it this way: Basic, irreplaceable resources are being devoured every year—and they’re being devoured more greedily every year. Whole species are disappearing as a result of your encroachment—and they’re disappearing in greater numbers every year. Pessimists—or it may be that they’re realists—look down and say, ‘Well, the crash may be twenty years off or maybe as much as fifty years off. Actually it could happen anytime. There’s no way to be sure.’ But of course there are optimists as well, who say, ‘We must have faith in our craft. Afterall, it has brought us this far in safety.
And when you’re on the brink of extinction and want to live for a while longer, the laws governing life might conceivably become relevant.”
This week at the UN Climate Summit, a 16 year-old spoke of the relevance, the crisis, the need for action to preserve life now: Greta Thunberg said:
For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear. You say you hear us and that you understand the urgency. But no matter how sad and angry I am, I do not want to believe that. Because if you really understood the situation and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil. And that I refuse to believe.
In response to Greta’s impassioned speech to the world, Rev. Robert Jeffress, Pastor of the 14,000 member First Baptist Church in Dallas said on Fox Radio: Somebody needs to read poor Greta Genesis, Chapter 9, Jeffress said, and tell her the next time she worries about global warming, just look at a rainbow. That’s God’s promise that the polar ice caps aren’t going to melt and flood the world again.
As a pastor who claims the same Scriptures as holy and sacred text, I consider that professional malpractice… intentionally turning a hard heart to suffering and leading others to do the same. That is the false prophecy Jeremiah warns about – those who proclaim: Peace, peace when there is no peace… the blind guides Jesus warns about. And his is a voice of influence. He sits on the president’s evangelical advisory team.
Your home for biblical truth and community in a chaotic culture, says the website of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, the church where Jeffress is pastor. It further says: We have stepped into the fray to be a voice for truth in a world hungry for answers.
What fray have they stepped into? What truth do they tell? Indeed the world is hungry for answers… the world is starving for attention… the world is longing for care, nurture, redemption.
The truth is this: the effects of climate change impact every country on every continent. The truth is this: changing temperatures and weather patterns lead to warming oceans to dying coral reefs… decimated species populations… reduced food supplies… chaos and devastation to whole ecosystems… increased drought, wildfires, hurricanes, severe weather related disasters… lost lives, neighborhoods, infrastructure, and complete communities.
And the truth is, we as original stewards of the garden, are accountable to repent and act humbly and responsibly and quickly.
We trust in God’s promised mercy and grace, and the whole biblical story testifies to God’s heartbreak and anguish over the painful suffering consequences of human greed, exploitation and abuse. Those who will suffer the most are the poor and the most vulnerable… the least of these… what we do unto them, we do unto Jesus… and ignorance is not an excuse.
6 million people, many of them youth, around the world marched this week; saying with their signs and their voices: We must do better than this. Young Evangelicals for Climate Action were part of the 6 million.
This pledge is on the front page of their website: We are young evangelicals striving to live out what Jesus said was most important: loving God fully and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Climate change is already impacting our neighbors and God’s creation here in the United States and around the world.
For the sake of “the least of these,” we believe God is calling us to faithful action and witness in the midst of the current climate crisis. Therefore, we commit ourselves to living faithfully as good stewards of creation, advocating on behalf of the poor and marginalized, supporting our faith and political leaders when they stand up for climate action, and mobilizing our generation to join in.
These are not just a bunch of goofy kids talking. They are engaged. They are energized. They believe they have a voice and a very good reason to raise it. The world needs saving and they’re doing their part.
The story of Genesis must be reversed, Ishmael told his student, First, Cain must stop murdering Abel. This is essential if you’re to survive. The Leavers are the endangered species most critical to the world… And then, of course, you must spit out the fruit of that forbidden tree. You must absolutely and forever relinquish the idea that you know who should live and who should die on this planet.”
Teach a hundred what I’ve taught you, and inspire each of them to teach a hundred. What I’ve been at pains to give you is a new paradigm of human history. The Leaver life is not an antiquated thing that is ‘back there’ somewhere. Your task is not to reach back but to reach forward.
There was a message on the other side of the sign that hung on the wall in the great gorilla’s room: WITH GORILLA GONE, WILL THERE BE HOPE FOR MAN? Can a primate be a prophet? A teacher with a message to save the world?
2000 years ago another teacher set out on a journey seeking disciples who would one day be teachers. Daily he adds to his number of students earnestly desiring to live the kingdom he preached: justice, mercy, humility, grace and love… generosity, mutual care, sustainability. His heart is God’s heart and it breaks with love for you… for me… for all of us… and for the world. And it continues to beat with relentless hope that the world can be and will be saved.
We are Christ’s hands, feet and heart in the world and for the world. May it be so.
Scripture: Genesis 3:1-13; Philippians 2:3-11
How many of us remember hiding mischief from our parents when we were kids? We went to great lengths didn’t we?
When our kids were in high school and college,
Andy and I played in a monthly euchre card group with other parents of kids roughly our kids ages. We’d met each other through church and raised our kids there. That having been said, we often laughed until we cried when we shared stories of our kids breaking the rules and their myriad attempts at cover-up.
Even Inspector Clouseau, the bumbling detective from Pink Panther fame, could figure it out. Exhibit A: All of the furniture is pushed to the side of the rec room in the basement. Exhibit B: a partially smoked cigar on the front lawn. Exhibit C: empty bottles of booze in the trash can. Exhibit D: rags in the garbage that smell like vomit… That’s a partial list of the evidence we found when we returned from a wedding one weekend.
Alex was 18 and Courtney was 15. Before we left we made arrangements for both of them to stay with neighbors. And we gave them free access to the house to come and go as they needed. Just no parties, we said.
So we sat down with Alex and laid out all the evidence and we asked him to tell us what happened.
Well, he said, my friends didn’t clean up very well… They wanted to have a party, he continued. They brought all the alcohol. We pushed the furniture to the edge of the room so we could play beer pong. It was the worst party I’ve ever been to. It was so stressful. I was running around cleaning up barf and spilled drinks and making sure nothing got broken… I never even got to drink anything myself I was so busy. It was awful.
Then I had to go. I had to sneak back to the house where I was staying before they noticed I was gone. So I told my friends to clean up everything before they left. I’m sorry they left the house in such a mess.
As time went on, their stories got more inventive and more believable. They weren’t any less disobedient, just craftier. You remember. You were 18, 19, 20, 21 once. We weren’t in our right minds back then.
Now the serpent was more crafty… cunning… shrewd… more clever than any of the wild animals God had made…
This is an ancient story written in Hebrew and Hebrew storytellers love word plays. There are surprisingly few root words in Hebrew and from them come lots of different words – like trees with many branches. And when multiple words share a root, they also share some core meaning.
Storytellers use this. Like poets or punsters, they turn phrases with related words to make their points. We often miss this in English translations. Here, for example, the Hebrew word that describes the serpent is the same root as the one that describes the man and the woman: crafty and naked. Naked and shrewd… different words but the same root word. That’s a clue for us to look further.
Watch what happens when we interchange the words: Now the serpent was more naked than any of the wild animals God had made. That’s probably true: no fur, no feathers – and they regularly shed their skins. It’s not shameful that snakes are naked it is simply what they are.
And watch this: Then the eyes of both the man and the woman were opened and they realized they were crafty… shrewd… clever… and they were afraid.
It is scary. Think of the devastation throughout history caused by the misappropriation, miscalculation, mismanagement of shrewdness and cunning. Cleverness is a gift to be sure and a potential curse depending on its use. There’s diabolical genius and altruistic genius.
To realize we have that kind of potential for good or evil within us… the ability to know and to stretch truth; to manipulate it… exploit it… weaponize it… to heal and to hurt… to enlighten and to deceive… to serve the common good and the order of tyrannical dictators. It’s a lot of pressure… a lot of responsibility…
What might we be capable of? What might we do or say if trapped in a corner… to protect ourselves… to avoid consequences, cost, pain… to preserve our reputation? It’s scary to realize the dark side to our potential.
The snake is Adam and Eve’s foil. In literature, the foil is the character introduced to illuminate something in the other character. It’s called foil because when you place a gem on a piece of foil it shines more brightly. Foils are neither antagonists nor villains. Foils in stories are like a mirror to the main character: they reveal and amplify the good, bad and ugly… they make the protagonist shine more brilliantly or they reveal the flaws more tragically.
All the serpent does is ask the questions… starts the ball rolling… holds up the mirror. Did God really say? Did you say your parents were away for the weekend?
Look how quickly the man blames God – the very one who gave him life and everything he would ever need to live it abundantly: The woman you gave me… he said to God. None of us would ever blame God, would we?
Look how quickly he blames the bone of his bone… flesh of his flesh… his partner in life: She gave it to me, he said. We would never blame our husbands or wives for something we did… not the people who are closest to us… the people we love most in the world, would we?
Look how quickly she blames the serpent, one of the animals given to her to love and nurture… to name and care for: the serpent tricked me… We would never punish nature and justify it… rationalize it for our own selfish needs, would we?
We’re not 18 anymore. We’re grown ups and we’re good Christian men and women. We’re mothers and fathers and spouses and bosses and colleagues and neighbors and upstanding citizens. Blaming and projecting, hiding and deceiving, conniving and backstabbing… we hate that childish stuff.
Ironically, this is the very power of this story for us. In their denials, our denials are revealed. We see what they’re doing because we know it all too well.
Last Spring I attended a retreat called Into the Shadows. It was an invitation to explore the aspects of our personality we’re most afraid of revealing; things we hide from society and we hide from ourselves. If we’re good at it, we’ve shoved them down so deep we’re convinced they’re not a part of us at all.
They’re not gone. They pop up in times of anxiety and hurt: maybe surprising bursts of anger or tears, refusal to claim responsibility, shaming, ignoring, controlling, neediness. Where’d that come from? we ask ourselves. That’s so unlike me.
These are the parts of our personality we refuse to accept. We see them in other people… in fact we can’t stand them in other people. As the Pharisee says: I’m so glad I’m not like that guy.
As you might imagine, this stuff is hard work – it’s hard to see something in yourself you’ve worked so hard to convince yourself isn’t you.
The facilitators gave us pre-retreat reflection questions to help us:
- What are some prominent images and/or figures that frequently show up in your dreams?
- Who are some people you have strong emotional reactions to, either positive or negative? What is it about them that you react strongly to?
- What are some situations in which you are tempted not to tell the truth?
- Complete this sentence: “One thing that is absolutely (or absolutely not) true about me is ….!
- In what situations do you typically overreact? What are some ways you have caught yourself acting “out of character”?
- What accusations, confrontations and observations from other people do you respond strongly to?
- Who are your favorite heroes and villains from literature, film, theater, myth, etc.? What characteristics draw you to or repel you from them?
- What beliefs (stereotypes) do you have about the other gender?
- What beliefs (stereotypes) do you have about your gender?
- During times of decision making or inner conflict, what “voices” engage you in inner debate? (These may be the Shadow voicing its desires)
- What jokes do you like to tell? What jokes make you laugh hardest? What jokes do you feel embarrassed that you laugh at?
- What qualities do your best friends have?
Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves, Carl Jung said. Everything?
Leadership coach Scott Jeffrey says it like this:
- We tend to project our disowned parts on to other people.
- Sure, your colleagues might be aggressive, arrogant, inconsiderate, or impatient, but if you don’t have those same qualities within you, you won’t have a strong reaction to their behavior.
- If you’re paying close attention, you can train yourself to notice your shadow when you witness strong negative emotional responses to others.
- Whatever bothers you in another is likely a disowned part within yourself. Get to know that part.
Why would I want to get to know that part? What useful purpose could it serve? Nothing short of our own healing and wholeness and the healing of the world depends on it. Any repair of our fractured world must start with individuals who have the insight and courage to own their own shadow, says Robert A. Johnson, author of the book: Owning Your Own Shadow.
To read this story carefully, says Martin Buber, is to find ourselves fully revealed to ourselves. It takes us on a journey into our own nature, and invites us, the whole of us, to come out of hiding and meet God in the garden: humbled, honest, accountable and unafraid.
Julian of Norwich reminds us: First there is the fall, and then we recover from the fall. And both are the mercy of God!
There’s a story told in the gospel of Mark about a man who was filled with unclean spirits. He was so uncontrollable that the village people drove him outside of town and chained him to tombs. Maybe he represented all they feared within themselves and they couldn’t bear the sight of him. Maybe he was their collective shadow.
Jesus went out to him and healed him. The story says he was dressed and in his right mind. The man begged to follow Jesus and instead Jesus sent him home to embody the mercy of God for the healing of the whole village.
In his right mind he knew he was profoundly loved by the one who created him good. In his right mind he knew he had nothing to fear. In his right mind there was no reason to hide. In his right mind he knew his purpose was to forgive. In his right mind, the mind of Christ.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likenes.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
This fall we’ve begun a new discipleship journey called We Make the Road by Walking, using a book by the same title by Brian McLaren. Each chapter has suggested Scripture texts and I’ve committed to preaching on these texts for the next year.
We had Genesis 1 week 1 and Genesis 2 week 2. We have to wait a week for Genesis 3. Instead, today we continue with scriptures about creation. The first is from Proverbs. It reads like an eyewitness account from someone who was present while the world was being created – Lady Wisdom she’s called by the ancient Jewish authors.
First Reading: Proverbs 8:22-36 New International Version (NIV)
Our second reading comes from the gospel of John. I’ll be reading from the Voice translation. The Voice is one of the newest biblical translations. It came out in 2011 and is a collaborative project of about 120 people: biblical scholars, artists, musicians, writers, poets, pastors and teachers. They came together to, in their words, “create a translation that was faithful and accurate to the original languages while at the same time beautiful and readable to our English-speaking audience.”
Every Bible translation is an interpretation. Since the Bible’s original languages are Hebrew and Greek there are often multiple words in English to choose from. It’s interesting to read different translations side-by-side and see the different theological choices in words and phrases. This is not cause for concern.
Rather it’s an opportunity to let the Spirit speak through a host of interpretive communities throughout the ages, and an opportunity to explore a variety of meanings.
The Voice team of interpreters made some interesting choices in this gospel reading. I’m projecting it so you can follow along as I read it. This reading is a testimony to another one who was present when the world took shape. This one is known as Logos in the Greek, D’var in Hebrew – often translated in English as Word: In the beginning was the Word. Listen with me to John 1:1-18 according to the Voice:
Second Reading: John 1:1-18
Before time itself was measured, the Voice was speaking.
The Voice was and is God.
This celestial Word remained ever present with the Creator; His speech shaped the entire cosmos.
Immersed in the practice of creating,
all things that exist were birthed in Him.
His breath filled all things with a living, breathing light—
A light that thrives in the depths of darkness,
blazes through murky bottoms.
It cannot and will not be quenched.
A man named John, who was sent by God, was the first to clearly articulate the source of this Light. This baptizer put in plain words the elusive mystery of the Divine Light so all might believe through him. Some wondered whether he might be the Light, but John was not the Light. He merely pointed to the Light. The true Light, who shines upon the heart of everyone, was coming into the cosmos.
He entered our world, a world He made; yet the world did not recognize Him. Even though He came to His own people, they refused to listen and receive Him.
But for all who did receive and trust in Him, He gave them the right to be reborn as children of God; He bestowed this birthright not by human power or initiative but by God’s will.
The Voice took on flesh and became human and chose to live alongside us. We have seen Him, enveloped in undeniable splendor—the one true Son of the Father—evidenced in the perfect balance of grace and truth. John the Baptist testified about Him and shouted, “This is the one I’ve been telling you is coming. He is much greater than I am because He existed long before me.” Through this man we all receive gifts of grace beyond our imagination. You see, Moses gave us rules to live by, but Jesus the Anointed offered us gifts of grace and truth. God, unseen until now, is revealed in the Voice, God’s only Son, straight from the Father’s heart.
This is the Word of the LORD.
Instead of Word, they chose Voice. In the beginning, the Voice was speaking… The Voice was and is God and his speech shaped the entire cosmos… the Voice took on flesh and became human.
This is one of my favorite passages of Scripture: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. Voice?
It’s a legitimate choice. Logos and d’var both hold a broad range of meanings: idea, dream, plan, speech, message, commandment, law, proclamation, sermon, gospel, instruction, teaching, story, declaration… anything related to the whole act of communicating.
In their words, voice is distinct and personal. Words are the same unit of language regardless of who speaks them. Voices are distinct and recognizable. Jesus says: my sheep will know my voice.
Voices are powerful and emotive. We hear the voice of our beloved in the airport and our hearts skip. Babies hear and recognize the voice of their mothers in the womb. We’re triggered by the voice of someone who has offended us or hurt us. When I see my mom’s picture, I can still hear her voice. People keep voicemail recordings of dear friends and loved ones long after they’ve died so they can continue to listen to their voices.
The Voice took on flesh and became human and chose to live alongside us. That sounds so much more exciting to me… dynamic… Again in their words: it reflects the robust and powerful activity of a living God… inviting, compelling, calling, demanding a response… a turning toward…
Early Saturday morning, I woke to the bright moonlight shining into the bedroom. It cast a gentle glow over the room and over the whole yard. It was 4am and darkness covered the face of the earth, yet on it, light shined. And the light called to me.
I got up, put on my shoes and walked out into it. Walking along the paths bathed in the soft cool light of the full moon, I remembered the study we did here a few years ago on the book by Barbara Brown Taylor: Learning to Walk in the Dark. And I thought about our current book study We Make the Road By Walking.
And I thought: sometimes we make the road by learning to walk in the dark.
Last Wednesday was the eighteenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Shortly after 9am, I was in my car and the radio was live-streaming the memorial events from Ground Zero and we entered a moment of silence to remember.
What do you remember? I remember crying on the phone with my best friend as together we watched the horror unfold. I remember the sounds and the silence. The next day I had a class at seminary. The professor set aside the lesson plan and for the next 3 hours we processed slowly and patiently… with a lot of sighs and tears and silence. At some point he gave us an organizing question: What have we lost? he asked. illusions, we said… the illusion of security… the illusion that nothing like this could happen here…
We were vulnerable. We were just as vulnerable on September 10th, and we didn’t know it.
At Duke University Chapel on September 16th, the following Sunday, Methodist pastor Will Willimon delivered a sermon on our text for today from John 1 entitled: God said, Light! In it, he said: Maybe our feelings of vulnerability and fragility are the closest we’ve come to rationality in a long time. Maybe we are really more exposed than we thought. Maybe it was madness to assume that we are in charge, that the war with Iraq ended threat of war, that in arming the Afghan rebels against the Soviets, they would never turn their guns toward us, that decades of injustice and poverty, of escalating violence could be kept over there and never here. A cloud covered the sun on that once perfect Manhattan September day.
What did the Voice in that darkness invite us to hear… to see… to feel… to learn? And how, as children of God, were we to respond?
In Learning to Walk in the Dark, Taylor writes: God puts out our lights to keep us safe… because we are never more in danger of stumbling than when we think we know where we are going. When we can no longer see the path we are on, when we can no longer read the maps we have brought with us or sense anything in the dark that might tell us where we are, then…we are vulnerable to God’s protection.
There are no easy answers in the dark… no clear paths out. Confidence wavers, faith shakes, truth is inconvenient, reality is painful, the ground beneath our feet opens up and nearly swallows us whole. What then? How do we walk a road we cannot see?
Trappist monk Thomas Merton writes:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think
I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me
by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore I will trust you always
though I may seem to be lost in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you were ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
In life and in death, Willimon preached, in life beyond death, there is only one word, At the end it’s the same word as at the beginning, that by God, the light shineth in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.
Or in the Voice translation: A light that thrives in the depths of darkness, blazes through murky bottoms. It cannot and will not be quenched.
The powers of darkness that hunted down Jesus at every turn didn’t understand his light… didn’t accept his light… did everything they could to snuff out his light and his life. They tortured him and hung him on a cross to silence his voice forever. And from that cross, he spoke: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
Into the darkest afternoon, the voice spoke forgiveness. You’d think all things considered, he might speak vengeance or violence… call on his followers to retaliate. That’s what we’d expect if their darkness had overtaken his light, and it did not. God unseen until now is revealed in the Voice, God’s only Son, straight from the Father’s heart.
Throughout his life and in his death he spoke the perfect balance of grace and truth… he spoke love and light, freedom and peace… he spoke justice and mercy and dignity and life…
The Voice took on flesh and became human, walking alongside us to preach the heart of God with his life. And he fills all who receive him, who trust him, who respond to his call, with the same voice.
A friend shared with me this quote by author and social justice activist L.R.Knost:
Do not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world. All things break. And all things can be mended. Not with time, as they say, but with intention. So go. love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally. The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you.
The opening letter From the President of the publishing house of the Voice translation of the Bible to the reader says:
We believe that as you read you will be able to experience God taking the broken pieces of your life and making you whole; your anger and resentment will be replaced with hope and grace; you will imagine a whole new way to live as a participant in God’s redemptive work in this world. I invite you to listen to the Voice with an open heart. You will hear God as He whispers His love to you.
May it be so for you and for me as we embark on this discipleship journey together.
Scripture: Genesis 2:4-25
It’s day number one of your new job.
Your employer walks you around the whole place and gives you the keys.
“Everything is in working order. It’s beautiful and alive and good and it’s been waiting just for you. Your job is to take care of it… all of it,” says your employer, “I’m entrusting it all into your hands.” This is not just any employer.
These hands? All of it? You trust me with all of it? Yes, well… you and a partner. It’s not good for you to be alone.
It’s not tov, in Hebrew: useful, purposeful, appropriate, beneficial, fair, honorable, sustainable. It is not good for you and it is not good for the whole. It is good to work alongside a partner: a suitable partner… one like you yet different… a mirror image yet opposite… complementary.
Years ago Andy and I did the Myers Briggs personality test. It’s a system that categorizes how individuals view the world and make decisions based on answers to a series of questions.
This will not be surprising: Andy and I are exact opposites. We don’t match in any of the four categories. He’s an introvert, I’m an extravert. He likes to analyze data, I go more with my gut. He’s a thinker, I’m a feeler. He works off a plan and todo lists and I prefer to move into the day organically.
When we are at our best, we are a whole person. We support each other… coax out the best in each other. Together, we bring a little of everything to the table: organization, creativity, big picture and important details. We’ll think of things the other would never think of, help each other turn around a complex problem with deeper ingenuity, explore alternative forms of empathy. That’s when we are at our best.
AND it’s always challenging because we see and understand differently, we communicate thoughts and ideas differently, and we process and prioritize differently. We laugh because it takes Andy a long time to make a big decision and small decisions he makes quickly, but I can go buy a house in one day because it feels right yet I’ll agonize forever over back splash tiles.
I believe there was divine wisdom in bringing us together even though at times we drive each other crazy.
In 1904 Mark Twain imagined Adam and Eve working together in the garden at the beginning of the world and he wrote a fictional account of their diaries.
It tapers like a carrot. I think it is a man.
I had never seen a man, but it looked like one, and I feel sure that that is what it is.
I was afraid of it at first, for I thought it was going to chase me, but by and by I found it was only trying to get away, so I tracked it along, several hours, which made it nervous and unhappy. At last it was a good deal worried, and climbed a tree. I waited a while, then gave up and went home.
All the week I tagged around after him and tried to get acquainted. I had to do the talking, because he was shy, but I didn’t mind it. He seemed pleased to have me around, and I used the sociable “we” a good deal, because it seemed to flatter him to be included.
I wish it would not talk. It is always talking. And this new sound is so close to me. It is right at my shoulder, right at my ear, first on one side and then on the other. My life is not as happy as it was.
We are getting along very well indeed now, and getting better and better acquainted. He does not try to avoid me any more, which is a good sign. During the last day or two I have taken all the work of naming things off his hands, and this has been a great relief to him, for he has not gift in that line, and is evidently very grateful.
She fell in the pond yesterday when she was looking at herself in it, which she is always doing. She nearly strangled, which made her feel sorry for the creatures which live there, which she calls “fish”. She continues to fasten names on to things which don’t need them, and don’t come when they are called by them. Anyway, she got a lot of them out and brought them in last night, and put them in my bed to keep warm, but I have noticed them now and then all day and I don’t see that they are any happier than they were before, only quieter. When night comes I shall put them outdoors. I will not sleep with them again, for I find them clammy and unpleasant to lie among.
He talks very little. Perhaps it is because he is not bright and is sensitive about it and wishes to conceal it. It is such a pity that he should feel so, for brightness is nothing; it is in the heart that the values lie. I wish I could make him understand that a loving good heart is riches enough, and that without it intellect is poverty.
She is all interest, eagerness, vivacity, the world is to her a charm, a wonder, a mystery, a joy; she can’t speak for delight when she finds a new flower, she must pet it and caress it and smell it and talk to it, and pour out endearing names upon it. And she is color-mad: brown rocks, yellow sand, gray moss, green foliage, blue sky; the pearl of the dawn, the purple shadows on the mountains, the golden islands floating in crimson seas at sunset, the pallid moon sailing through the shredded cloud-rack, the star-jewels glittering in the wastes of space — none of them is of any practical value, so far as I can see, but because they have color and majesty, that is enough for her.
Try to imagine Adam without Eve, alone in the garden, or Eve without Adam for that matter. God in infinite wisdom knew that care of the world would need a full complement of gifts and passions.
What would complete creation care be without practicality? without adoration? without efficiency? without imagination? without empathy? without wonder, humility, patience, creativity? What would it be without biologists and artists? teachers and mathematicians? gardeners and poets and engineers and investors? Incomplete. Not good. Not tov.
It takes all kinds of hands, minds and hearts working together to nurture and heal the world for the sake of the world and all of us who live in it.
I’m entrusting all of this to your hands, says your employer, Care for it all… tend it and guard it… serve it and preserve it… Together… as a team… Each in your own way, honoring each other as full partners.
These hands? Our hands? All of this entrusted to us? What a dream! What a hope! What a vision! What love, what grace the employer has.
Everything is beautiful and alive and good… And what’s that? A door with a sign on it that says: “Executive Management only.”
Your employer sees you looking at that door and says: “What’s behind that door is on a need to know basis – and you don’t need to know. In fact, it will hurt to know. Don’t open that door.”
What more is there to know? you wonder. This is paradise. What could possibly hurt Wouldn’t more knowledge help me do my job better? Why can’t I be the judge of what is and isn’t good for me to know? And it begins.
September 1 – guest preacher
Scripture: John 5:1-18
We end our Summer Sunday Sermon Series on Sabbath today with a final story from the gospels — this time the gospel of John.
It’s the Sabbath day and we’re poolside and I have scripts in hand – looking for ready and willing readers: Jesus, a sick and later well man, 2 Jewish leaders. Today’s story comes from the Message translation.
Everybody else – you’re watching the scene unfold:
- you’re someone else lying by the side of the pool, or
- you’re somebody’s friend waiting for the water to move so you can grab hold of your friend and rush to the front of the line because the first one in gets healed, or so they say… or
- you’re a religious leader keeping the peace, or
- you’re a merchant selling towels or bedrolls… or
- you’re a random pilgrim on your way to the Temple … Let’s listen to the story unfold:
John 5:1-18 (The Message)
Where do you think you’re going? You can’t carry that, it’s the Sabbath, says a guy whose job it is to make sure nobody does what this man is doing. And to be fair, it really is his job. And it’s Jerusalem. And it’s during a festival so there’s a lot more people.
It really was against first-century Jewish Sabbath law to carry a bundle of something around in a public place. These days in Jerusalem you’d have to take it through a metal detector before you could carry it around, but back then it wasn’t about security.
The carry law was hundreds of years old, dating at least back to the prophet Jeremiah: “Thus says the LORD: Go and stand in all the gates of Jerusalem and say to them – For the sake of your lives, take care that you do not bear a burden on the Sabbath day or bring it in by the gates of Jerusalem. And do not carry a burden out of your houses on the Sabbath or do any work, but keep the Sabbath day holy.”
The consequences were stiff: if they carried burdens on the Sabbath day within the gates of city, God would kindle a fire in the gates… a fire that would not be quenched until all was destroyed.
Over the centuries this law was intensely debated: what kind of burden or bundle can you NOT carry? does size matter – can I carry a tiny burden – like the size of a clutch purse? does it only refer to those things carried into Jerusalem, or carried out too? If you don’t carry it into Jerusalem, can you pick it up inside the gates and leave it inside, going out empty handed? Is it only in Jerusalem? or does it apply to carrying burdens everywhere?
From the beginning, the carry law was about taking a forced rest from the market economy – hearkening back to the days of slavery in Egypt when Pharaoh demanded constant back-breaking labor… brick production 7 days a week, leaving no time for worship, no time for family, no time for rest.
Put down the straw and the clay, the wood and the bricks… put down the briefcase, the cell phone, the computer… put down the tools required by your taskmaster for one day a week and practice freedom.
As is often the case with laws, it became ever more expansive until by the time of Jesus, publically carrying anything for any purpose on the Sabbath was forbidden.
The man didn’t know that. What do people like him, lying at the side of the pool for most of their lives know about religious laws? That system has nothing to do with people like him.
Jesus, on the other hand, knows the law. He’s an instigator. Take your bedroll and start walking, he tells the man, and then he slips into the crowd. And he watches as the man stands, picks up his bed and walks.
For the first time in 38 years, this man IS ABLE to carry something. On his own two feet, this man IS ABLE to walk away from the pool… away from the past and into the future… to walk toward wholeness… to walk into new life…
And this will require work on his part… hard work… holy work… not work defined or controlled or demanded by someone else…it’s his work to do: to stand up and carry his own mat and walk from an old way into a new way of seeing and being in the world… it’s liberating work.
I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, you shall have no other gods before me – is the first of the ten commandments.
Freedom is the first and organizing principle for God’s people. And in his inaugural sermon, Jesus proclaimed it would be his work and his mission. He read from the prophet Isaiah: 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… Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing, he said.
Jesus embodies Sabbath when Jesus sets people free.
What we all want is pretty simple, really, writes Brian McLaren in the introduction of his book “We Make the Road by Walking.” We want to be alive. To feel alive. Not just to exist but to thrive, to live out loud, walk tall, breathe free. We want to be less lonely, less exhausted, less conflicted or afraid… more awake, more grateful, more energized and purposeful. We capture this kind of mindful, overbrimming life in terms like well-being, shalom, blessedness, wholeness, harmony, life to the full, and aliveness.
How do we get there? By picking up our mats and walking.
Faith was never intended to be a destination, writes McLaren. Instead, it was to be a road, a path, a way out of old and destructive patterns into new and creative ones. It is to be a living way… a learning way… a growing way…
Pick up your mat and walk, Jesus said. You are free to live a God-filled, God-empowered life. And we can be sure it won’t take long for us, like this man, to walk right into a challenge: what do you think you’re doing? we don’t do it like that… we don’t think like that… we don’t talk like that… we don’t live like that here. Who told you you could do that?
It won’t take long to walk right into a challenge, says me, a person of relative privilege. What do I know of the man or the hundreds like him who laid at the poolside waiting… waiting for so long, is there any hope left? What do I know of the desperation and utter dependence on another’s mercy for survival?
His is not the life I know. I’m more like the pilgrim on the way to the Temple, walking past this scene, along with thousands of other people, living within a system that by its design allows this kind of indignity to exist and expects it to be managed so nobody gets hurt. Mine is a slavery of another kind… a blindness… an ignorance… a privilege.
When Jesus meets the man again, he’s in the Temple. He’s no longer rubbing shoulders outside with the weak, fragile, powerless company of his past, now he’s on the inside. You look wonderful, Jesus said, you’re well, he says. And then he warns him: Don’t return to a sinning life. What could that mean?
Now that you’re well, what will you do with your wellness? What will you do with your relative privilege?
How will you engage your religious leaders, the ones in charge of your Temple access, the ones you’ve finally been allowed to meet?
How will you remember those you laid beside for 38 years—who still languish by the pool? Will you advocate for their freedom?
How will you teach the pilgrims alongside you now, here in the Temple, the people who never meant you harm yet never questioned the inherent brokenness of a system in which day after day you were dying and day after day they were living – yet far from well?
What will you do with you wellness? Don’t return to a sinning life… stay awake and alive to the God of freedom.
The end of the story reveals the choice this man made.
He went directly to the very people who challenged his freedom. Trading one kind of slavery for another, he curried the favor of the Jewish leadership and ratted on Jesus. And that kindled the fire that would not be quenched until the whole thing was destroyed. It’s a cautionary tale.
My Father is working straight through the Sabbath and so am I, Jesus said; working for freedom, working for justice, working for wholeness and mercy for all… working to wake people up and bring them to life… to reveal and up-end and restore… to embody life as it was intended to be lived.
The session recently approved a motion for this church to join the PC(USA) initiative known as Matthew 25: I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothing. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me…
It’s a mission initiative focused on three areas: congregational vitality, dismantling structural racism and eradicating systemic poverty. No light tasks.
It’s a call to wake up and engage in a hands-on activated faith. It’s a call to awareness for everyone in the poolside scene: to see what’s happening and to explore why… to ask the deeper questions and walk into deeper water trusting that the Spirit of the living God is stirring it up that all may be healed.
It’s Holy work. It’s Sabbath work. It’s freedom work. It’s collaborative work.
We’re joining several churches in our presbytery and hundreds across the country. We’re sharing resources and congregational stories.
Four of the Matthew 25 churches in our presbytery are also beginning “We Make the Road By Walking” this week.
Growing numbers of us believe we are in the early stages of a new moment of emergence, pulsing with danger and promise, Brian McLaren writes. He calls it a catalytic period. In it, he says, all our spiritual traditions will be challenged and all will change: some negatively and reactively, tightening like angry fists, and others positively and constructively, opening like extended arms.
Do you want to get well? Jesus asks. Get up. Pick up your burden and start walking. In the courage and in the strength… in the humility and in the mercy… in the love and in the hope and in the light of God’s way, may it be so.
Scripture: Luke 13:10-17
We continue our Summer Sunday Sermon Series on Sabbath today with another story from the gospels — this time the gospel of Luke. Like last week’s story, this one also takes place on the Sabbath day in the synagogue.
Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, the fourth commandment says, and the Deuteronomy text goes on to say: Remember you were slaves in Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out.
As we’re looking at these gospel stories, we’re paying attention to the ways Jesus remembered the Sabbath, the ways he kept it holy, and the connections he made between Sabbath and freedom. I invite you to turn to the thirteenth chapter of the gospel of Luke in your pew Bibles. Today, we all will read the lines of Jesus found in verses 12 and 15-16.
Luke 13:10-17 New International Version (NIV)
10 On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, 11 and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” 13 Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.
14 Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.”
15 The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? 16 Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”
17 When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing.
It was the Sabbath day and like so many other Sabbath days, I made my way to the synagogue. It was a struggle to get there. It was a struggle for me to get anywhere. You see, my body was badly broken. My back and shoulders were horribly disfigured – I was folded in half… bent at almost a 90 degree angle.
I looked as if I were carrying a large, heavy pot on the flat of my back, and every moment of every day I felt like it too, but there was no physical burden upon my back.
It hurt to move… all the time… and there was nothing anybody could do about it. I had lived with this pain for so long, I didn’t remember a day when it wasn’t with me.
I don’t know what caused it…
I don’t know why I had it…
I was sure I must have done something to deserve it… but I didn’t know what… long ago, I stopped trying to figure it out… but the guilt never goes away…
On that Sabbath day, like most Sabbath days, I had shuffled my way to the synagogue. The synagogue had always been for me a special place… a holy space.
I didn’t go to hear the teaching. Years ago I stopped listening to what they were saying.
Their words didn’t speak to me…
The teachers didn’t know or care about my pain…
Their lessons didn’t answer my questions…
They didn’t offer me any truth I didn’t already know… and the truth I knew was that I would never be of value to anyone – I was wrecked and useless, broken and abandoned… So, no – I didn’t go to the synagogue to hear the teaching.
I went because it was my hiding place… the one place in the world I most longed to be – the house of the Lord.
There I could be concealed in the cover of the Lord.
There I could find shelter.
No one ever noticed me there – and that was a good thing – because for me to be noticed always meant shame. I was, after all, damaged… scary to children and pitiful to adults… the synagogue was my hiding place.
On the Sabbath I could find security in the shelter of the Lord… and no one would notice.
Except that day. There was a new teacher. His voice was different. I assumed he had the same kind of message so I wasn’t listening… until… the most amazing thing happened.
It was the shifting of feet that I noticed first.
Feet were my world. Being bent as I was, feet were all I could ever see. In fact, I learned a lot through watching feet – particularly patterns of steps.
Watching how quickly feet turned and walked away from me, for example, taught me how no one wanted to be near me. Watching little feet tentatively approach me, only to be yanked away by big feet taught me how parents didn’t want their children staring or frightened or worse yet, infected by whatever it was I had.
And the feet were always accompanied by voices:
“Honey, don’t stare.”
“Stay away from her, honey, don’t touch her.”
“Leave that poor woman alone.”
Yes, I had learned a lot from feet, and for that matter from voices too – a lot about people and a lot about myself.
But at that moment on that day, I saw a pattern of steps I had never seen before. The feet of the crowd parted making a path in front of me. It was then that I realized the teacher was no longer teaching…he was calling to me… with a voice that beckoned me to him.
I had not only been noticed by him, but I was being singled out… called out of my shelter in the shadows… summoned to join him in the center. What could I do?
Although I couldn’t see them, I knew all eyes were fixed on me… including his.
Well, he was, after all, the teacher, so I made my way… painfully and slowly I hobbled uncertainly toward him. As soon as his feet came into my view, I saw them move toward me… purposefully and confidently… until he stood before me.
“Woman, you are set free,” he said to me, and as he said it, he laid his hands on me… no – really, he took hold of me – but gently and compassionately – as if he would never let me go… and he raised me up.
His face was the first thing I saw… his face… forever will I seek and long for his face –it was an amazing face… and his eyes…. When I looked into his eyes I saw truth – not the truth I thought I knew… but real truth – that I was someone… someone loved and valued… someone who deserved to be in the center, not abandoned and left alone on the fringes.
Praise God – now my head is lifted!
And just as I began to breathe in the awesome beauty of all of the faces in the room – faces I’d never seen… just as my heart filled with wonder and joy, the leader of the synagogue spoke: You shouldn’t have come on the Sabbath to be healed, he said, it is against the law.
His voice sucked the air out of the room. Instantly, I felt the weight return to my back. I felt dirty and wrong and put back into my place… I hadn’t seen truth in the teacher’s eyes after all… it had all been an illusion… my body, my heart and my spirit began to slump again. I slowly began to shrink back into the shadows.
And the teacher reached out and gently took hold of me again and he confronted that voice with his own – and again I saw his eyes and I heard his words… his soul-healing truth: I deserved to be free from my bondage… the weight I carried… all that crippled me.
In front of all of those people gathered – including the synagogue leader – he said I had not brought this upon myself… it was the presence of evil in the world that bound me. Even as he said it, I felt that incredible weight of guilt lift from my shoulders… The shame I carried for all those years shifted from my back to my accusers… my adversaries… I was no longer bound by their will and their words.
In calling me out of my shadows, he proclaimed to me and everyone there that I deserved to be in the center of this religious community because I too am a daughter of Abraham… and everyone there knew it was true.
I was free and together with the crowd of people gathered we praised God – singing and dancing… laughing and crying tears of joy. For the first time, I understood Sabbath was not about escape… it was about freedom… it was about belonging… it was about life.
Over the next several days I savored the amazing sights around me. It was thrilling to feel the breeze on my face. I spent hours watching the clouds pass by in the sky. And I loved finally seeing the beautiful faces of people. … But the face I longed most to see again was his.
It didn’t take long for me to find him. He had quite a crowd following him. As I caught up with them, I was surprised to sense the change in the mood. When we were last together we were dancing and rejoicing and praising God.
Now the crowd seemed more on edge… anxious… tense. I asked what was going on and people talked about being afraid for him… the teacher was determined, they said to go to Jerusalem… to the heart of oppressive power.
Desperate to see him again… to look upon his face… to see myself in his eyes… I made my way to the front and as I did, I heard some of the religious leaders talking to him. They told him to turn back – not to go to Jerusalem. Herod wanted to kill him, they said.
What he said next made me drop to my knees – not because I was ill again – but because I was well… He told them he would not turn back. He said he would keep casting out demons and loving people well until his work was finished and all the while he would walk toward Jerusalem, the city where prophets are killed.
And I thought to myself: Who is this man, who would risk his life to give life to people like me? Who is this man who would stand up to Herod so that people like me, bent by the burdens of institutional power could stand up? Who is this man?
Who is this man willing to die for me?
Then I stood with courage and I set my feet with resolve. This man I would follow for this is love. His teaching is bold and true. This teacher helped me to stand and he’s teaching me to live. In this man there is no fear… no reason to hide…
O teach me your way! Teach me to have eyes like yours and a touch like yours! Teach me to have a heart like yours and a face like yours! And teach me to have a voice like yours that reminds people who they really are…
I believe I have seen the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living! Thanks be to God – I’ve seen it… and everyone deserves to see it. I know it… and I want to spend my life making it known to others.
As one called out from isolation, and restored to community, I will fight for the dignity of all people that they too would be loved and welcomed and able to hear the truth that they too belong. Today is the Sabbath day. And I am free.
Scripture: Mark 1:21-28
Today begins a three week Summer Sunday Sermon Series on Sabbath. We’ll look at three stories from the gospels. They all take place on the Sabbath day, the day God rested after creating the world, the day God called holy.
Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, the fourth commandment says, Remember you were slaves in Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out.
How did Jesus remember the Sabbath?
How did he keep it holy?
In what ways does he advocate for and celebrate freedom on the Sabbath? And what importance does this have for us today? Please pray with me.
May your Word come alive in our hearing today we pray. Open our hearts, transform our minds, free our spirits, and shelter us in your grace, we pray, to you whose name is above all names: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, AMEN.
Our story this morning comes from the gospel of Mark. It’s the debut of the public ministry of Jesus. I invite you to turn to the first chapter of the gospel of Mark in your pew Bibles. Today, we all have a line in the reading. When we get to verse 24, we’ll read the words of the man with an impure spirit.
Mark 1:21-28 New International Version (NIV)
21 They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. 22 The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.23 Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an evil spirit cried out, 24 “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”
25 “Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” 26 The evil spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.
27 The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to evil spirits and they obey him.” 28 News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.
This is the Word of the LORD, thanks be to God.
The scene unfolds in the synagogue – a sacred place like this place, on the Sabbath – a sacred day like today. People went there, like we come here – to pray, to worship, to learn about God, and to celebrate life together. It was, as it is here a kind of community center for religious life.
But the synagogue was a gated community. And the gate was the Law. And the teachers or interpreters of the Law, the scribes, were also the enforcers of the Law and therefore, the guardians of the gate. Those who were deemed to be tahor, “pure”, were welcomed into the sanctuary. Those who were tamei, “impure”, were not.
The idea was to keep out things that were frightening or contagious or mysterious; and to ensure safety and orderliness and holiness.
On that Sabbath day, in the synagogue in Capernaum, the gathered faithful had a guest preacher…. And it turns out they had another guest too… one of the “impure”. How did he get in? Who knows. How long had he been there? Who knows.
I imagine him lingering in the shadows listening to Jesus … wondering if this teacher really meant what he said about the good news of the kingdom of God… but it couldn’t be for him, could it?
Then those other voices within him start talking like they always do: Look at all these good people around you… You don’t have a place here. Who are you kidding? They don’t want you here. One bad apple spoils the whole bunch, baby and you are that bad apple. Stop believing this could ever be your home… not for people like you… That rabbi’s no different than any of the others… rules are rules and laws are laws and you’ll never make the grade… Look at you, you’re a mess… you’re not like these people…
Louder and louder the inner voices rage… what does he know about you? why would he care about you? and the longing and the frustration and the hopelessness and the yearning… they’re locked in a battle for his soul until he can’t contain himself any longer. He cries out – demanding the truth: “What about us, Jesus? What are you going to do with us, Jesus?” And every eye turns on that man and there’s a collective gasp.
And Jesus? Jesus is so glad that man asked those questions aloud because now the real ministry can begin. Now the Sabbath becomes real and honest and holy.
What about you, Jesus, what about you, Holy One of God? What are you going to do with us? Have you come to destroy us?
Who’s the “us”? Who is tahor (pure) and who is tamei (impure) really?
What do you think Jesus sees when he surveys the crowd? He sees right through the dress up clothes and the makeup, past the masks and facades, straight into the hearts of everyone there.
Jesus knows that this one man is, in reality speaking for every person there… that they all… that we all suffer from soul-sickness… all of our hearts contend with malevolent powers and principalities enslaving and entangling them: bitterness and greed, hatred and fear, distrust, jealousy, rage, self-righteousness, self-loathing, apathy, helplessness, hopelessness, incompetence, despair… these are the impure… the unclean… the tamei spirits at work within us fighting to shape the way we see others and we see ourselves.
What about us, Jesus, have you come to destroy us?
The man has asked the ultimate cosmic question. Have you come to destroy us? Here’s how Jesus answers: on that Sabbath day, he does this amazing thing… a truly awe-inspiring thing… a totally unexpected thing: he doesn’t cast out the man like all the other religious gatekeepers do; he keeps the man and throws out the spirits.
Jesus has not come to destroy us, but rather to destroy everything that makes our souls sick. Because he loves us so profoundly, he has come to lay before us the way, the truth and the life… abundant life. And every spirit that gets in the way of that purpose has to be called out… exposed… and brought into the light so we can see it, name it, confess it and destroy its hold on our lives.
I read an interesting opinion article about soul-sickness in the USA Today last week. It was about the El Paso shooting. Specifically, it was about whether or not the manifesto the killer posted online nineteen minutes before he opened fire at the Walmart should be published.
Those opposed to putting it out there argue that it gives a huge platform to people who by their violent actions, should forfeit the right to have their voices heard. They fear publishing would motivate copy cats. And with the ability to share and multiply content on the internet, it would become yet another tool for radicalization.
In other words, the fear is that it’s contagious. And talking about it makes it spread.
The author, James Robbins, argues that by airing the last words of an extremist killer, we learn. He’s not for awarding fame or even highlighting the names of shooters.
He points out that if you keep manifestos out of the light, they will still appear in the shadows – they’ll still circulate through the dark web – maybe with an even more sinister appeal.
Most of all, Robbins believes by bringing the words into the light, we will no longer be able to paint these events with a broad brush. By exposing the root causes, we’ll reveal the nuances. Soul sickness doesn’t fit neatly in black/white or left/right or us/them language.
Extremists, as we learned from the 19-year old Orthodox Presbyterian shooter of the California synagogue last April, do not hail from any one particular religious group. They’re not of only one socio-economic class. They aren’t all of the same political party.
Robbins’ point is: whether in the works of neo-Nazis, leftist revolutionaries or religious radicals, you can find hostility to corporations and international finance, (you can find) anti-technology attitudes, radical environmentalism, anti-Semitism, hatred of democracy and xenophobia.
All these groups have Utopian plans to solve the world’s problems, and all preach violence as the best means of getting there.
That’s soul-sickness. That’s a host of impure spirits in the form of conspiracy theories and apocalyptic fever and calls for immediate and radical action, picked up by zealots who believe it is their job to purify the world – according to their definition of purity.
One such zealot posted the words Every Shabbat — every Sabbath — on the online forum where the El Paso shooter’s manifesto was posted — expressing his hope that there would be a mass shooting every week.
Jesus did not come to destroy even those people. He came to destroy the impure spirits enslaving their hearts and the hearts of all God’s children that all would be well… that all would be free… that all would have abundant life.
Do we need smart and comprehensive policy change? Absolutely. Soul-sickness and heavy artillery are not a wholesome combination. Do we need mental health reform to improve access, diagnosis and treatment? Absolutely. And we need the church of Jesus Christ to be the church of Jesus Christ.
How many people do you imagine stay far away from the Church because they believe we’re a gated community – that we would deem them “unclean” … stigmatize them… judge them?
Don’t they know we’re all unclean? Or maybe they know – but they think we don’t know… maybe we need to be reminded: not one of us is pure, yet we are holy.
Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, the fourth commandment says, Remember you were slaves in Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out.
We come together to this sacred place on this sacred day, week after week to remember: we don’t live in slavery anymore. We don’t live in bondage to the impure spirits who seek to control our hearts and our lives. We’re created for abundant life. We’re free to grow up and grow into God’s holy way of honesty and confession, of dignity and compassion, of humility and wholeness.
We belong here… by God’s grace, we’re at home, here. Here, nurtured by the love of community, we gain the courage to call out those impure spirits, wreaking havoc on our hearts, for as Christ taught us and showed us, they have no real power over us.
And we remind each other, week after week on the Sabbath day: what gives us hope… what gives us strength… what gives us purpose and healing is God’s love, God’s forgiveness and the ability to be made new day after day into the image of Jesus. That is holy indeed.
Do you think people are looking for, hungry for that kind of church? that kind of community? that kind of life? D.T. Niles once said “Evangelism is just one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.” May it be so for you and for me and for us as church.
Scripture: Proverbs 24: 3-6, 13-14; Matthew 7:24-27 (The Message)
When we think of the patriarchs and matriarchs… the big names of our faith ancestry… there’s Abraham and Sarah… Moses and Jacob and Noah and Joshua… and of course Bezalel. Who could forget Bezalel? Who was he?
After today’s sermon, when you meet a man wearing the nametag “Bezalel” at your welcoming party in heaven, you will be able to say: “I know you! You are the guy who built the tabernacle!”
All those long years that the Hebrew people wandered in the wilderness, God lived in the center of their camp inside an ark, behind a wall, under a tent… a tabernacle… a portable sanctuary. He was Bezalel the Builder.
He wasn’t just any tentmaker. He was an artist. He was a true master-craftsman. He was gifted by God. On the top of Mt. Sinai, God told Moses:
I have called by name Bezalel. I have filled him with the Spirit of God giving him skill and know-how and expertise in every kind of craft to create designs and work in gold, silver, and bronze; to cut and set gemstones; to carve wood—he’s an all-around craftsman.
You might say, he was a “Bezalel of all trades.”
According to the Talmud, an ancient collection of Jewish writings: God told Moses, Go and tell Bezalel to make for Me a (portable sanctuary), with an ark and other furniture. Moses had a lot of things to remember, and when he went down the mountain and gave the instructions, he reversed the order and said to Betzalel, Make an ark, furniture and a sanctuary.
To which Bezalel replied, Our teacher Moses! The usual practice is to build a house and then bring in the furniture. You are telling me to make an ark, furniture, and [then] a house—where will I be placing the furniture that I will be building?
Were you standing in the shadow of the Almighty when he gave me my instructions? Moses asked. Because you’re exactly right!
Then there’s this story about the golden tabernacle lampstand, also from the Talmud:
God told Moses, “Make a menorah of pure gold,” “How?” Moses asked. And he was told that it should be hammered out of a solid block. Moses came down from the mountain with the instructions, but he really didn’t understand how to make it. So he went back up and said, “My master, how (again) should it be made?” to which God replied, “It should be hammered out of a solid block.” Again Moses found it difficult to comprehend, and when he came down from the mountain he forgot what to do.
He went back up yet again and said, “My master! I have forgotten it.” God showed him the process, and still he didn’t get it.
Then God said, “Watch and do exactly as I do,” and God took a menorah of fire and showed Moses how to make it. And still Moses couldn’t understand. So, God said: “Go to Bezalel; he can make it.”
When Moses asked Bezalel to make it, he did it immediately and perfectly to the finest detail. That’s the kind of craftsman he was. And Moses was astonished: “God showed it to me several times, and I couldn’t get it. You never saw it, yet you made it on your own. You must have been in the shadow of the Almighty when he showed me. Bezalel… his name literally means in the shadow of God.
When Moses gathered the Israelites together he presented Bezalel and he said to them: See the LORD has filled him with wisdom and understanding and knowledge… and he has inspired him to teach.
It takes wisdom to build a house,
and understanding to set it on a firm foundation;
It takes knowledge to furnish its rooms
with fine furniture and beautiful draperies.
It took wisdom and understanding and knowledge to build God’s portable house in the wilderness and the Spirit of God filled Bezalel with all three. It takes wisdom and understanding and knowledge to build our houses well too – whether houses of worship, personal households, or the house that is our personal soul, where God dwells within.
Wisdom, understanding and knowledge; a holy trio. Together they are like a 3-ply cord or a 3-legged stool. They each mean different things to the ancient Hebrews; all equally important to the whole. And like that first story from the Talmud, the order matters.
Listen to Proverbs chapter 3:
The LORD by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens; by his knowledge the deeps broke open and the clouds drop down the dew.
This time, the house that’s being built is the earth.
Wisdom is that which gets everything started… the concept… the blueprint… the big idea… the organizing energy. The LORD by wisdom founded the earth…
Proverbs 8 describes wisdom not as a what but as a who—Lady Wisdom: The LORD created me at the beginning of his work… I was set up before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths… no springs… before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills… fields… soil… when he made firm the skies above… when he marked the foundations of the earth… I was beside him… She was God’s muse… creative spark… lively imagination… the dream of God: That’s Wisdom.
What about understanding? By understanding he established the heavens… Understanding is the principle by which the house being built is made durable. It’s the process of discerning the optimal structure for stability… for sustainability… for endurance.
By understanding, on the second day of creation, according to Genesis 1, The LORD said: Let there be a firmament. Firmament, from firmus: strong, steadfast, secure. Let there be a physical, permanent structure, a dome in the sky to provide a stronghold against the waters above.
And knowledge? By his knowledge the deeps broke open and the clouds dropped down the dew. Knowledge is the practical application… applying the fixtures to make it work.
The ancients believed the LORD set physical gates inside the dome; gates that opened and closed on the LORD’s command to let the water flow over the earth below – flood-gates they called them. Similarly, they believed, the LORD set a track inside the dome on which the sun would travel – racing across the heavens from one end to the other every day, day after day.
We enlightened people know there’s not a physical dome in the sky or a track for the sun or flood-gates that open and close when it rains. And that doesn’t mean we understand or know more than they did.
Biblically speaking, understanding is a process of discernment toward sustainability… durability…building the house to last. It requires us to listen to the God-soaked world around us and learn from it… shepherd it and nurture it… cooperate with it… toward an enduring future.
And biblically speaking, knowledge is practical application. It’s cultivating the ability to use all the tools available to tend to the details of making the house a thriving home for all.
Wisdom… understanding… knowledge:
Concept… structure… details;
blueprint… foundation… furniture;
big idea… sustainable framework… practical applications…
Tending to all three is theologically and practically how a house is built well: whether the house is the earth or a portable sanctuary in the wilderness… or a church like this one… or a household like yours or mine… or an individual life, lived in the shadow of God.
Of the future Messiah, the prophet Isaiah wrote: The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
Jesus is a living portable sanctuary of God.
It takes wisdom to build the house; the wisdom of the incarnation. That’s the big idea, the dream of God: bring the Word to life. The gospel of John spells it out: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
It takes understanding to set it on a firm foundation… What structures does Jesus put in place to make his house strong… courageous… able to stand in the face of challenge and hardship? He’s constantly plugged into the source. Through prayer and study and practicing his faith, he remains grounded in who and whose he is.
It takes knowledge to furnish the rooms… How does Jesus practically apply his faith? How does he use all the tools available to him to translate the message of the Kingdom of God? Through living out his mission… healing, feeding, teaching… welcoming the outcast, restoring sight to the blind, eating with those on the margins of society, challenging the powers of his day… He remains open to opportunities that present themselves before him to call out, lift up, send forth, stand with, turn over, make room, and struggle through, relentlessly rebuking evil and steadfastly loving all… remaining always bathed in the shadow of God.
What about us? What about now?
What about this wisdom, understanding and knowledge applies to us? All of it.
The very same counsel that stood alongside God in the creation of the world… the very same wisdom and understanding and knowledge that filled Betzalel… and filled Jesus… is given to us… showered upon us.
God is drenching the world around us…calling out to us from every corner… inviting us to examine our houses:
- Where and how and upon what have we built them?
- What structures and disciplines are in place to sustain us when the winds blow and the rains come?
- What are the meaningful ways we’re connected to people and community?
- How strong is our connection to the source of our life and purpose?
- How tuned in are we to God’s presence?
- What about prayer?
- What about a small group Bible study?
- What about serving others in some new way?
I was away last weekend for a bridal shower for my niece. As we pulled up to my brother-in-law and sister-in-law’s house, there was a small backhoe parked in front. Here’s the story:
They’d noticed the cracks along the base of their house and they figured they’d get around to fixing them eventually. But there was a new brick patio to put in and landscaping around it and furniture for it. There was a new paver stone walkway to build. And there was the new roof and maybe new siding. But when the roofer saw the cracks, he said: take care of that as soon as you can. You’ve got a real problem with your foundation.
They’d been focusing on the external furnishings – the new Adirondack chairs and the firepit, all the new potted plants and the birdfeeders—and they’d forgotten about the cracks. Their foundation was no longer strong and secure. Things looked great from the outside but the house was sinking.
Anytime is the right time to take stock of our houses: to come back to center- to the divine source of our life … to shore up our foundations… to discern the sustainability and durability of our practices… to explore new ways to live out the gospel and to bathe in the shadow of God.
Bezalel: In the shadow of God… called by name to become the master builder of the tabernacle. What is God calling you by name to become?
July 28 — guest preacher
Scripture: Proverbs 11:23-30 , Luke 6:32-38 (The Message)
The proverb says: The world of the generous gets larger and larger. The world of the stingy gets smaller and smaller.
Jesus says: Generosity begets generosity.
Catherine Ponder says: What you radiate outward in your thoughts, feelings, mental pictures and words you attract into your life.
The proverb says: The one who seeks good finds delight; the student of evil becomes evil.
Jesus says: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you; then grab the initiative and do it for them! Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults—unless, of course, you want the same treatment.
Michael Losier says: I attract to my life whatever I give my attention, energy and focus to, whether positive or negative.
Who is Catherine Ponder? Who is Michael Losier?
Catherine Ponder and Michael Losier are inspirational speakers and authors who teach about the Law of Attraction: the ability to attract into our lives what we focus outward in our thoughts, in our actions, and in our energy; sending out into the universe what we want manifested back into our lives.
Remember The Secret? –The movie that later became a world-wide bestselling book? Everybody talked about it for awhile – that we can affect our destiny, our status in life, our happiness, our health, our material success by focusing our mindset on gratitude, abundance, positivity.
On Oprah, the author of The Secret, Rhonda Byrne said: we attract into our lives the things we want. We create our own circumstances by the choices we make in life, she said, and the choices we make are fueled by our thoughts—which means our thoughts are the most powerful things we have here on this earth.
Thoughts send magnetic waves into the universe that attract similar vibrations, they say. What do you think?
Some people swear by it and credit their fortunes and success to it. Some quote Bible verses to justify it – like some of today’s proverbs: The desires of good people lead straight to the best…
Conversely, according to the Law of Attraction, bad outcomes are a result of bad thinking and bad choices. Admittedly, this is sometimes true – maybe often true – certainly not always true. How does the Law of Attraction apply in cases of serious illness… tragic accidents… natural disasters… when innocent children suffer needlessly… or when people are born into generational poverty or government-sponsored terrorism? For the millions born in parts of the world where there is no safe drinking water or access to life-saving medicines?
Furthermore, how does the Law of Attraction morph into a theological misunderstanding of God’s blessing and God’s cursing – a prosperity gospel, where those esteemed by society believe they’re blessed and those maligned or marginalized, forsaken or worse yet, cursed? And how does that, even today create a theologically justified passivity or maybe even refusal on the part of God’s people to interfere, even to provide help for those in need?
Lots of people swear by the Law of Attraction – that it’s changed their lives. That doesn’t make it universally applicable. Or even biblically consistent.
If you only give for what you hope to get out of it, do you think that’s charity? asked Jesus. Help and give without expecting a return.
In other words, Jesus says we don’t start with what we want out of it, we start with what we’re giving into it. The motivation isn’t about our desired outcome, or even what we think we need. It’s about how we can best reflect the character of God out into the world with our thoughts, our words and our actions.
Live out this God-created identity the way our Father lives toward us, generously and graciously, even when we’re at our worst. Our Father is kind; you be kind, says Jesus.
It’s not about attraction, it’s about reflection.
Society has other ways of thinking about reflection. I heard this quote on a podcast the other day:
I am not what I think I am,
I am not what you think I am,
I am what I think you think I am.
It’s a quote from a sociologist named Charles Cooley from the early 1900’s. It means we modify our behaviors based on how we perceive others are perceiving us. We reflect what we believe others want us to be.
It starts early in childhood. We learn things go better when we do what our parents or our teachers want us to do. Our time on the playground is safer, more peaceful when we find ways to fit in with the crowd. We develop what Cooley called the looking-glass self. It follows us into adulthood.
The classic example is the job interview. Let’s say you’re applying for a job. You want to come off confident and competent to the one doing the hiring. During the interview, you read the body language. Nodding? Smiling? Good. Your confidence grows. Confused? Disinterested? And your self-esteem plummets. They don’t like me. What can I do… what can I say to make them want me?
Maybe you know people who seem to do this masterfully. Like chameleons they continuously change to reflect their surroundings. You never really know what they think or believe because they change based on who they’re talking to – always trying to fit in. Their social identity reflects their audience. Sociologists say we all do this to a degree. We feel awkward and out of synch when our internal life is out of alignment with our external life. We wonder if we’re in the wrong job or wrong marriage or why our friendships seem out of step. It seems like the path of least resistance is to play along… to adopt the ways and words and mindsets of others… to make it easier.
Add to that social media – with its likes and shares and comments. Who friends who and who has the most followers. Digital media is a kind of mirror – or a kind of hall of mirrors.
Did you read or see the movie The Circle? Emma Watson…Tom Hanks… about a powerful technology company who uses social media and mass placement of cameras to control behavior and ethics? I read it cover to cover on a plane – couldn’t put it down.
What if not only your personal sense of self but your job performance were based on how many likes, how many clicks, how many shares, how many followers? How could a company use this deep-seated need people have to be accepted, to control its employees, its message and finally its world-changing vision?
Like any good dystopian novel, it almost sounds good. If we believe police and citizens behave better when officers are wearing body cameras, why wouldn’t cameras located everywhere, where everything is seen and known be even better? What’s not to like about a society where crime is nonexistent… in fact, all kinds of unwelcome and unwanted behaviors are eliminated? How would people act differently if they knew they were always watched?
But who decides what values will be reflected? Whoever controls the content… the message… controls the mirror, shaping how people think they’re being seen. Whoever controls the information controls the reflected behavior.
The main character of The Circle struggled with the powerful seduction of the looking-glass and eventually succumbed to the peril of her own soul: This was a new skill she’d acquired, wrote the author Dave Eggers, the ability to look, to the outside world, utterly serene and even cheerful, while, in her skull, all was chaos.
Into this Proverbs speaks and Jesus speaks with a call to come home to our God-created identity; to reflect out to the world the image of God that is within us… to be generous because God is generous… kind because God is kind… compassionate because God is compassionate… just because God is just… a blessing because God is blessing.
What do we have to do to gain God’s love? to be seen and accepted by God? Nothing. It is given. It doesn’t mean we get what we want. It doesn’t guarantee success or financial security. It doesn’t mean we won’t get sick or experience pain or have our hearts broken. It doesn’t mean we’ll be free from suffering. It means we’ll be sustained through it… loved through it… and given a deep well of resource out of which to be generous, kind, hopeful, loving, grateful and well through it.
Often I read a poem at funerals by hymn writer Susan Palo Cherwien:
There is no stillness in life,
but what one holds in the heart.
There is no peace,
but what one has in the soul.
There is no calm in life,
but what one finds in God.
God has not promised us security
God has not promised us certainty
God has not promised us freedom from sorrow
freedom from suffering
freedom from pain.
Life is a journey through all of these.
But what God has promised is… God.
“When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and through the rivers
they shall not overwhelm you.”
What God has promised is God.
Have no fear.
God gives us the gift of God – deep within us – to heal us, to free us, to love us well. How do we respond to a gift like that? Richard Rohr wrote: I realized that the only way I could fittingly thank God was to offer God back to God. I wanted to become the very willing relay station for the breath of God.
Rohr remembered a line from a favorite poem by Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins called The Golden Echo:
Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty back to God, beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.
He began to incorporate a breath prayer on his contemplative walks. He’d say the word beauty with each breath in and back with each breath out. Again and again: Beauty… Back… Beauty… Back.
It became a meditative walk for Richard Rohr as he prayed how to reflect God’s beauty… God’s mercy… God’s character back into the world. As he prayed and walked, he pictured wearing a mirror medallion: it wouldn’t look like a piece of religious jewelry, he thought, just a plain mirror that always takes in exactly what it sees without distortion and without judgment or analysis, only love. On the back of the mirror, Rohr wanted the eye of God, forever gazing at me with love, respect and even desire.
Here’s the idea: because we are seen and loved by God, we are free to reflect the glory of God back out to the world. Without expectation. Without demand. As a vessel, an instrument, a mirror. What would it look like for you to express your gratitude to God in this way? Compassion… back. Forgiveness…back. Grace…back. Love…back.
Contemplative Photography Exercises for this week (beginning 7/21): Reflections
- On your contemplative walk this week, notice reflections: images mirrored back to you in water, chrome, windows. How is the world reflecting the image of God back to you? How are you invited to respond?
- Choose a virtue of the Christian life to take with you on your walk: patience, goodness, mercy, joy, honesty, generosity, etc. Hold this virtue in your heart as you walk and be open to encountering it reflected back to you. How do you see it embodied in the world around you, seeking to capture your attention and increase itself within you?
- Choose a line of Scripture or a line from a favorite poem to take with you on your walk. Be attentive to the ways it is spoken back to you, through you, and through the images around you.
- Spend some time with your images this week, perhaps seeing something of yourself in them, journaling with them, or listening to the wisdom from within them. What are you learning?
Scripture: Proverbs 10:9-12; James 3:13-18 (The Message)
On Friday night many of us went with candles, flashlights, or in my case a tiny battery tea light, to join thousands of people of all ages and cultural backgrounds in nearly 750 cities around the world to hold vigil for refugees and families seeking asylum in the United States. We came together – “Lights for Liberty” and we listened as immigration attorneys and staff from Michigan Immigrant Rights organizations told stories and pleaded for merciful change. A young girl read a poem. We sang “Blowing in the Wind” led by Middle-aged folk singers–nobody under 40 knew it:
How many roads must a man walk down, before you call him a man?
Yes, ‘n’ how many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
Yes, ‘n’ how many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn’t see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.
Some people held signs: “Never again”, “Families Belong Together”, “el amor no conoce fronteras” (love knows no boundaries)… one of our church members held a sign: “basta ya” (enough is enough), another: “What if it was your family?” and still another: “Jesus was an asylum seeker – Matthew 2:1-15”.
The sign that stuck with me into the night and the next morning and into this sermon said: Make America Good Again.
Not great… good.
What’s the difference?
A couple of years ago, when I preached on Genesis and Creation, I talked about the Hebrew word tov: God created the world and called it tov – good. Useful, purposeful, appropriate, beneficial, serviceable, fair, honorable… these are synonyms for the Hebrew word tov. Out of chaos, God shaped and formed order.
Lance talked last week about wisdom’s counsel and design in laying foundations for the earth, establishing the heavens, setting limits to the seas, bringing forth springs of living water… creation was a delight and a joy and it was practical and workable… everything with its purpose, living in community… well and whole… it was tov.
Do you think that’s what the man with the sign was going for? Make America tov again? ordered, well, beneficial, useful? There’s chaos at the border. What would a national ethic of tov look like there? Can you imagine it? Can you see it in your mind’s eye? What would it look like to welcome the stranger, process asylum requests, provide accommodations, work toward resettlement, unite families, join in collaborative international efforts… all with a spirit of tov: honorable… fair… good…
Today in Proverbs we read: The mouth of the good is a deep, life-giving well. This time, it’s not tov but a different Hebrew word – tsadiq: ethical, moral, just, righteous. This word appears 56 times in Proverbs and it’s about character and conduct.
Imagine for a moment you are an ancient Hebrew desert-dweller. You hear this proverb: the mouth of the good is a fountain of living water, but the mouth of the wicked is a dark cave of abuse. Fountains… living springs in the desert are rare and essential for life. Dark caves in the desert are often hideouts for thieves and bandits. Hearing this proverb conjures in the imagination a stark contrast… You can almost feel and taste the refreshment or the fear.
Make America tsadiq again. Is that what the man with the sign meant? Make America life-giving, nourishing, healing, cleansing… pouring out refreshing grace… What hunger, what thirst, what desperation is arriving at our borders? What are the ethical, moral, just responses to the neighbor in need?
What about our own mouths – the words we speak? Someone who is good, who is tsadiq, speaks words of refreshment and life; blessings that shower with love and grace.
Most of the time when the word tsadiq appears in Proverbs it’s in contrast with rasha – wicked, evil, one who is guilty before God or humanity:
God won’t starve a good soul, but he frustrates the appetites of the wicked.
A good life is a blessed memorial; a wicked life leaves a rotten stench.
The speech of a good person is worth waiting for; the blabber of the wicked is worthless.
The nightmares of the wicked come true; what good people desire they get.
When the storm is over, there’s nothing left of the wicked; good people, firm on their rock foundation, aren’t even fazed.
The aspirations of good people end in celebration; the ambitions of the wicked crash.
Good people last—they can’t be moved; the wicked are here today, gone tomorrow.
The speech of a good person clears the air; the words of the wicked pollute it.
And those are all from Proverbs 10! Presented in stark contrast… it’s black and white… the choice is good or evil. How will you live your life? Choice and consequence. Wisdom or foolishness. Life or death.
Most of the leading spiritual thinkers of our day advocate non-dualistic thinking. It’s not either or, it’s both/and. Seek the mystery in ambiguity. Learn to live the questions.
I get this. I delight in the full rainbow of colors and see the world in shades of grey. I know we are all some combination of good and wicked – no one is all one or the other. This is why I’ve walked away from Proverbs in the past. It doesn’t hold up to the nuances of life… the circumstances beyond our control… the systemic imbalances in the world… the very real duplicity of the human heart. You and I know life doesn’t always work out the way these verses say it does in absolutes.
And yet, this time around with Proverbs I’m finding relevance. More than that, I’m finding hope and reassurance.
Even Ansel Adams, after years of color photography, learned the beauty and importance of black and white for seeing some things with greater clarity. According to Adams, black and white photography has the power to evoke emotions… to feel what’s going on.
Free from the distractions of color, we’re free to imagine with more of our senses… free to be attentive to the negative space… free to focus on stark contrasts. By stripping the photo of color, Adams said, you get down to the crux of the story or uncover a secret moment that colors have tinted too fiercely.
What is true? What is real? What do you see when all the noise and distraction falls away? Who are we? What are we becoming?
Make America Good Again, the sign said. Again? When in our history was America ever tov: beneficial, fair, honorable to all people? When in our history was America ever tsadiq: ethical, moral, just, righteous like an ever flowing, refreshing stream of life to all people? Was there ever an idyllic past when America was good to and for all people?
It’s always been our grand ideal… our great and high vision: liberty and justice for all. If you haven’t ever seen the exhibit at the Henry Ford Museum by that name: With Liberty and Justice for All, it’s well worth the trip. I’ve seen it several times and I cry every time. It explores the struggles and triumphs and the ongoing yearning for freedom through the Revolutionary Era, the Civil War Era, Women’s Suffrage, and the Civil Rights Movement. It invites us into the drama… to witness the courage and resilience of everyone who longs to be fully and finally free.
We’ve come a long way and we have a lot yet to learn about living together and treating all of our neighbors with honor and dignity. Make America Good. I didn’t see that sign. That’s a vision. Make America Good.
Ansel Adams was asked about his process for making a photo:
I come across something that excites me. I see the picture in my mind’s eye. I make the photo and I give it to you – as the equivalent of what I saw and felt. The whole key is seeing it in the mind’s eye (visualization). If you have enough craft, if you’ve done your homework and you practice you can make the photograph you desire… there’s a lot of technical steps to the finished product, but practicing makes it become instinctive.
You can make the photograph you desire… practicing makes it become instinctive.
We’re getting a puppy next week and we’ve begun listening to a puppy podcast by a trainer named Amy Jensen. She was taking questions from puppy owners during one podcast and somebody asked if it was possible to teach the puppy a command so he will continue to stay with you instead of chase after the cat.
So, of course we’re interested in this answer because we don’t want our new puppy to terrorize the chickens or the cats. So here’s what Amy said: the first thing you do is visualize what you want your puppy to do. Beyond saying what you want him to do, imagine what you want it to look like. Then train to the clear picture you see.
I want my puppy to see the cat or chicken and then look at me and wait for me to give the cue as to what to do next. Hypothetically, now that I see what I want to happen, I can step by step, over and over again, train that behavior until it becomes instinctive.
Once I see it, Ansel Adams says I can make the photograph I desire… Amy Jensen says: once I see it, I can train the behavior I desire. They both say it takes a lot of practice until it becomes instinctive.
I wonder if becoming good could work the same way? Becoming good: Useful, purposeful, appropriate, beneficial, serviceable, fair, honorable, ethical, honest, moral, just, righteous, as individuals and as a country.
What would happen if first we visualized God’s kingdom… God’s wisdom… God’s goodness… what if we imagined what it would look like for each one of us to live it – in the words of James: live well, live wisely, live humbly… a holy life is characterized by getting along with others. It is gentle and reasonable, overflowing with mercy and blessings. We can, James says, develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if we do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor.
Again, Ansel Adams: Some photographers take reality… and impose the domination of their own thought and spirit. Others come before reality more tenderly and a photograph to them is an instrument of love and revelation.
Can this be our way? Can we learn to see and to be God’s people, blessed to be a blessing, a fountain of living water in the desert, a people of love and grace for all?
The answer my friend is blowing in the wind, the answer is blowing in the wind. May the wind of the Holy Spirit lead us.
Scripture: Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-35
Guest Preacher: Lance Wiesmann
This morning we continue our journey through the book of Proverbs. Today, we’re looking through the lens offered in the Voice translation of The Bible. I chose this translation because of the way the different elements of the story are presented. First of all, we find Lady Wisdom calling out – but she’s not JUST calling out. She’s calling out from the “highest point” in the city – where EVERYONE can see her! She’s NOT hiding. She’s right there. Not only there, but also right at the City Gates – where the traffic is the busiest.
Thinking about the way this passage begins, and how I might envision it today – since I’m pretty sure I wasn’t actually there – the first thought I had was going to the Lenawee County Fair and listening to the Carnival Barkers vying for your attention. But somehow, that just doesn’t seem to paint an adequate picture. So then I thought of the Appleumpkin Festival right here in Tecumseh every Autumn. That’s also a pretty active scene with lots of foot traffic. Ultimately, however, I finally landed on the MOST congested memory I have… and that was about 10-years ago now at the Ann Arbor Art Fair. I had never before experienced anything quite like it, nor have I in the ensuing years. That was an experience to remember. Everywhere I looked there were people. Shoulder-to-shoulder people. And while the crowd was very well behaved, there were just LOTS of people! At one point I got separated from the group I had gone with, and (at that time) I didn’t have a mobile phone; and not being all that familiar with Ann Arbor (then or now), it was very easy to feel a sense of panic begin to creep in. Obviously, I survived the experience… but I’ve been reluctant to go back and give it another try regardless.
Let’s just say that in my mind’s eye, I see Lady Wisdom in all her glory standing in the middle of a MASSIVE, NOISY crowd quite literally SHOUTING to the masses trying to make herself heard.
So, one of the questions posed during our First Look this past Tuesday is this: what exactly happens at the City Gates? Why is this so important? For those who have been blessed enough to have visited the Holy Land and see the City Gates up close and in person, they will probably report that the Gates are not simply a break in the wall, where you simply open the gates and the people and animals pass freely in and out. The City Gates in many instances were designed with a “pinch point” included which simply means that this was an ancient means of regulating the traffic flow – as well as defending the City from those who would attack and/or invade. Because the enemy couldn’t simply pass through, they couldn’t attack as easily.
On top of this though, there were a certain few things that routinely happened at the Gates of the City. Some of these things included:
- Alms coming in. (If you owed anyone money, taxes, etc… this is where you were expected to pay up before you were allowed in.)
- Lepers are kept out. (No matter how “unfair” this sounds to our 21st Century sensibilities, this was a simple matter of fact then.)
- Justice is meted out. Judges sit there & cases are heard. (This one gave me pause… if Lady Wisdom is standing RIGHT THERE, this gives the need to have Judges present interesting to say the least.)
- Transactions w/Prostitutes happen there. (Did Lady Wisdom look favorably on this one? We can only imagine.)
This description of traffic at the City Gates gave some of us pause as we considered the similarities to what is happening in the 21st Century at the border between Mexico & the United States. Sometimes it seems the more things change, the more they stay the same. Or is this simply a very sad case of history repeating itself?
As we get further into this particular text, we find Lady Wisdom telling us that before ANYTHING else existed God created her. Well isn’t that interesting? We generally believe that Jesus is the “first born of Creation”… does this mean that Jesus and Lady Wisdom are one and the same thing? Lady Wisdom says that God created her before time, before the earth saw its first sunrise, before the oceans existed, before any springs poured out their water, before the mountains, before the hills. When the earth was yet unformed and the fields didn’t exist, even before the first dust. (Well, isn’t THAT fascinating, I routinely hear people today say they are (or someone else is) “older than dirt”, but let’s move on…) When He created the heavens, when He drew a circle in the deep, dividing the oceans and the sky, when He established the sky, when the springs in the deep were fortified. She says she witnessed Him lay down the shore as a boundary and put limits on the water, and determine the foundations of the earth. Lady Wisdom concludes this part of the text by saying: All this time I was close beside Him, I was His delightful companion,
celebrating every minute in His presence. Elated by the world He was making and all its fine creatures; I was especially pleased with humanity.
And so it turns out that Lady Wisdom took especially great pleasure in the fact that God created humans! I wonder if the human race still brings the Good Lady such unbridled pleasure? I know there are times when I do things that I’m pretty sure cause God grief. If each of us are honest, we probably have moments when we do things we aren’t particularly proud of. Fortunately, for us, God shows us the ultimate example of unconditional love and even went so far as to send us His Son, as an atonement for our sin. As if that weren’t enough, after Jesus’s ascension, God gave us the Holy Spirit to remind us every day of our lives that we are loved – and there is nothing we can do to change that. Isn’t that cool?
In this Contemplative Photography series, we have been given exercises to expand our view of the world around us. This week, we are asked to look at doorways, gates, focus… what we allow to be included in the photograph, and what we crop out… what we keep in sharp, crisp focus, and what we allow to fade into soft focus and/or obscurity.
When I began thinking about this type of exercise, my mind went almost immediately back 30-some years when I lived and worked in Burbank, California. After I had been there for about 4 months (or so) I got to experience my first earthquake – basically a mild tremor – but to someone who had never done that, it wasn’t a small thing. I was intrigued to see people run to stand in the doorway! What was that all about? What was so special about a doorway? It turns out that the doorway is thought to be the STRONGEST point in the wall, because of the framing around the door. I’m not sure if this is still the prevailing thought, but it was believed then that IF any part of the wall and/or building was going to come down, it would NOT be the door. Thus, if you were standing in the doorway, you were likely to survive the earthquake with (at most) minor injuries.
In the book Cathi has been using in tandem with this series in Proverbs, there is a section called The Art of Spiritual Discernment. In this section, it says: “The root of the verb “discern” means discriminate; hence, in the Christian spiritual tradition, discernment refers to the process of discriminating what is from God from what is not.” The author continues: “Christians have been discerning from biblical times to the present, seeking to understand how God is present, acting, and calling…
Bringing discernment to our decision making means awakening and tutoring our ability to recognize what God desires for us in the moment… We can bring this kind of active seeking into our photography as well, as we listen each moment to what is being offered to us in the moment.”
It sounds easy enough, but the simple truth
is this: There can be LOTS of confusion at the crossroads/gates in our individual lives. How do you tell the RIGHT voice from the WRONG voice? “Fake news” is everywhere. How do you discern and/or discriminate correctly? In my experience, some of the most profound teachings come from the quietest voices. We need to listen carefully! In the world today, listening is an increasingly lost art.
And I believe this brings us back to the text from Proverbs today. Lady Wisdom is calling. She says: “those who live by my ways will find true happiness. Pay attention to my guidance, dare to be wise, and don’t disregard my teachings. The one who listens to me, who carefully seeks me in everyday things
and delays action until my way is apparent, that one will find true happiness. For when he recognizes and follows me, he finds a peaceful and satisfying life and receives favor from the Eternal.” Amen.
Scripture: Proverbs 3:3-6, 27-29
Every morning during Invisible City, after we had coffee, muffins, yogurt, cold cuts, cheese, fruit, pizza… we listened to a story from the Bible and we talked about learning to see: to see with our eyes (literally), with our minds (understanding) and with our hearts (discerning the presence of God).
We were after this third way of seeing. Every ground holy ground… every bush burning… every neighbor a child of God.
Every morning, we commissioned each other into the day with the words of the poet John O’Donohue, from his book: To Bless the Space Between Us:
On Meeting a Stranger
That the unknown
And lead us
The familiar field
Blind with the weed
And the old walls
Each day we began a new adventure… a new opportunity for discovery and deeper seeing… beyond the familiar fields… over the old walls of habit…
We were going to weed or paint or build or clean and we were going to listen to the hearts of the people God placed before us… to hear their stories and their heartache… their loneliness and their faithfulness… their passion, loss and hope.
We saw it in their faces and witnessed it in their body language and we heard it between the words they actually spoke: life was overwhelming and they were grateful we were there to help.
We were neighbors helping neighbors… doing what we could do… the most we could do every day. God sent us out to be a blessing and to be blessed and by God’s grace, we were.
Today we remember Invisible City 2019 with photos and stories.
We’re grateful to everyone who shared photos and to Matt Holdridge for putting them together. And we’re grateful to Louise Salamin (Invisible City first-timer), Carol McConnell, Harvey Schmidt and Andy King for sharing reflections.
Prayers of the People
From this morning’s Proverbs: Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it.
And LORD God, there is a deep resonance between these words and the whole idea behind Invisible City: we meet people throughout the week for whom life has become overwhelming – a woman caring for her dying husband… a widower whose wife used to love and tend the garden… an aging and frail homeowner who can hardly get up and down the steps of her home… a non-profit skeletal crew of faithful workers who rise morning after morning to check off a growing list of things to do to prepare a repurposed building to receive women and children on their way to a new future…
They say: I used to take care of this… I want to get to that… I just can’t. And we say: we can… by God’s grace… we can help.
Those three days each year of Invisible City teach us to say yes… to refuse to withhold the good that we can do. They train us and give us confidence and encouragement to say yes other days of the year to other people You bring into our lives.
Yet the proverb catches in our throats and rests uneasily on our hearts with the phrase: to whom it is due. And the idea of evaluating who deserves our help, according to our own insights and understandings, gives way to those persistent weeds and old walls blinding us once again.
God, you know we’re not limitless in our ability to help. We only have so many people and so many hours. You also know that sometimes our help can enable manipulative behavior and actually stunt development in the one we’re trying to support. And you know we can become prideful and even patronizing in our insistence to help, failing to see where our interference might actually strip the dignity from another. Time and again our own insights fail us.
Seeing with our eyes and our minds trap us, deceive us and lead us astray.
To whom it is due… O how confounding… O the conundrum… O the criteria we’ll use to make that determination – personally, as a community, and as a nation – who deserves our kindness, our goodness, our hospitality, our help.
Yet it is You, O God who sees the heart and the need… you who hears the cry… you unconstrained by borders… you who know where the resources lie and who you’ve entrusted with the power to help.
Lord how many people, how many families this very day do you present before us desperate and hurting… people fleeing from untenable circumstances… knowing it is in our capacity to help and we hide behind criteria of our own design – our own untrustworthy insight – we allow ourselves to be deceived by fear and enticed by comfort.
What right do we have to call upon your mercy even as we withhold mercy?
Maybe tomorrow, we say, wait another day, and we walk away. Forgive us, we pray, change our hearts, we pray, enrich us with your compassion and your grace, we pray.
There are neighbors living trustingly and pleadingly beside us at the border of our country and at the borders and boundaries of our lives… depending upon our mercy for their lives. In your name and by your guidance, may we not withhold what is in our capacity to do. May we not plan or allow harm.
May we bind loyalty and faithfulness to you and you alone around our hearts and in all our ways bring honor and glory to your name. Hear us as we pray Our Father…
This Week’s Contemplative Photography Exercises
Week beginning 6/30: Light and Shadows
- Let yourself be obsessed with light this week: qualities of light at different times of day, colors , reflections, ripples, dapples, slants, hues, etc. Explore with your camera the infinite potential
- Play with shadows this week: silhouettes, lengths, angles, shapes, etc. Notice what is inviting your attention and enjoy exploring it as an adventure with your camera.
- Practice wabi-sabi, the Japanese tradition of finding beauty in imperfection, impermanence and decay. Let your attention be intentionally drawn to things other people would turn away from. Taking seriously learning to see with the eyes of the heart means receiving images that might otherwise seem ugly, damaged, or broken and reclaiming the beauty in them.
Scripture: Proverbs 2:1-11
We’ve recently completed another school year, and with the end of school years, come award banquets. When our kids were young they attended a private Christian school that gave every student a character award at the end of the year. Character awards were alphabetized.
We’d sit with our kids at the assembly and wonder which award they’d get that year: Artistic… Caring… Confident… Enthusiastic… Imaginative… We’d look at each other as each word was called, wondering — yes? no. maybe? joyful… kind… patient… peacemaker…
One year, we were pretty deep in the alphabet, waiting for Alex’s award. We were all getting a little anxious. Surely they didn’t forget him. The list went on and on deeper into the alphabet and still no Alex.
Sportsmanship – that was it for sure. He was an athlete on several teams at the school – and a friend and encourager to his teammates. But no—they called another boy’s name. I remember Alex thinking that was the wrong choice. And the list went on… tenacious… trustworthy…truthful… It wasn’t until the last award that the principal called Alex’s name: wisdom.
Wisdom? And she said it like it was perhaps the most profound award of all… wisdom. I don’t remember her defining it or saying why he was given it. But he walked tall up to the stage – it wasn’t always cool to be smart, but it was cool to be wise.
Wisdom isn’t the same as good grades. What is it and how do you get it?
Our first reading last week from Proverbs said: the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom. Today’s reading gets more specific about the nature of our orientation toward God and God’s way.
Accept my words and treasure up my commandments. Treasure up… cherish them… tuck them away… store them in safe-keeping…
I have a hope chest. Remember hope chests? Do people still do them? Mine’s a wooden, cedar chest—locked up with a key. I haven’t opened it in years and I couldn’t remember all that was inside it. I knew it contained things that were precious to me. When I opened it, I found a hand-made baby blanket – made for our babies, my prom dress, the hanky I carried in my wedding, hand-stitched pillow cases, a top-hat and bowler hat that belonged to my grandfather, my baby spoon, the newborn caps for each of our children, a dress my mother wore as a child… several other family hand-made heirlooms.
My mother passed treasures on to me and I’ve added to them for my daughter. They’re special, cherished things. Yet I’ve already lost the meaning to some things in the chest. I don’t know who made what and who wore what and mom’s gone and there’s no documentation in the chest.
Proverbs says wisdom is about treasuring up something of eternal value: God’s words and commandments. Hide them deep within the heart where they won’t be forgotten over time: a hope chest within.
Make your ears attentive to wisdom… I talked with my dad about hearing aids last week. About getting a pair. He misses so much conversation. He’s not interested in hearing aids. I asked him why. They’re expensive and everybody I know who has them hates them, he said. That reminded me of a story, and I told my dad.
One of the ladies in a previous church was married to a man who suffered from dementia. One Sunday as we were standing just outside the sanctuary, someone asked her how her husband was doing. Not good, she said. Just the other day, he ate his hearing aids.
Another woman standing next to her said, I know how he feels, I hate mine too! I had to tell that story a few times before dad heard it well enough to laugh at it.
I told him I knew a lot of people with hearing aids, including my father-in-law who loved them – some have said they changed their lives. Then I asked him if he really didn’t want to hear everything. And that’s when the truth came out. He actually prefers not to hear what some of the people he’s living with are talking about. He’d rather live in blissful silence than hear some people prattle on. It’s easier for him to focus his hearing on the people who are important to him… to make his ears attentive when it matters to him.
Make your ears attentive to wisdom, Proverbs says, and how do we know when and through whom wisdom might speak? Be ready… with an open and receptive heart: the LORD gives wisdom – it’s a gift to be received.
I started this sermon series on Proverbs last week and coupled it with a contemplative photography practice. Each week I’ll introduce new exercises to try in the coming week. Why contemplative photography? Contemplative practice is a receptive practice. We make ourselves available for grace to break in, writes Christine Valters Paintner, author of the book I’m using: Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice.
We’re so busy, distracted, and carrying on according to the well-known patterns of our lives that it’s easy to miss God’s gifts of wisdom. Contemplative practices force us to slow down and open up.
Last week we practiced beholding: going on beholding walks – stopping randomly to behold and download the larger vision before us of beauty, light and life into our hearts.
We practiced beholding through focused time with our cameras – 15 minutes with the same object – 50 or more images of the same thing turned around, alternating perspective, zooming in ever more closely. And we practiced beholding with our cameras limited to one image per day and downloading the rest directly to our hearts.
And we practiced beholding in Invisible City — on worksites and in soon to be ministry centers for women and children… while painting and weeding and trimming… alongside strangers and friends.
Through beholding we’re tuning the eyes of our hearts to God’s abundant glory all around us.
This week, our contemplative photography practice is about receiving. We’ll even be thoughtful in our language: we won’t take photos, we’ll receive images – God’s gifts of beauty. Let’s look together at the exercises:
· Engage in contemplative walks being attentive to details, patterns, shades, textures — not looking for beauty, allowing beauty to reveal itself.
· Transition your contemplative walks into photographic journeys. Be present to what calls your attention. With your camera, receive images that welcome deeper exploration.
· Practice visio divina (divine seeing) with one or more of your images.
– Pray with the photo.
– Gaze upon it; allow your eyes to wander over it, receiving the details of it, and noticing where your attention lingers
– What memories, feelings or thoughts are evoked as you spend time with this photo? How are you being invited to respond?
Celtic Christians believe there are two books of revelation: the Holy Scriptures and creation. And that to know and walk intimately with God, we must read both. Visio Divina is a practice that allows an image received from the created world to be a conduit of God’s way and life – a means by which God can and does communicate with us and evoke responses from us.
On a recent walk in our woods I noticed a tree leaning into the branches of another tree. We’ve got about 50 acres of woods. This is a very common image. But on that day, I saw it differently.
The leaner was dead and the tree holding it was very much alive. They’d stood together in that stand of trees for who knows how many years before something caused the one to fall – sickness, a storm, weak roots… and it fell into the arms of the other. That day, it was an image of companionship and grief and a holy unrushed holding. It reminded me of Michelangelo’s Pieta – the marble sculpture of Mary cradling her crucified son Jesus. It reminded me of anyone who has ever lost someone they deeply loved and wanted to hold them in uninterrupted sacred grief.
I wrote a short poem about it:
Can trees be like the Pieta
holding the dead?
Living for so long
side by side
breathing, watching, dancing, singing together
until one day
into another’s arms
to be held
Who would ever say: long enough?
And it evoked from me a deeper empathy for the intimate journey of grief and loss… and the quiet patience of it… and the way in which, eventually, grief will wear down the one still standing unless there is freedom from the weight of heartache.
The LORD gives wisdom and insight and understanding and knowledge and discernment… to all who cry out for it, who tune their ears and open their hearts for it, who seek it and treasure it up. May we be willing and grateful recipients. May we see the divine at work in the hidden depths of things. May we honor and relish the sacred beauty that surrounds us. And may we cultivate a heart-centered intimacy with our Creator.
Prayers of the People
There is a longing in our hearts, O Lord,
for you to reveal yourself to us.
There is a longing in our hearts for love
we only find in you, our God.
And you do reveal yourself… your heart… your character…your wisdom and your ways in and through the pages of Scripture and in and through the created world around us. Help us to open our hearts to encounter you more intimately and to learn from you healthy ways to order our individual lives and our life together.
You look across your world and you see us all, all of us, your children – you have given all of us life – you have hopes and you have dreams for all of us. How your heart must break when you see us raise our hands and turn our hearts against one another. We long to be your ambassadors for peace and reconciliation… your instruments of grace. Teach us, O God. Hear our prayers:
For justice, for freedom, for mercy: hear our prayer.In sorrow, in grief: be near; hear our prayer, O God.
If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins,who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness; therefore we turn to you with awe and reverence. Have mercy on us, we pray, for you see the ways we turn a suspicious eye against people who are different than us. You see us, in our anger and fear. You see the way we politicize and posture and turn our backs on people and families in need. You see your children of all races, cultures and creeds hurting and lost, seeking shelter – longing for safety and home, and your heart breaks over violence, it breaks over growing seeds of distrust and animosity, it breaks over how far we’ve strayed from your dream for us. Surround us, all of us, on all sides with your redemptive power. O God hear our prayers for a better way:
For wisdom, for courage, for comfort: hear our prayer. In weakness, in fear: be near, hear our prayer, O God.
We wait for you, O LORD, to break into our world… to break into our world with light that shines in the darkness… with hope that overcomes fear… with grace that heals broken hearts and broken families and broken communities and broken spirits… with quiet strength that responds with determination – that swells up from every corner to stand against evil and stand for dignity – that calls out tribal violence and works toward a new community of wholeness and life in your name.We wait for you and we call upon you to break into our world. To be the God of mercy and peace and justice and life we know you to be.With you is unfailing love. We turn to you. O God, hear our prayer:
For healing, for wholeness, for new life: hear our prayer. In sickness, in death: be near, hear our prayer, O God.
Come among us in mercy and call us home.
Come among us in truth and heal our hearts.
Come among us and deliver us from our worst selves, that we may,
by your grace become the people you created us to be. Let your kingdom come.
Let your will be done – among us, within us, through us, we pray. O LORD, hear our prayer:
Lord save us, take pity, Light in our darkness.
We call you; we wait: be near, hear our prayer, O God.
Our Father, who art in heaven… refrain.
O God, teach me to see You,
and reveal Yourself to me when I seek You.
For I cannot seek You unless You first teach me,
nor find You unless You first reveal Yourself to me.
Let me seek You in longing, and long for You in seeking.
Let me find You in love, and love You in finding.
–Ambrose of Milan, 339-397
June 16- Father’s Day
Scripture: Proverbs 1:1-7
When I was young, a friend told me she got a dollar for every “A” on her report card. I got a lot of “A’s” and no dollars.
Dad, I said, my friend says she gets a dollar for every “A” she gets on her report card. Can I have a dollar for every “A” I get? And my father said: No. Do your best in school because it’s the right thing to do.
When I was young, a friend told me her dad said that if she were diligent in turning off the lights when she left the room, and if at the end of the month when the electric bill came, there was a savings, he would split the savings with her.
Dad, I said, if I am careful to turn off the light when I leave the room, and if at the end of the month when you get the electric bill there is a savings, will you split the savings with me? And my father said: No. When you leave the room, turn off the light because it’s the right thing to do.
When I begged and pleaded with my dad to sleep in on Sunday mornings, my father said, Get up. Get dressed. We’re going to church because it’s the right thing to do.
It wasn’t right for boys to call girls after 11pm. It wasn’t right for girls to call boys anytime. It definitely wasn’t right for a girl to ask a boy on a date. If a boy wants to talk to you, he’ll call. And if he calls, you know he wants to talk to you. You don’t want to talk to a boy who doesn’t want to talk to you. A good boy… a respectful boy… is worth the wait, my father said.
My dad is conservative, practical and principled. He believes there is a right way to do things. In fact, he believes if everybody did that right thing, the world would be right. Play by the rules. Honor your commitments.
Growing up, it was hard to argue with his logic and I didn’t… much.
Fathers throughout the centuries, and mothers too, have used the book of Proverbs as an instruction manual for their children. Rabbis in wisdom schools used it to teach their students. It’s a how-to for living a disciplined, principled, ordered, healthy life in community.
Proverbs is a collection of wisdom sayings – not the oldest and not the only. There are Sumerian, Babylonian and Egyptian wisdom sayings that date back to 2000 BC.
We play a game at our house called Wise and Otherwise. It contains 2500 long-lost sayings from around the world. They’re real sayings. The first half is on one side of the card and the correct second half is on the other side. Players guess how it finishes – and try to get other players to guess their guess. For example:
There’s an old Zulu saying: The sun never sets… without fresh news.
There’s an old Japanese saying: Shut tightly your mouth and your… loincloth.
There’s an old Portuguese saying: Don’t pull hard enough… to break the rope.
There’s an old Chinese saying: The quiet duck puts his foot on… an unobservant worm.
Proverb… from the Latin proverbium… a common saying… an old adage… wise words…
In response to a message I posted about our Proverbs sermon series to a Facebook group of preachers, one responded: Proverbs is not a book for preaching. Barely a book for reading. Tell me, did Jesus ever quote from or refer to Proverbs?
If our benchmark is whether or not Jesus ever quoted it, our available preaching texts from the Bible would greatly shrink. But to his other points: Not a book for preaching… barely a book for reading… I’ll admit, I’ve not spent much time with Proverbs, nor have I preached much on it. Yet, as I’ve begun to explore it, I believe it’s quite timely indeed to read it and to preach on it.
The book’s stated purpose is laudable. Who would argue the need for wisdom, understanding, insight; deeper knowledge in our world today? Why would we not take seriously a pathway for discernment, guidelines for healthy living in community, principles for honest and ethical conduct, and decision-making that leads to life vs. death? Why skip over this book in favor of the latest self-help best-seller or the newest podcast? Why not read or listen to them alongside Proverbs? Note the similarities and the differences. Bring an ancient voice to the table.
There are two key things in the first seven verses I’d like to bring to the fore this morning. First is the context from and to which these Proverbs were written. In the game Wise and Otherwise, each card states a cultural context:
There’s an old… Norwegian, Polish, Mesopotamian, Cameroonian, Lithuanian… whatever saying. We keep that loosely in mind when we finish the phrase.
If you want somebody to pick your answer, you don’t say something that would NEVER be part of that culture. These are real sayings that point to generally observed realities… common sense truisms… on-the-ground shared testimonies to the way life usually works in that context – which of course, nobody around the table playing the game knows, but we know enough not to insert our own culture into it – unless we want to be foolish.
Listen again to the opening line: The Proverbs of Solomon, Son of David, King of Israel. King Solomon was considered the wisest and wealthiest man in Israelite history. These sayings come from a place of status and resource. Those who attended the wisdom schools, those who attended any schools at that time were from the upper class socially.
These are the life philosophies and moral truisms of people with money and political clout. When we read them, it’s important to keep that in mind.
My father believed there was a right way to do things… rules by which to order life. Growing up in an upper-middle class predominantly white small town in Michigan, I found it difficult to argue with his logic. The more I traveled the country and the world, though, the more I encountered exceptions to the rules – and even different sets of rules altogether.
There was, for example, a strong reaction from our houseguest from Palestine, Zhoughbi to our insistence that our adult son move out of the house to live on his own at 25. It was the right time for him to be independent. Parents in Palestine are offended if their children choose to move out of the family home as adults, Zhoughbi told us. They build additional stories on their houses for their children and children’s children to live with them and to care for them as they age.
When our Indonesian mission partner Jozef stayed with us, we learned there’s no concept of “refrigerator friends” in Indonesia. It is NEVER right for an Indonesian to pick through someone else’s refrigerator and cupboards to make a meal. Jozef would languish in hunger before helping himself to our food.
Even within our own country, different economic and racial/ethnic circles live by different rules. A couple of years ago, our Deacon board read together Ruby Payne’s book: A Framework for Understanding Poverty and we learned about hidden rules, patterns of thoughts and strategies operating within different economic groups; obvious, common sense life testimonies to people within that financial reality and hidden to those in others.
Money, for example, is used in poverty, managed in middle class and conserved or invested by the upper class.
Time is valued in the present moment in poverty. The middle class makes decisions with the future in mind. And the wealthy consider traditions, history and legacy.
Education is valued in poverty and often not considered realistic. Education in the middle-class is crucial for making money, and in the upper class, education facilitates networking and connections to maintain traditions.
There are operating principles around clothing, food, family structure, love, entertainment and more. All of this is generalization. The point is that generalizations differ according to social location and context. And Proverbs is written from and for the top.
Yet, and this is the second thing, lest we think Proverbs is a memoir by or an ode to the self-made individual, it is not. Proverbs sits in a deeply theological framework. Everything in life… everything in the created world is subject to the wisdom, not of humans, of God.
Fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge. This isn’t a book of doctrine or of religious law. It isn’t Temple-based or even particular to one tribe. The book of Proverbs acknowledges that God created the world with intention and design, that God’s order is the wise order by which to pattern and discipline all of life: individual, family, community, and that the pursuit of human understanding is provisional, limited and easily flawed.
We don’t know what we don’t know. A mistake or a blindspot in judgment anywhere in the process can send the whole thing off kilter. The book returns to this theme over and over again:
All one’s ways may be pure in one’s own eyes, but the LORD weighs the spirit. (16:2)
The human mind plans the way, but the LORD directs the steps. (16:9)
The human mind may devise many plans, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will be established. (19:21)
All our steps are ordered by the LORD; how then can we understand our own ways? (20:24)
All deeds are right in the sight of the doer, but the LORD weighs the heart. (21:2)
No wisdom, no understanding, no counsel, can avail against the LORD. (21:30)
This is a call to reverence, to awe, to wonder; to see the whole of life as holy – to practice what Eugene Peterson calls holy obedience to the ordinary. Proverbs calls us to a restored sense of our place in the world our belonging in the community of creation, humble and worshipful before the Creator.
Proverbs invites us to listen to the ancient voices of our non-human neighbors; to be attentive to the way in which everything around us bears witness to the glory and ways of God. It is a call to sharpen what Richard Rohr calls our third way of seeing.
Three people stood by the ocean looking at the same sunset. One saw the physical beauty of it and enjoyed the event itself. The second saw the event and enjoyed the physical beauty of it and imagined the rotation of the earth, wondering at the immensity of it and its place in the universe along with the other planets and stars.
The third person saw the beauty and enjoyed it in the same way both of the first two did and remained in awe beyond the color, beyond the science, beyond the limits of all human knowledge… this person allowed the sunset to fill the whole of the soul with wonder at the mystery, order, and splendor of the One behind it all. Sight, reason, contemplation; body, mind, soul: three ways of seeing.
Wisdom lies in the cultivation and discipline of the third way, which, by its nature, incorporates the other two.
Throughout this sermon series, I invite you to practice contemplative photography as a way to develop this third way of seeing. Each week, I’ll introduce a different exercise for the week. It’s all by invitation and option. We’ll post the exercises on the church Facebook page and encourage the sharing of your images and reflections.
This week we’re beholding. Behold! It’s a biblical word… a wake-up word… a tune-in to the unexpected wonder that is about to grace your being word. There are three contemplative photography exercises you’re invited to try this week:
Welcome to this new adventure. May we, together grow in wisdom and the fear of the LORD as we explore Proverbs: a book for reading, a book for preaching, a book for cultivating life this day and any day.
June 9 – Pentecost
Scripture: Romans 8:14-39
What shall we say about all of this?
Today we come to the end of the Narrative Lectionary: a series of Scripture readings from September to May that span the arc of the biblical story. I began preaching the series on September 9th with a line from a Sandra Bullock movie, Hope Floats: Momma always says: beginnings are scary, endings are usually sad, but it’s the middle that counts most. Try to remember that when you find yourself in a new beginning, Just give hope a chance to float up. That Sunday I talked about the story of Noah and the ark – a world in transition.
Heartsick over a good creation gone bad, God started over.
Noah’s story ends with God hanging a rainbow in the sky – a promise.
But—says one contemporary rabbi: The rainbow is a half-picture, lacking a second half to complete the circle of wholeness. God pledges not to destroy humanity, but since God created humanity with freedom of choice, God cannot guarantee that humanity will not destroy itself.
God set the plan in motion with a wandering Aramaen named Abram.
Back in the days before borders and boundaries, creeds and dogma and religious institutions… back in the days before Judaism and Christianity and Islam… before the Law and before the Bible and before the Quran… before nation-states and territories and tribes – there was, so the story goes, a man named Abram.
God promised Abram he would make of him a great people. That was the intent. That was God’s dream –great people: great in number, great in heart, great in blessing for all the world’s families.
Generations passed and there was a famine and a Pharaoh and hard times in Egypt. The Hebrew people cried out from under their terrible burden of slavery. They cried out to God in pain and suffering. And God led the Ex-Odos – the way out.
They were slaves, their lives were miserable, a fraction of what they were intended to be… created to be… but slavery was the life they knew. Every day was a struggle, but they knew what to expect. They were expert at living by someone else’s rules, and they knew nothing about how to make good and meaningful rules for their own lives.
So God gave them commandments to order their new free life together. God dreamed for them to be priests for the world: to heal, reconcile, bless. But things weren’t happening fast enough for the Israelites. In their impatience, they took control.
They melted their gold and made their own god – a calf – an idol. Stiff-necked people… short-sighted they were.
They wanted kings and their kings wanted power and their power led to corruption, exploitation, misery. Heartbroken, God sent prophets to speak truth… to teach them good from evil… and to call them home again.
Sometimes the prophets were sent to proclaim hard consequences. I have a job for you, God said to the prophet Jeremiah: Go where I send you and say what I give you to say… uproot and tear down, destroy and overthrow, build and plant.
The people suffered in darkness and exile. Prophets at the time wailed and cried in lament: Why do you let bad guys get away with their abusive behavior? Why do you stay silent as innocent people suffer and are powerless to do anything about it? Don’t you see, God? Don’t you care?
False prophets proclaimed a false hope. God’s prophets said wait. There is an appointed time. Wait for it. It will certainly come. Wait for it. The enemy is puffed up but the righteous person will live by faith. Wait for it.
Then there was Jesus. Finally, light pierced the darkness. He walked and talked abundant life, truth, forgiveness, welcome… fully human and fully filled with God. With everything he said and did, he pointed to God, teaching the way of love… not an easy love; a costly, sacrificial, transforming love… a justice and mercy for all people kind of love… like the prophets who came before him, he called people home to the heart of God.
Those in power… those with the most to lose… conspired and killed him, but Jesus wouldn’t stay dead. God raised him and sent shock waves through his disciples. God poured the Spirit upon them with wind and fire – awakening them from their fear and grief and empowering them to build the church in the name of Christ.
We are the church they began building that first Pentecost almost 2000 years ago. I’m not sure it was ever easy to be the church of Jesus Christ. I don’t know why we would expect it would be. The biblical story is God’s heartsick struggle to redeem a good creation gone bad.
Over and over again, God loves and we rebel… God forgives and we reject… God calls and we run… God builds up and we destroy… God invites and we deny… God yearns for wholeness and we are broken.
Creation groans in unison, Paul wrote to the Roman Christians, and not just creation – all of us are groaning too. Groaning… in the Greek it’s an inarticulate cry that rises up out of a deep well of sorrow… from internal weight that presses and squeezes… a bubbling up of despair… hopelessness…
Crushed under the oppression of Egyptian slavery and Fearing they’d been left in the desert wilderness to die, the Hebrews groaned.
Watching as evil kings led the people away from the heart of God and false prophets said everything was fine and the people believed them… sensing the truth- impending doom and devastation, God’s prophets groaned.
Deep in the darkness of exile, captive and far from home, the Israelites groaned.
Seeing the crowds of suffering people, lost like sheep without a shepherd… witnessing the dignity stripped from the poor and the sick, the hungry and the blind… overlooking Jerusalem, the holy city and seeing an absence of peace… watching the faithful exploited in the marketplace… feeling the desolation and forsakenness of the cross, Jesus groaned.
Shootings, addictions, suicides, neglected humanitarian crises, hatred in speech and action, bullying, abuse, coral reefs dying, genocides, human trafficking, overdoses, racial profiling… we groan all of us together in unison – over the heartbreak of a good creation gone bad and we know we’re part of it and sometimes it feels so overwhelming all we can do is groan.
And Paul says, the Spirit is groaning with us and for us… articulating directly to the heart of God words we can’t formulate because it hurts so much. The Spirit is groaning too… profoundly. That’s something. We’re not alone.
I used to sing in the choir at Littlefield Presbyterian Church when I interned there. Harry was a deep bass. Basso Profundo we called him. On the days when he was in the choir, there was a profound resonance to our sound. That’s what the Spirit adds to our groaning – a profound resonance.
In seminary when we gathered for our community worship services, if Ben was there, he played his conga drum. He brought a deep heartbeat rhythm to whatever we sang. That’s what the Spirit adds to our groaning – a steady, strong underlying beat.
Holding us, lifting us, strengthening us, reminding us: death doesn’t win, something new is rising up, wait. Let hope float.
In this truth, we find our voice again… we find our legs again… and we keep going.
So what should we say about all of this?
Earlier this week, I met with my colleagues of the Lenawee Interfaith Alliance. Somebody suggested last month that we pay for a half or full page layout in the newspaper to unify our voices in response to recent attacks on houses of worship. One of our members wrote a first draft:
We of the Lenawee Interfaith Alliance are committed to honoring and supporting the right of all peoples to follow the spiritual paths of their choosing consistent with diverse heritage and traditions.
This nation was founded on the principle of free exercise of religion, and all houses of worship must be free of intimidation. We condemn the violence that has taken the lives of worshippers in churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples across the country.
Expressions of hatred in our public discourse targeting entire ethnic and religious groups are a perversion of the fundamental moral tenets shared by all religions.
We call upon our community to unite in opposition to the prejudice, hate, and suspicion that provoke lawless and immoral acts against those with whom we share this life.
Let us commit to welcoming the strangers in our lives by removing the barriers that serve to make us strangers. Join us in upholding people of all religions and no religion in the common spirit of the worth of all humanity.
We liked it. It’s a strong statement of condemnation that came out of our collective groaning. And I needed to voice something else that was welling up inside me. I wanted to address the fear and anxiety. I wanted us to speak from the courage of our faith against fighting violence with more violence. I wanted us to speak with a unified voice to the question: What if it happens here? So we went to work and added this:
We believe fear is the root of intolerance, and violence breeds violence. We choose another way. We will not live in fear. We will stand together with the courage our faith instills in us. As neighbors, we choose the way of love, peace and hope.
It could happen here. Hatred does happen here. We will not live in fear. We will stand as one community. These days drive us to our knees. And the good news is this: the Spirit meets us there and holds us in the love of God. Absolutely nothing can separate us from that love: no troubles, no hardships, no dangers – nothing.
Our world is in transition. Are we dying or are we giving birth to something new? Paul believes we groan with birthing pains. I don’t know what Paul would know about that – watching women in his day – without anesthesia I guess.
I pushed for 2.5 hours with my firstborn – after a long labor to get to be able to push. The pressure and pain was unbelievable. They were giving me something to take the edge off but nope. My sister was with me – she’d delivered six and I wanted her there to coach me – along with Andy of course. At one point, she took the doctor out into the hall. How long are you going to let this go on? She asked him. You let me do my job and you do yours, he said.
Isn’t that what we feel sometimes? How long are you going to let this go on, God? How long? The planet is dying… we’re fiddling…
You let me do my job and you do yours… Breathe and push… wait… breathe and push… wait… breathe and push… wait…
We don’t know what we’re waiting for. We don’t know what we’re hoping for. We don’t know what will come. All that is beyond our pay grade. There’s some truth to the t.s. eliot poem:
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing;
wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing;
there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light,
and the stillness the dancing.
Something new is coming. Don’t be afraid. Midwife patience. Strength, Lord… Courage, Lord… Endurance, Lord… Trust, Lord… Come.
Scripture: Romans 6:1-14
Almost all of the very first followers of the Way of Jesus were adults. The movement spread because the disciples of Jesus did what he charged them to do: Go and make disciples. Baptize them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach them what I’ve taught you.
Through the ritual of baptism, converts went fully under the water with their old life and rose up new. In Paul’s language, they buried the life they lived apart from Christ and emerged into a new life in him. They took on Christ… heart, mind and soul.
The early church took this seriously. Those who wanted to join the Way of Jesus, entered a 1-3 year process of intensive preparation. They were required to study and serve, worship and participate in conversations about ethics.
Their training culminated in an Easter vigil Saturday night when all of the new initiates were baptized, experiencing their own dying and rising with Christ into the dawn of Easter Sunday morning.
The symbolism was rich and meaningful. As they came up out of the water, their brothers and sisters in Christ laid hands on them and gave them white robes to wear. Then they’d celebrate communion together as one at the table of the Lord. Baptism was a radical step.
Colossians 3: Your old life is dead. Your new life, which is your real life—is with Christ in God… You’re done with that old life. It’s like a filthy set of ill-fitting clothes you’ve stripped off and put in the fire. Now you’re dressed in a new wardrobe. Every item of your new way of life is custom-made by the Creator, with his label on it. All the old fashions are now obsolete.
The metaphors are plentiful: new neighborhood, new address, new clothes, new language, new life. Down with the old… up with the new. That’s the imagery of baptism… full immersion adult conversion baptism that is.
From the beginning, babies were baptized as members of the households of the newly converted. The parents felt pressure because they believed they were living in the last days… that Christ had ushered in a new kingdom and would return in their lifetimes to bring it to completion. Baptizing their whole households, they believed, guaranteed their inclusion in this kingdom. Decades and centuries passed and still people used the same justification: baptize babies before anything happens to guarantee their inclusion in God’s family.
What happened over time and generations, is that more and more babies were baptized and fewer and fewer adults. Theological language shifted from transformation to initiation. We welcome the baptized child into the family of God and into our particular family. Parents and congregations make promises on behalf of children to teach them so that one day they will speak for themselves.
Infant baptism is a powerful theological symbol of God’s grace: even before… long before that child has the intellectual capacity or vocabulary to call on God, God reaches out with love to claim that child. And that’s only the beginning. We believe God’s grace continues to act in our lives throughout our lives. Life transformation is and always has been the endgame. New mindset. New life in Christ.
And it’s a partnership. Grace without gratitude… grace without commitment… grace without obedience… grace without discipleship is, in the words of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, cheap grace.
Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our church, he wrote in the opening line of his book published in 1936, The Cost of Discipleship.
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without contrition. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field for the sake of which a man will gladly go and sell everything he has… the pearl of great price, to buy which the merchant will sell everything he owns… the kingly rule of Christ for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble… the call of Jesus at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him… Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.
Dying and rising. Bury the old… live into the new. It’s called costly because it’s hard-fought work. When Greek Orthodox priests baptize babies, they fully dunk them three times: in the name of the father and of the son and of the holy spirit. By the third time, the babies are almost always screaming. And they should be! said one Greek Orthodox priest, baptism is spiritual warfare.
Paul makes it sound easy: we packed up and left that old land… we live in a new light-filled home now… we don’t give sin the time of day – don’t even run little errands with it… we live wholeheartedly, hanging on every word of God… living free…
But it’s hard work to put to death a way of life that’s become so familiar and move into a new land. It doesn’t just happen without intention and purpose, risk and sacrifice — and a whole lot of grace and love.
Every one of Paul’s letters is written into some kind of church crisis where people are living and acting according to an old mindset — quarreling and selfish, gossiping and greedy, competitive and judgmental. Paul even confesses he does the very things he doesn’t want to do and doesn’t do the very things he knows are right to do. Old habits die hard… we bury them and they don’t stay dead.
It was July of 2007. I was with a team of people from our church on a mission trip to Detroit. At the same time, hundreds of people were gathered at Cobo Hall for the annual NAACP convention. We watched their unusual parade from a distance.
At its head was a horse drawn carriage carrying a pine coffin covered in black roses and a ribbon with the N-word. They were burying the N-word in 2007.
We need to take the word out of our spirit, said Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. Die N-word. We don’t want to see you around here no more.
We can plant the seed to a new word, said Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, the “A” word – All – we’re all in this together.
Some demonstrators who were there noted the NAACP had also staged a burial of Jim Crow laws at their convention in Detroit in 1944 and they remained in place until the 1960’s. Social change is slow and hard.
If the N-word is buried today, it’s buried alive, said Sam Riddle, a Detroit political consultant.
The NAACP convention organizers hoped for a mind-set change. They hoped to bury the hurt, the deep offense, the ignorance… to make racist language dead language… and to speak a new word of light, respect and honor.
It’s been over 20 years and the N-word is still very much alive.
A ritual didn’t kill it… penalty flags in the NFL don’t kill it. It’s like a whack-a-mole – it keeps coming back up with new applications: hiphop, locker rooms, stand-up comedy, it’s part of everyday language in some circles.
In 2018, the Washington Post did a video project about the N-word. They videotaped interviews across ethnicity, age, vocation, geography – asking common questions about it: When did you first hear it and how did it feel? What do you teach your children about the N-word? When was the first time you said it and why?
Who can and cannot use this word? Should it be banned? What will we be saying about the N-word 30 years from now?
There were a wide variety of answers:
It was never ok…
It’s a regular part of my speech all the time…
It’s a hurtful word – this race thing keeps poppin’ up – we can’t get rid of it
I’ve never said it
My mother used to say the shackles have been taken off the wrist and wrapped around the mind
We are continuing the oppressor’s work with this word
It’s our word – nobody can tell us we can’t use it.
It’s either everybody’s word or nobody’s word – and it’s long past time it should be nobody’s word.
It’s really about the motivation behind it – friend or foe? insider or outsider?
Using it in everyday language, according to the way we want to use it, frees it from its oppressive power.
As long as we use it, it lives and it needs to die.
One of the youngest people in the project, a 14-year old high school freshman said she couldn’t believe we were spending so much time and energy on it. It’s just a word, she said. That may be true, and what is also true is that it is perhaps the most freighted word in our English language.
It is the mindset that needs to change. The old hurtful, hateful, offensive, wounded, ignorant, controlling, belittling mindset behind the word needs to die and stay dead before real and lasting social healing and transformation happens.
Changing long-held ways of thinking and being is hard.
Several years ago I read a book written by Joel Green, a student of the Bible and neuroscience. It’s called: Body, Soul and Human Life. It’s a fascinating interpretation of Scripture in light of the physiology of the brain. How does the brain actually take on the mind of Christ? Why is it so difficult for us to transform into a new life… a new way of thinking and being?
Scientists now say it takes over 2 months to change a behavior or build a new habit. Read this book by Joel Green and you’ll believe it takes nothing short of God’s grace and miracle to change us.
First of all, we think things and do things that we’re not even aware of – attitudes and presumptions we’re blind to — embedded within our brains. Once we awaken to things that need to change… after the scales fall and we begin to see, it’s a day-to-day remapping of preexisting thoughts, patterns and behaviors – to something new.
Often they’re deep set patterns – maybe lifelong patterns of brain circuitry that need to be rewired.
So this dying and rising that Paul speaks of is truly a daily dying and rising… a daily and purposeful choice toward a different way of thinking and acting. Sometimes we act into a new way of thinking and sometimes we think into a new way of acting. Seeing may well be believing and believing is seeing too.
Let’s take a page out of the early church playbook:
- Be a part of a faithful community, encourage each other to work and change into the image of Christ.
- Engage in a full complement of study, service, worship and practical/ethical conversation.
- Trust that the whole enterprise is infused with God’s grace.
Together let us rise and make our home in the land of light and life.
May 26 — Memorial Day Weekend
Scripture: Romans 5:1-11
One of my professors in seminary used to say our new life doesn’t begin when we accept Christ, but when we accept that God in Christ accepts us. Do you see the difference? God is the primary actor. God is the one who friended us first – as Paul says – when we were at our worst– so that we — in realizing that – in believing that – in accepting that – we could become our best.
Talk about worst, Paul says, I was the worst.
When the risen Christ met Paul, then Saul, he was on his way to Damascus, orders in hand, to track down any and all followers of the Way of Jesus, drag them out of their homes and the marketplace, shackle them and bring them bound in chains to Jerusalem. Saul stood in the front row when the deacon Stephen was stoned. He was happy to hold the coats of those who did the stoning. Saul was on the front line of the movement to torment and torture believers into silence.
Chief among sinners he was – and then called to be an apostle. Forgiven, set right and repurposed for good. Accepted when he was at his worst so that he could become his best.
Remember in the days of our youth when teams were picked on the playground? I remember. It’s a painful memory for me. I wasn’t very athletic – couldn’t throw a ball then or now. I wasn’t very strong… couldn’t run very fast. All the best people were picked first. The captains wanted to win. I was always one of the last to be chosen. Not so for God’s team. Accepted… loved… forgiven… in spite of our flaws. God chooses us– knowing the whole of who we are and yearning to bring out the best of who we are.
Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done, said Bryan Stevenson, the author of Just Mercy and the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, the group in Montgomery Alabama behind the lynching museum.
It’s his personal credo. It guides his law practice for the underserved and drives his pursuit for individual, communal and national healing from the racial terrorism of our past. Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.
On this Memorial Day weekend, I want to share with you memories of a Prisoner of War named Jurgen Moltmann.
You can watch a video recorded in 2014 of Jurgen Moltmann by clicking on this link: https://www.trinitywallstreet.org/video/gods-unfinished-future-jurgen-moltmann-interview
Jurgen Moltmann is considered one of the most influential theologians of the last 50 years. Born in 1926 in Germany, he was drafted in 1943 into military service along with all of his classmates.
At the end of his first assignment, there was an airstrike. A 17-year old friend standing next to him was torn to pieces while Jurgen remained unscathed. Why am I alive? he cried out to a God he’d never known. What is the meaning and the purpose of my life?
Two years later, while fighting on the front line, Jurgen Moltmann surrendered to a British soldier. He was 19 years old and a prisoner of war. In the POW camp in Scotland where he was detained, his captors posted photos from Buchenwald and Auschwitz on the walls of his tent. Daily he and his German comrades sat with these horrifying images. Slowly the truth dawned. We saw ourselves mirrored in the eyes of the Nazi victims. Was this what we had fought for? Sickened by guilt and remorse, Moltmann often felt he would rather die than live to face what his nation had done.
Why have I survived when so many have died?
An American chaplain visited the camp, and he gave out copies of the New Testament and Psalms. While other prisoners griped that they’d rather have cigarettes, Moltmann took the gift and began to read.
The psalms of lament became his prayers. And when he read through the gospel of Mark and landed on the words of Jesus on the cross: My God, my God why have you forsaken me? He stopped and thought – he knows me.
Jesus is my brother in suffering and my redeemer from guilt. I never decided for Christ, as is often demanded of us, Moltmann said, but I am sure that then and there, in the dark pit of my soul, he found me. Christ’s godforsakenness showed me where God is, where he had been with me in my life, and where he would be in the future.
In 1947, he and other POWs were invited to the first international Christian student movement in Stanwick. They went, still wearing their wartime uniforms… guilty and ashamed. They were filled with fear and trembling… wondering what they would say about the mass murders and concentration camps of their homeland.
Instead, they were warmly welcomed as brothers in Christ… welcomed to eat and drink and to pray and sing with Christians from all over the world – even as far as Australia.
Then a group of Dutch students asked to speak with them directly. And Jurgen froze. He had fought in Holland in the battle of the Arnhem bridge. He was their enemy. What would they do to him? What would they say? Here’s how he remembers that meeting:
The Dutch students told us that Christ was the bridge on which they could cross to us, and that without Christ they would not be talking to us at all. They told us of the Gestapo terror, the loss of their Jewish friends and the destruction of their homes. We too could step onto this bridge that Christ had built from them to us, and could confess the guilt of our people and ask for reconciliation. At the end, we all embraced. For me, that was an hour of liberation. I was able to breathe again, felt like a human being again, and I returned cheerfully to the camp behind barbed wire.
A year later, after 3 years as a POW, Jurgen Moltmann emerged alive and free. He went to seminary and began developing a comprehensive Christian theology of hope in the midst of suffering for survivors of his generation… Jesus found him at his worst so that he could become his best.
Theology – the study of God – evolves from a context… from personal and communal experience. Remarkable and meaningful theology has been written out of social crisis: in Germany during and after World War II… in Africa during and after Apartheid… in America during and after the Civil War and failed reconstruction: God at work — summoning forth from the lost and the worst a promise of the best yet to come.
Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. God is invested in the more… the potential and promise for every individual, every community, every society… for the whole world, to be healed together.
In his letter from a Birmingham jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote:
In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…This is the inter-related structure of reality.
This inter-related social healing is what Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Institute is after in the Monument Placement Initiative.
At the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, there are 800 six foot monuments, one for each county in the United States with documented lynchings. And there are 800 duplicate monuments in a garden outside the square waiting to be claimed and installed in each of the counties. The dream is that one day every monument will go home and gathered around it will be a diverse collection of people – ancestors of victims and offenders alike – seeking healing together.
EJI believes: Public acknowledgment of mass violence is essential not only for victims and survivors, but also for perpetrators and bystanders who suffer from trauma and damage related to their participation in systematic violence and dehumanization.
It’s not a simple process. I’m working on Maury County Tennessee, home to my grandmother’s family. Not surprising, they won’t just let one person pick up the monument and take it home.
They’ll match me with others from Maury County and once we have enough for a coalition, we can begin the community readiness process: a combination of education, community engagement, and raising awareness. It could take a long time, filled with baby steps, but as Paul says, we know troubles can develop passionate patience and patience forges the tempered steel of virtue.
The goal is to meet on the bridge of Christ that Jurgen spoke of: where victims, survivors, perpetrators and bystanders are each loved well from all injustice and sin; each friended by God and free to friend each other.
In a 2014 lecture to a conference of American pastors, Jurgen Moltmann gave this charge:
Whoever you meet, he said, even if you know nothing about this person, consider him or her a believer because God is believing in him or believing in her. Love without limits. God’s justice is for the victims of sin and the slaves of sin to overcome on all sides. We will see the glory of the LORD but we will only see it together.
Why have I survived when so many have died? It was the question that kept Jurgen Moltmann awake at night remembering his 17-year-old friend… remembering the faces in the photos of Auschwitz… remembering all of his fallen comrades and those who died fighting on every side. It is the question for us this Memorial Day weekend.
Why are you… why am I… why are we alive? What is God’s dream for us?
A Reflection and Prayer from a former chaplain to the US Navy serving sailors and marines:
Often, for many of our military who died in action, a chaplain is the last person in charge of their soul. In harm’s way, these faithful servants of God do not just stand beside the men and women in various branches of the service, we wear the uniform.
A chaplain’s work continues much farther than the base chapel. We labor in jungles, deserts, mountains, on ship at sea and in the air; wherever our people are stationed, the chaplain is there.
Our congregation is much different from a neighborhood church. It is primarily younger men and women, and these congregations can change, through transfers and deployments, every two to three years. They also come from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, some from the city, and some from the country.
We live, work, and play together; we cry, laugh and bemoan together; we hurt, feel loneliness and anger together; celebrate, rejoice and glorify together.
When conducting services on deployments overseas we do not get into our cars and drive to our homes away from our membership and not see them until the next service. We walk to the chow hall or the barracks or even to the brig to do ministry and sometimes that ministry is just of presence.
Memorial Day for military members is a somber day. It is a day to reflect on friends lost, comrades who gave the last measure for the cause of freedom.
We reflect on how God has guided us through battles, storms and driving wind. How God has allowed some of us to remain to proclaim the honor of our fallen friends, wounded nonetheless but still here.
Our country is still occupied in war; not only are military men and women in constant danger, but their loved ones have many concerned trepidations.
When you pray on Memorial Day please pray with the intent of remembrance and thankfulness.
The following is a Memorial Day prayer by a colleague in ministry Austin Fleming.
Let us pray:
In the quiet sanctuaries of our own hearts,
let each of us name and call on the One whose power over us
is great and gentle, firm and forgiving, holy and healing …
You who created us,
who sustain us,
who call us to live in peace,
hear our prayer this day.
Hear our prayer for all who have died,
whose hearts and hopes are known to you alone …
Hear our prayer for those who put the welfare of others
ahead of their own
and give us hearts as generous as theirs …
Hear our prayer for those who gave their lives
in the service of others,
and accept the gift of their sacrifice …
Help us to shape and make a world
where we will lay down the arms of war
and turn our swords into ploughshares
for a harvest of justice and peace …
Comfort those who grieve the loss of their loved ones
and let your healing be the hope in our hearts…
Hear our prayer this day
and in your mercy answer us
in the name of all that is holy.
Amen. The peace of God be with you.
Scripture: Romans 1:1-17
The Bible is filled with a variety of types of literature. We might best think of it as a library as opposed to a book. Within it are books of poetry and history, law and prophecy… books about the life of Jesus, the birth of the church and letters written in the first century from pastors and teachers to churches.
For the next three weeks, we’ll be reading excerpts from a letter written by the Apostle Paul to Christian churches in Rome. Romans is the longest letter in the Bible. That’s why it’s the first of several letters in the New Testament. It’s not the oldest or the earliest written. In fact it’s one of the latest.
Paul wrote this letter after he had already started churches in Asia. Most think he was writing from Corinth in the mid-late 50’s.
Unlike other letters Paul wrote as founding pastor to his churches, Paul’s not been to Rome. These are not his churches.
He knows about them and he’s excited to visit with them. He’ll send this letter by courier to Rome where it will be read aloud and then circulated among the house churches.
This morning we are only reading the beginning of the letter. Think of it like a cover letter – a highlight of what’s to come.
Imagine we’re gathered together in someone’s house, as a community – an ekklesia – an assembly, a gathering of brothers and sisters of the Way of Christ. A scroll has arrived from our brother Paul. He’s like a celebrity. All but a few of us have never met him. He keeps making plans to come to Rome and canceling. For now, a letter is the best we can do and we love getting mail from him.
Reading of Romans 1:1-17
Ministry is a second career for me. Out of college, I worked in corporate sales. I had a number of different positions throughout the eleven years I worked for the company. Somewhere around the midpoint of my time there, I was a product line specialist. That meant I went out with the sales teams to customer presentations that involved my area of expertise. My credentials allowed me to speak with authority. I was brought in to help close the deal.
By that time in my career, I had a deep working knowledge of the product line, but more importantly, I believed in it. I believed I had the best solution on the market. I believed I had the most comprehensive support staff. I believed in the reputation of the company I worked for. I brought references with me – other customers with similar applications. I spoke with conviction because my heart was in it. I really believed in what I was selling.
Several years after I left the company and after I’d finished seminary, I stood in the pulpit of the First Presbyterian Church in Plymouth and gave my first sermon. One of the people in the congregation had formerly worked for me – he was a member of my sales team.
I watched you up there, he said, and I listened to you preach, like I had listened to you speak so many times before. Different crowd… different circumstance… different topic. But as I listened, it struck me – you used to peddle long distance data and voice networks and now you’re peddling God!
The Apostle Paul was a God-peddler. In fact, if you were looking to expand your market presence in Rome, Paul was the specialist on life transformation you’d want to bring in. He spoke with authority. His credentials were impressive. After over 5 years in the field, his base included churches all up and down Asia Minor.
He’s convincing because he believes it. He’s passionate about it. He’s given his whole heart to it. He’s done a lot of oppositional research and he is sure that every other solution is flawed. From Jewish law to Greek philosophies, every other way of ordering life, Paul believes, will ultimately lead to destruction… a bankrupt heart. His way… the way of Jesus… is the way of life for everyone. Whatever the question, the answer is Jesus. All up and down the economic and religious spectrum – wherever and whoever you are, he has got a deal for you.
He’s selling cosmic deliverance: healing, safety, rescue, salvation from anything and everything that threatens to undo or destroy an individual, families, communities, churches, even the world. He’ll talk to anybody of any cultural or religious background. In Paul’s mind, the way of Jesus transcends every human ideology or system.
He’s excited to go to Rome because it’s the heart of the empire. As Rome transforms, the world transforms – or so he fervently believes. And by the middle of the first century, it’s already happening. Paul is excited to join the team in Rome – to encourage them and be encouraged by them. He wants to share his insights from the field and strengthen their witness. He wants to hear their stories and build on them. He desperately wants to work side by side with them, but until he can get there in person, this letter has to suffice.
In it, he makes the case, based on his life experience, all he’s seen and heard and what he believes God has revealed to him. He’s bursting with good news… great news… world changing news… about life the way it was intended… about freedom from all that enslaves us… about healing from all manner of woundedness… about restoration from all that is broken.
Far from an exclusive tribal doctrine, Paul is peddling an inclusive world-saving plan. It’s extraordinary. Even death yields to it. He believes in this and trusts in this without reservation. Can you? Will you?
You used to peddle long distance data and voice networks and now you’re peddling God! Steve said, and I was a little offended. It sounded kind of crass… like I was some 2-bit huckster. He didn’t mean it that way. I’m not sure he meant it any particular way – he was merely making an interesting observation.
What do you think about that label: God peddler? Why was I initially offended by the idea? Maybe because peddle has such synonyms as hawk, push, flog, hype… it conjurs up images of snake-oil salesmen… it doesn’t seem to fit alongside God – we don’t market God… or do we?
In 2016, Group ran an online article entitled: 5 Insights Into Why Pastors Need a Marketing Degree. Here are their points:
- Insider Language: Push for Clarity: I’ll admit, I chose the Message translation for these three weeks of Romans because Romans is so filled with insider language it’s confusing to me and I have a Masters Degree in Theology. Some of our insider language isn’t even clear to insiders let alone outsiders. We are wise to push for clarity for all of us. Does that need a marketing degree or common sense?
- Understand what you are asking people to do. Give a call to action: Be direct, they say, if you want people to sign up by April 30, give them a deadline. Tell them what you want them to do. Jesus said: Follow me. Paul said: Imitate me as I imitate Jesus. A call to action… hmmmm
- Finish What You Started: Keep Your Website Updated: I’m all in on this one. I know people look for information about churches on social media and it matters what the page looks like and how current the content – bulletin boards too – people do notice. Again, I have a marketing degree, but this feels more like common sense.
- Learn the basics: Jesus was a great marketer: By this, they mean Jesus was out – inviting people to join him. But would we say he was a marketer? He packaged the kingdom of God in parables – he didn’t make it overly palatable… didn’t coerce… pick up your cross and follow me? I seem to remember people left him when the teachings got too hard to swallow.
- Know your brand. Realize you have a brand: Several years ago a friend of mine said, with regard to Christianity, You have a brand problem. And I agree.
To know our brand is to know Christianity and what it means to be followers of the Way of Jesus – and when that’s not the same thing. To know our brand is to know what it means to be Presbyterian and to know what it means to be First Presbyterian Tecumseh and to know what we stand for. It is about image and projection into the community. We do have a brand and it’s worth asking around the community to see what people say it is.
Marketing degree? I don’t know. But I do know this: we are convincing if we are authentic. We are authentic if we believe what we say and do. Paul believed he had the best solution – the only real and true solution for delivering a fallen humanity; the way of Jesus: the way of sacrificial love… the way of God’s dream of peace and wellness and wholeness and justice for all creation… the way of forgiveness and grace.
When I was in sales, people bought from me because I believed… I really believed I was selling the best product on the market for their application. I really believed in the dependability of the support team. I really believed in the reputation of the company. And I had references to prove it.
How much more is this? How much more do we believe in the cosmic deliverance of God in Christ? How much more do we believe in the healing power of faithful community gathered in prayer? How much more do we believe in the steadfast, never failing, dependable reputation of God? How much more do we believe in the radical forgiveness spoken from the cross? For all people.
God-peddlers? Try it on, see what you think. If it fits, wear it.
May 12 — Mother’s Day
Scripture: Acts 13:1-3; 14:8-18
Of the 34 women listed in the opening video, one is the mother of Mother’s Day. She was the mother of 6 children, a preacher, a social activist, a suffragette, and an abolitionist. Known by some in her day as the dearest old lady in America, you may know her best as a poet. Undoubtedly, you know her most famous poem: The Battle Hymn of the Republic:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword: His truth is marching on.
When she wrote that poem at the end of 1861, Julia Ward Howe believed the Union troops were fighting a righteous war with God’s blessing. And by the end of that decade, seeing the full devastation of the Civil War, she had a complete change of heart and became an advocate for peace.
Reflecting on this time in her autobiography, Howe said: This question forced itself on me, ‘Why do not the mothers of mankind interfere in these matters, to prevent the waste of human life of which they alone bear and know the cost? The dignity of motherhood and its terrible responsibilities now appeared to me in a new aspect, and I could think of no better way of expressing my sense of these than that of sending forth an appeal to womanhood throughout the world, which I then and there composed:
Arise, all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or of tears! Say firmly: “We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies, our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.
“Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”
From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says, “Disarm, disarm! The sword is not the balance of justice.” Blood does not wipe out dishonor nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel. Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each learning after his own time, the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God.
In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.
Julia Ward Howe envisioned a Mother’s Day gathering would occur every year on the 2nd of June when flowers were abundant… each learning after his own time, the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God. I did say she was a preacher…
Whether your baptism be of water or of tears, we wear the mark of God … a cross on the forehead a seal on the heart.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience… the qualities and attributes of people bearing the impression of God.
Howe’s own life had undergone the transformation from the mark of empire to the mark of God and she hoped for the nation to do the same through Mother’s Days.
We are standing on the shoulders of the ones who came before us, They are saints and they are humans, they are angels, they are friends…
Saints– set apart… filled with the Holy Spirit…and humans… angels… messengers sent by God… and friends.
Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you, cried Paul and Barnabas to the people of Lystra. They looked like them – flesh and blood like them – but they weren’t like them… that man had lived among them lame his whole life. And with a word, he now walked. If they weren’t gods, what were they?
The difference was in the sacred impress: NOT Caesar… not the religion of the empire… not Roman gods… Paul and Barnabas bore the impress of God.
It’s not passive. It’s empowering. “Stand up!” Paul said to the man. “Stand up!” Julia Ward Howe said to women around the country. Stand up… stand with… stand for say people of God from age to age. Have courage. Be brave. Be bold. Ours is a partnership.
When we are marked with the cross of Christ at our baptism, we are united in the life and mission, and in the person and work of Jesus Christ. We are joined in his ministry of love, peace and justice. We are his hands. We are his feet. We are his heart in the world.
We are not idle, passive worshippers, we are engaged activists for a transformed world. When the church of Antioch laid hands on Paul and Barnabas… when we lay hands on our elders and deacons and people who are being commissioned for a mission trip, we are calling on the Holy Spirit to fill them with power to empower others to work toward God’s dream for the world.
Do we know what to do with this kind of power?
Marianne Williamson writes:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness
That most frightens us.
We ask ourselves
Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small
Does not serve the world.
There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking
So that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine,
As children do.
We were born to make manifest
The glory of God that is within us.
It’s not just in some of us;
It’s in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine,
We unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we’re liberated from our own fear,
Our presence automatically liberates others.
The impress of the living God is empowering. Where the power of empire is exploitative and manipulated for personal gain, the power of God is emptying – continuously poured out for others.
Lystra is Paul’s temptation in the wilderness. Like Satan who tempted Jesus with offers of kingdoms and glory, the Lycaonians with their wreaths and their garlands, their parades and their sacrifices –worshipped Paul and Barnabas. They placed them on pedestals and called them gods. What a nice change from the constant threats of stoning, jail and persecution! Except that was not the way of Christ.
Imitate me as I imitate Christ, Paul wrote to his churches: Let this mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself… he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.
Woman after woman in the opening video poured themselves out that others may vote… that others may have access to healthcare… they poured themselves out to save the environment and to shepherd people to freedom…
They were, all of them, mothers enduring the birth pangs of progress.
When Elizabeth Blackwell’s friend was dying and told her everything would have been so much better had she had a woman physician, Blackwell set out to be the first woman with a medical degree. The idea of winning a doctor’s degree gradually assumed the aspect of a great moral struggle, and the moral fight possessed immense attraction for me, Blackwell said.
In 1847, she applied to all 29 medical schools in Philadelphia and New York City and was rejected by every single one of them. She was accepted to Geneva Medical College in Western New York State because the administrators allowed the other students to decide if they would admit a woman and they thought it was a joke and said yes.
Professors forced her to sit separately in lectures. They held labs without her. Townspeople called her a “bad woman” for challenging gender roles. And in 1849 she completed her degree, graduating at the top of her class.
Door after door was closed to her and she persevered. Eventually she opened a clinic for women and children with her sister in 1857 and later founded several women’s hospitals and medical schools. At the time of her death in 1910, America had over 7000 practicing women with medical diplomas.
The impress of the living God is empowering, emptying and earthly.
We are human like you, said Paul to the people of Lystra, and we bring you good news about the living God who out of kindness, provides all of our earthly needs: rain, food, joy.
People love to raise up heroes and idols: athletes, actors, politicians and preachers. Friends don’t let friends live at altitude, says Parker Palmer. Living at altitude is dangerous. When we fall, as we regularly do, we have a long way to fall, and the fall may kill us. But a life on the ground — a life grounded in the reality of our own nature and our right relationship to the world — allows us to stumble and fall, get back up, brush ourselves off, and take next steps without doing ourselves great harm.
Ambitious people climb; faithful people build, said Julia Ward Howe – and keep on building without ever knowing where efforts will lead.
In 1873, three years after she wrote the Mother’s Day Proclamation, Julia Ward Howe organized the first Mother’s Day in 18 cities throughout the country. Sadly, her dream of a galvanized group of women to advocate for peace didn’t catch on – not even enough to have a Mothers Day celebration the next year.
In her words: The ladies … were not much interested in my scheme of a world-wide protest of women against the cruelties of war.
Meanwhile, in another part of the country, Ann Jarvis led a different kind of grassroots mother’s day enterprise against the cruelties of war. In the mid-1800’s, she started local mother’s day work clubs — groups of women sent out house to house caring for and teaching mothers and children about issues of public health and hygiene.
Throughout and following the Civil War, these work clubs continued — caring for the needs of confederate and union families alike — they refused to take sides.
After her death in May of 1905, her daughter Anna took up the charge for a national day to honor mothers like hers who modeled the impress of God: empowering, emptying, earthly. In 1914 President Woodrow Wilson signed Mother’s Day into law for the 2nd Sunday of May.
It didn’t take long for the impress of Caesar to take hold of it. By the 1920’s what had been initially about personal honor and handmade cards was commercialized.
Anna Jarvis was furious. She initiated a national boycott of Mother’s Day as it had become– threatening lawsuits against the companies that exploited it for their own profit. In 1923 she staged a protest at a national candy convention in Philadelphia and when American War Mothers sold carnations as a fundraiser for Mother’s Day, Jarvis was arrested for disturbing the peace.
Which brings us full circle.
Whether this day is a day to advocate for peace, to honor the mothers of progress, to remember our own mothers, or all of the above, let us learn anew, this day, the sacred impress NOT of Caesar… NOT of empire… but rather of the living God upon our hearts… upon our lives… upon our world.
May 5 — Stories from Montgomery
Scripture: Acts 10:1-17, 34-48
Visiting Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church was not in the original itinerary for our Montgomery bus trip. But spending time in the church where Martin Luther King, Jr. served as pastor from 1954-1960, and especially spending time with Wanda and her team of angels there, made all the difference.
Someone traveling with us said he was glad we went there before the lynching museum.
I was glad we went there after Selma and before the lynching museum.
Here’s a question: Why do we choose to go on journeys of intense heartbreak?
Did you have a good time? people asked when we returned. I don’t know about a good time.
We knew it would be hard, and we had no idea how hard. We knew the history, and not the details.
It was amazing to walk the Edmund Pettus bridge and feel a sense of solidarity with those who marched for the right to vote. And it was gut wrenching to look below the bridge, named for Edmund Pettus, senior officer of the Confederate army, Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan and then elected to two terms as a senator representing Alabama… gut wrenching to look below the bridge and remember that those marchers on Bloody Sunday wondered if they could swim because they might have to… gut wrenching to walk over the rise of the bridge and imagine the sea of blue state troopers coming up on them…pushing them back with clubs and tear gas… back to Brown Chapel and beyond, some beating men back to the steps of their homes …
It was humbling to meet George on the other side of the bridge—George marched that day with a scar on his head to prove it… and then he marched again days later all the way to the state capital in Montgomery.
There are dozens of footprints in the pavement facing the capital in front of the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church; footprints memorializing the 25,000 people who stood together for the right to vote, many having walked the 54 miles between Selma and Montgomery, sometimes past angry white men yelling: you’ll get to vote when we say you can vote.
Permission is a word that framed much of the black experience in this country, our friend and traveling companion Deanne from the Bethel AME church in Adrian told us.
At the door to Dr. King’s church, they welcomed us. They threw their arms around each and every one of us as if they were absolutely delighted to see us. They didn’t care who we were or where we were from – to them we were brothers and sisters and we were welcome.
Wanda took us into Dr. King’s office where he ran the Montgomery bus boycott, and she preached to us about love. She pointed to the family photo on the wall and told us the story of the murder of Alberta Williams King, the mother of MLK, Jr. Six years after his assassination, while she was playing the organ at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, a 23-year-old black man from Ohio entered the church and shot her.
His intended target was MLK, Sr. but not seeing him in the sanctuary and thinking her death would hurt him more, he killed her.
With all that tragedy and all that personal heartache, Martin Luther King, Sr. chose love, Wanda told us. When I heard that, she said, it was as if he reached right into my heart. If he can still choose love, I can still chose love and you all can still keep on choosing love.
Then Wanda took us to the sanctuary where we sang Amazing Grace – Sandy played the piano – and then we joined hands with Wanda and her company of angels and sang We Shall Overcome. Not someday, Wanda said, today. We Shall Overcome Today.
Come tomorrow for worship, she said. Good preaching… good singing… good praying… no more than 2 hours. And then they hugged every one of us as we left… giving us a blessing on our way.
I think it is one of the tragedies of our nation, one of the shameful tragedies, that eleven o’clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours, if not the most segregated hours, in Christian America, Martin Luther King, Jr. said in 1960. He was being interviewed on Meet the Press.
King continued: I definitely think the Christian church should be integrated, and any church that stands against integration and that has a segregated body is standing against the spirit and the teachings of Jesus Christ, and it fails to be a true witness. But this is something that the Church will have to do itself. I don’t think church integration will come through legal processes. I might say that my church is not a segregating church. It’s segregated but not segregating. It would welcome white members. Sure does — to this day.
Nearly 60 years later, Sunday mornings are still the most segregated hour of the week. 86% of American churches are predominantly one racial group. We are segregated racially and denominationally today. It’s been hard even getting clergy together in this town — despite the continued feedback from the community that we love to worship together.
When we were planning last night’s Service of Remembrance, John from Handler told me one of the pastors in town wanted to participate but his congregation wouldn’t allow it. Their church constitution forbids them from participating in any worship that blends their traditions with those of other Christian groups.
Church law would have kept Peter and Cornelius from ever being under the same roof together. Yet God had a different plan. They needed each other.
Cornelius needed Peter to tell him and his family and friends the story of Jesus.
And Peter needed Cornelius to bear witness to the broad reach of God’s kingdom… to blow the lid off the box of his firmly held beliefs and demonstrate the freedom of the Spirit. Peter needed Cornelius because although Romans were oppressors, all Roman soldiers weren’t alike.
The biblical storyteller leaves out the details of Peter’s 39 mile journey from Joppa to Caesarea. He was a Jew and vocal follower of Jesus. For that, he’d spent time in prison in Jerusalem. One of his colleagues, Stephen was publically stoned by a religious mob. There was severe persecution in the region for all of the followers of Jesus. One of the leaders of the mob was Saul.
All of the apostles knew the Jewish leadership conspired with the Romans to kill Jesus. And now Peter, flanked by Roman guards was being taken to a Roman captain. What kind of journey was this? How would it end? What would it call forth from him?
Unlike those who marched to meet their oppressors in Selma who, in the words of one of them, kept stepping two by two, one foot in front of the other one, marching resolutely into hell, because it was so clear that we were going to be beaten… Peter marched to meet Cornelius believing him to be a different kind of Roman.
The guards said he was a centurion and an upright and God-fearing man… well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation. Still… no matter how stellar his reputation, it was against Jewish law for Peter to go into a Gentile house… to associate with him… to visit with him. He was unclean, impure.
Yet there was that dream… if God says it’s ok, it’s ok… what God has made clean, you are not to declare unclean. What was happening?
The gospel soared to new heights that day in Caesarea. What was previously unimaginable happened: a Roman household was baptized in the name of Christ. Jews and Romans, oppressed and oppressors became church together.
Last weekend, we had Catholics and Baptists, Presbyterians and Methodists, African Methodist Episcopalians and Church of God together as church on a pilgrimage. We ate, prayed, and sang together.
In the past we killed each other for the sake of church law and purity: Catholics and Protestants, Reformers and Anabaptists, blacks and whites. And last weekend our hearts broke open together and we held hands praying for a new day and a new way to work toward it together.
We need each other. Interpreting the good news of God’s kingdom is too big a job for one denomination, one theology, one doctrine, one religion. God’s love is too big.
When we walked through the Peace and Justice Memorial, also known as the lynching memorial – each of us experienced it in our own way.
It is the only museum of its kind in the country… the only one with the courage to reveal the gruesome truth of this part of our history.
We stood in front of and later under 800 six-foot steel monuments, one for each county across the United States with documented lynchings, engraved with names and dates.
I walked through it as a white female Christian pastor… as a mother, wife, sister –from the north with family from the south.
I was horrified and sickened to hear of the thousands who joined the mobs with their children on their shoulders, smiling for photographs under hanging bodies… photographs turned into postcards they sent to their friends with captions like: you missed a good time or this is the barbecue we had last night… knowing that many of those in the mob were in church Sunday after Sunday…
And that’s not just history. The 19-year old shooter at the California synagogue just over a week ago regularly attended the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He spoke openly about his faith, saying his intention to kill Jews would glorify God. He didn’t get his beliefs from his family, he said. Yet, as one Orthodox Presbyterian pastor said: We can’t pretend as though we didn’t have some responsibility for him — he was radicalized into white nationalism from within the very midst of our church.
Renowned black liberation theologian James Cone wrote a book in 2011 called: The Cross and the Lynching Tree.
The cross and the lynching tree interpret each other, Cone wrote. Both were public spectacles, shameful events, instruments of punishment reserved for the most despised people in society… The crowd’s shout ‘Crucify him!’ anticipated the white mob’s shout ‘Lynch him!’
Jesus’ agonizing final cry of abandonment from the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’, was similar to the lynched victim Sam Hose’s awful scream as he drew his last breath, ‘Oh, my God! Oh, Jesus.’ In each case it was a cruel, agonizing, and contemptible death.”
It was not easy for blacks to find a language to talk about Christianity publicly because the Jesus they embraced was also, at least in name, embraced by whites who lynched black people.
Terrorism normalized; dressed up in its Sunday best.
Why do we intentionally go to places of heartbreak? To listen, to grow in empathy and compassion, to confess, to wake up to and stand up to the very real shouts of the mob around us still and to bear witness: fervently with our prayers and our actions to the crucified Christ who relentlessly chose love.
There are duplicate steel monuments for each county in a garden surrounding the ones hanging on display. The dream is this: each duplicate monument will go home to the county where the lynchings happened to be installed as a standing stone memorial, around which, the community can gather together in truth, in repentance, in reconciliation and in resolve to honor the dignity and humanity of all people. And in so doing, honestly move forward.
Ever since last weekend, I’ve been thinking about Maury County, Tennessee where my grandmother grew up and many of my family still live. Five documented lynchings took place there between 1877 and 1933. I’m on some kind of personal journey with this and I don’t know where it will end or what it will call forth from me, but I’m thankful for it. I’m remembering the empty tomb beyond the cross – the redemptive symbol of our faith where, in the words of the late James Cone: God snatches victory out of defeat, life out of death, and hope out of despair.
And in my heart, I carry Wanda and her love and every one of those Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist angels who welcomed us and blessed us on our way.
April 28 — Holy Humor Sunday
April 21 — Easter
Scripture: Matthew 28:1-10
God is the lead actor in all the great stories of our faith: from the dawn of the world to the dawn of that first Easter morning and to the dawn of every new day… and new beginning… and new hope awakened.
Matthew goes to great lengths to make this point – with more special effects than any of the other gospel storytellers. Even nature bears witness: the earth quakes – as if this event is of the kind that would rock the foundations of the world… light breaks through the darkness at dawn – as if recalling the beginning of time when God “let there be light”, and there was light… and behold! there’s a glowing angel – a sure sign — flashing like lightning with power to move a stone – not so the man inside the tomb can get out – but so the women can see he’s already gone!
According to Matthew, the stone that sealed the tomb and the soldiers who guarded it were all still in place when the women arrived… and Jesus was already out… raised from death to life and out.
In all the great stories of our faith, significant things happen behind the scenes… without eyewitnesses… without rock solid scientific evidence.
Nobody saw Jesus exit the grave. There were no security cameras. He just wasn’t there anymore.
What the authors of the New Testament of the Bible said, in their various ways was this: we watched them nail him to a cross and we watched him die. We watched them take him down and lay him in the tomb. We watched them seal it with a rock and place soldiers to guard it. And against all reason… just when all seemed dark and lost, hopeless and over, the tomb was empty.
And with that, those first followers of Jesus believed: it’s not over until God says it’s over. It’s time for us to act.
In the grand sweeping story of God and in all the great stories of our faith, there are supporting actors – people who carry the action forward – on and off the stage.
For every big name: Peter and James and John, Mary and Paul, Lydia and Tabitha, Perpetua, Polycarp, St. Francis, and Julian of Norwich… for every headliner: Martin Luther, John Calvin, Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu, Anne Frank, Lucy Wright, Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King, Jr., there are hundreds of thousands whose names we might never hear and yet who play a vital role in carrying the story forward. Every character matters.
For example, we might not have heard the name Arlene Schuiteman if Jeff Barker hadn’t gone to see her because somebody told him that Arlene knew Betty Greene.
Jeff Barker is a playwright in Iowa. He was considering writing a play about Betty Greene, a female pilot and interesting in her own right, but by the second meeting with 83 year old Arlene, Jeff knew the story he had to write was about her.
She was a 20-year-old Iowa farm girl with a high school diploma and an elementary school teaching certificate when she went to a mission festival in 1944. It was 6 miles from her farm, and the speakers came from all around the world, talking about what Christians like Arlene were doing in faraway lands. A doctor talked about the urgent need for nurses in Arabia. What about you, he asked the crowd, did you ever want to be a nurse?
He might as well have been speaking directly to her because in that moment, Arlene realized– that’s exactly what she’d always wanted to be. And she already had a teaching contract in Iowa. Eight years later she applied to nursing school.
By the mid-1950’s, she was sent to Africa. Arlene worked as a medical mission nurse for 8 years in South Sudan until she was expelled by the Sudanese government and never able to return again. Their official position was that Arlene, a 39-year-old missionary nurse was a revolutionary. The truth was that the government didn’t want missionaries providing medical care to Southern Sudan. They didn’t want anyone providing medical care for Southern Sudan. They wanted the black tribal southerners to die. 500,000 people died in the first Sudanese civil war between 1955 and 1972, with hundreds of thousands more forced to leave their homes.
Arlene came home disillusioned and defeated. In all her time there, only a couple of people had begun to practice the faith she’d gone there to share. Once home she lost track of Sudanese friends who had either died or fled. 20,000 boys of the Nuer and Dinka ethnic groups became known as “the lost boys” of Sudan. Her village was Nuer.
40 years later, Arlene learned that Nuer people were settling in various sections of Sioux Falls. In each neighborhood they’d find a church and ask to use its sanctuary for worship once a month on Sunday afternoons. There were 6 groups. Arlene, then 79, began making the 90 minute drive on Sundays to worship with each one.
One Sunday there was a visiting woman preacher at the Nuer worship service. After the sermon she looked at Arlene and asked her in English: Will you please tell us who you are? She answered first in English: I am Arlene Schuiteman of Sioux Center Iowa. Then she answered in Nuer. I am Nya BiGoaa Jon from Nasir.
After worship, a young man who attended the university an hour away approached her. I think you knew my father, he said. He introduced himself. She thought she might faint. He taught me your language, she said. His uncle had been one of the men who became Christian while Arlene was in Nasir. Many of his family became Christians, the young man said. His son is a pastor in Minneapolis.
On Easter Sunday of her 80th year, she stood on her front porch as a throng of Nuer climbed out of a car: children, adults and one older woman she’d known in Nasir. The older woman took Arlene’s hands, lifted her eyes and began to pray in Nuer: Old Father, we call on you now… You are the one with power. Let your heart be soft. We are praising you now! And the room responded: We are praising you now. What has God done? She called out. What has God done! They said in response.
And Arlene wondered if that moment was what God intended all along.
With her permission, Jeff Barker wrote a play about her life. College student actors took it on tour for two months and then they brought the story home to Arlene’s hometown. That night, there were over 1000 people in attendance including two friends she’d worked with in Sudan: Eleanor Vandevort (Vandy), a linguist who translated the gospel of John into Nuer, and Dr. Bob Gordon, her medical supervisor, who’d come from a nursing home with his son. There were Sudanese natives who’d come from several different states.
At the end of the play, one Sudanese man stood and said: I want you to think of the most famous movie star you know. Think what it would be like to meet that person. That’s how we feel being here tonight and meeting Arlene and Vandy and Bob. We’ve heard about them all of our growing up years. We are Christians today because of what they did for us.
In 1963, Arlene left the Sudan feeling discouraged and lost. It’s not over until God says it’s over.
When Arlene turned 90 a few years ago, she gave Jeff Barker all of her journals; 46 years of the details of her life packed in boxes. Ask me anything you want to know about them, she said. And when you’re finished with them, I don’t want them back. You decide what to do with them. Last year Jeff Barker released a book of her life story and last month Northwestern College students concluded a ten performance tour of the play with the same name: Sioux Center Sudan.
She was 83 years old when she met Jeff Barker at her kitchen table in Sioux Center, Iowa. He went there because someone told him she knew Betty Greene. That’s how God works.
Tell the brothers to go to Galilee and they will see me there, Jesus said.
Galilee… their home.
Galilee… where they first started following Jesus.
Galilee… where they learned and practiced a new way of life.
Galilee… where they believed the world would change.
The poet t.s. eliot wrote: We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.
They’d go home, but Galilee would never be the same because they would never be the same because they’d followed Jesus. That was their story to tell.
How could they know 2000 years ago, how this movement would unfold? How could they know of the countless stories over the centuries, of God at work in and through people, intersecting with one another’s lives restoring, rebuilding, redeeming… revealing a way of life once taught by Jesus of Nazareth, their teacher?
History is full of stories of people playing a part in a bigger drama they never see evolve. Great abbeys like Corcomroe in Ireland– the site of our prayer of confession this morning… Legend has it King Donald O’Brien commissioned the building of the abbey in the 12th century and then executed the five masons who completed it so they would never build a rival masterpiece anywhere else. As they worked, did those masons dream of the monks who would one day call the abbey they had built home? How could they have imagined that people 800 years later would gather in its ruins on the dawn of an Easter morning to worship?
Around the same time, in Paris, builders began working on the cathedral of Notre Dame. Those first builders never saw it finished, nor would they know of the people who would be married, buried and crowned there… They’d never know the damage it would suffer during the French Revolution and how it would be rebuilt… or the devastation of the flames last week and the way the world may come together to raise it to life again.
We all have stories to share… stories of people who’ve come in and out of our lives, in their own way speaking or living the way of Jesus with us… teaching us, reminding us, encouraging us… Sometimes we don’t even learn their names yet we know we’ve been touched by grace.
Sometimes we tell each other these stories. And sometimes without knowing it, we’ve shared just what’s needed, just when it’s needed.
All the while, God, the lead actor in the whole great drama, joyfully keeps weaving and threading and building and rebuilding… and raising, always raising from death to life… from dark to light… from disappointment to joy – in your life… in my life… throughout the world.
Jeff Barker’s 2018 book about Arlene Schuiteman’s life opens with these words: At the time of this writing, the town of Nasir in South Sudan has diminished into rubble, the detritus of war.
Against all reason… just when all seems dark and lost, hopeless and over…the tomb is empty. It’s not over until God says it’s over. We are actors in God’s grand story of beauty, grace, kindness, justice, mercy and love. And we each have significant roles to play. As we do, in our wildest dreams, we could never imagine what will arise.
Scripture: Matthew 18:1-17
We checked in on a Tuesday in May. Ghost Ranch, New Mexico: a retreat center in the desert – heartbreakingly beautiful. 31 women on a soulful, gentle, graceful journey toward wholeness.
Thursday morning a large crowd of men descended on the dining hall. There must have been 200 of them– maybe 35-65 years old– all wearing white t-shirts. It was quite a sight to behold. And it begged the question: What’s going on?
A similar scene came down the hill toward Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives: a “large crowd” dressed in white undershirts. That’s what they wore under their “cloaks”: simple linen tunics – directly next to the skin. They were knee length or longer and belted at the waist with a cloth or rope belt. Their outer garment was longer and heavier — usually with sleeves – also belted – this was their “cloak”.
One by one they had spread their cloaks on the road before Jesus. For many of them, their one and only cloak.
Many in this crowd were poor, chronically ill – now made well, previously demon possessed- now free and in their right minds, formerly blind – now seeing.
One by one they’d pulled the coats off their backs… stripped down to their undergarments – and freely laid down the most important thing they owned to build a highway for their king.
For his part, Jesus had done some preplanning. He chose the route into Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. Everybody knew that the Jewish Messiah would come in that way. And he chose what he would ride on: a humble donkey – you can’t get much more humble than choosing a mama with her baby. This Messiah wouldn’t ride in on a victorious warhorse but on a simple beast of burden.
What happened next happened organically as his followers showed the extent of their love and hope and faith in him. One by one their hearts were moved to give all they had… like their ancestors the Israelites several hundred years before.
In the wilderness Moses called for an offering from whoever was of a generous heart. That’s how they built the tabernacle – the tent that was God’s house among them.
They came, so the story goes, everyone whose heart was stirred… everyone whose spirit was willing and brought the Lord’s offering.
They brought jewelry and clothing
and wood and perfume;
baubles and baskets, blankets a loom;
leather and linen and goat’s hair too;
lumber and ram skins, and maybe a shoe;
they came and they came, they covered the camp;
baking bread for the table and oil for the lamp;
And when they were done
they sang and they prayed;
Their God was in their center,
and in their center he stayed.
The same generous spirit stirred the hearts of the followers of Jesus, the living tabernacle of God, as they shamelessly shed their garments in praise. Which reminds me of another story…
King David notoriously danced in his linen underwear before the Ark of the Covenant – also in a parade into Jerusalem. He danced with all his might before the LORD. And when he got home his wife was furious – calling him a vulgar fellow… shamelessly uncovering himself.
It was before the LORD, David said.
They too were unashamed in their linen underclothes praising their LORD, the one in whom God was pleased to dwell:
Hosanna to the Son of David!, they cried.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!c
Hosanna in the highest heaven!
This was their king and they’d literally done what John the Baptist proclaimed: Prepare the way for the LORD. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God! They built him a pathway into the holy city of Jerusalem– not of gold, but of the best they had to offer – the very clothes off their backs – spread out in honor.
How that must have moved Jesus to see their passion… their devotion… – how it must have encouraged him… strengthened him.
Bless their hearts! They were free. They were full of hope. They were pure of heart. They were holy fools.
Contrast this hillside glimpse of the kingdom of God with what Jesus saw when he entered the temple – the physical house of God on earth:
Long lines of people who came from all over the Roman Empire waiting to have their money changed… then more long lines of pilgrims waiting to purchase acceptable offerings. They’d come to God’s house to worship but worship came with a price tag. There were temple taxes and required sacrifices. There were standards of purity… conditions of acceptability – and of course – souvenirs for the kids. There was a whole Temple economy.
Some benefitted and some were left out… pushed to the side.
Can’t you imagine the temple guards denying entry to the very people who’d thrown their coats before Jesus – because they were considered “unclean”… or too poor to afford even a dove – not to mention shamefully uncovered.
Yet Jesus knew exactly the precious gift they’d already given.
There’s a chilling story told in the gospel of Mark of a follower of Jesus hovering in the shadows a few nights later — on the night when they arrested Jesus. He was wearing only a simple tunic – likely because he’d spread his cloak on the road before Jesus only days before. How many of them watched the events unfold from the edges of the scene?
A guard saw this man and seized his tunic. The man was able to break free and he ran away naked. The guard with all his authority could not hold him.
This was the Festival of the Passover. Jews traveled miles and days to celebrate the Passover in the Temple in Jerusalem – remembering when God spoke through Moses to the Pharaoh in Egypt: Let my people go that they may be free to worship me.
Looking over the Temple market, Jesus saw the economic bondage of it… the exclusivity of it… the have and have not of it… and he would not abide it.
He flipped the tables and drove out the merchants. He shut down down the whole market during the Passover – the highest holy festival of the year.
And then, and there in the midst of the chaos and fury, Jesus set up shop, gently and freely welcoming the blind and the lame and the little children to him and loving them well. And he would keep on doing that right up until they forced him to stop.
There’s the business of worship and the freedom of worship. When the business gets in the way of freedom, tables need to turn. When freedom gets in the way of the business, heads roll – or in this case, messiahs and their movements get shut down. Or do they?
This is a cautionary tale Matthew gives us. The Temple should have it right. That’s the professional, credentialed company of faith. But it had become overly bureaucratic and burdensome. The rules and regulations and cottage industries needed to manage the rules and regulations obscured the very reason for the Temple’s existence. Let my people go so they may be free to worship me.
We did the parade differently this year – instead of waving palms, we laid down coats in honor of our brothers and sisters who are living on the margins of our economy, struggling to make ends meet. We offer our coats for warmth and shelter and grace.
And we laid down coats in memory and in honor of those holy fools who ripped off their outer garments, who stripped down to their skivvies and built a highway for their king; in honor of that hillside congregation of white-tunics who knew how to worship.
What gets in the way of our full-hearted worship? Where do tables need to turn?
As we begin this Holy Week… as we enter the Temple with Jesus, let’s enter our own temple. Let’s consider our own house – in here and in here. What do we need to throw off or lay down to be free and honest and whole before God?
At Ghost Ranch last May, that large crowd of 200 or so men were attending a Rites of Passage retreat put on by Richard Rohr’s institute. They wore white t-shirts to symbolize their initiation – like a baptism. They were all on a spiritual journey, like we were – individually and together… shedding their old lives like a worn out coat and learning to live more lightly and more fully.
May this Holy Week be a time of faithful fruitful intention for each one of us and for us together as we seek to grow as followers of our Lord and King.
Scripture: Matthew 8:18-27
When the demands of the crowds pressed in on Jesus, he took his disciples to school. Last week, he held class on a hillside. This week’s lesson is on a lake. Lake Gennesaret, some called it, or Lake Tiberius. We know it as the Sea of Galilee.
It really is more like a lake. At its longest, it’s only 13 miles. At its widest, it’s 8 miles. It’s only 64 square miles in total. Compare that to Ontario, the smallest of our great lakes – that’s about 7300 square miles.
Most of the time the Sea of Galilee is calm with gentle rolling waves. Swimming in it was the highlight of my trip there with our son Alex in 2010. We were traveling with Palestinian American friends. They hired a local driver for us – one of their friends. He took us to the other side of the lake – that is, the non-touristy side. It was a quiet little park. We swam until nearly sunset. Surrounded by hills and palm trees, we floated in the warm water, letting the waves carry us. It could not have been more perfect… swimming where Jesus swam.
But sometimes it’s not calm. Occasionally a wind comes from the east, rushing down the cliffs of the desert. Such a wind can quickly stir up a violent storm known as a sharkia – with waves as high as 6 feet. It’s treacherous in a flash – even for the most skilled sailors.
What’s a disciple of Jesus to do when a sharkia strikes? That was the lesson of that night on the sea.
When I heard this story as a child growing up, I pictured in my mind one of those deep-sea fishing boats my grandfather used to charter in Florida. Jesus sleeping on one of those cots below the deck… the disciples running around on the deck above him, heaving buckets full of water over the rail as fast as they could. Somebody runs below to wake him up, give him a bucket and pull him up topside to help.
In 2015, when I returned to the region with the team from this church, we saw “The Jesus Boat”. And it wasn’t like that at all.
Excavated in 1986 when the boat emerged during a drought, it is 25.5 feet long… 7.5 feet wide… 4.1 feet high. There’s no evidence that this was actually the boat Jesus used, only that it could have been. Archeologists date it to the 1st century AD. But it changes my sense of the scene.
This is no light gentle shower. This is a tempest… a whirlwind – furious – tossing everything to and fro. Nobody knows how long it will last or how intense it will get. Uncontrollable chaos grips their small boat. There’s no lower deck. Everybody’s up and fully engaged – doing everything they can to survive this storm – everybody but Jesus who is right there in the middle of all the action sleeping. They’re literally shouting and climbing over him while they fight to keep from drowning. Waves are pouring in on him. And he keeps on sleeping?
We know people about whom we’d say: he or she could sleep through anything. Alex is one of those. But this? This defies logic and goes against every natural instinct.
There’s not one of us in this room who given the same set of circumstances wouldn’t pitch in and do whatever we could to save ourselves and each other. There’s not one of us who would defy every instinct of survival and lay down and sleep at a time like this.
Save us, they cried, we are utterly lost.
You of little faith, Jesus said, why are you fearful?
That they’re actively engaged is not the problem. Nor even that they fear. Both the action and emotion are natural instincts. Fear, like any other of our emotions is a gift – one of our internal teachers – an attention getter that sharpens our focus on the situation before us.
Being fear-full… overwhelmed by fear… that’s the issue.
They’re experiencing the same storm, yet the disciples and Jesus respond very differently. Sheer panic on the one hand and the serenity of a deep sleep on the other… chaos and calm.
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep. The Greeks called that void chaos. God’s act of creation according to the biblical writers of Genesis was to push back the darkness with light… the watery sea with land… to control the chaos with order.
Jesus, in like manner, rises from his restful sleep and pushes back the wind and waves. He speaks to them like we would to an over-excited dog: settle down… easy… stop. Whatever words you dog owners use. The Message translation captures well what happens next: The wind and the waves come to heel at his command.
Disciples of Jesus have two inner attitude choices when facing the storms of life: panic or peace… dread or faith… cowardice or confidence. What better place to hold this class then on the sea where the teacher can literally point to the waves chaos or calm?
And point to the heart: faint or full? Settle down, Jesus says. These twelve will be his leaders. He needs them live from their hearts and be a non-anxious presence in the storm.
During Lent, we’re collecting a special offering for One Great Hour of Sharing. What began in 1949 as a radio broadcast called One Great Hour, an appeal for war relief, celebrates its 70th anniversary this year. Roughly one third of the offering goes to support hunger programs, one third goes to community development and one third goes to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.
Out of Chaos, Hope is the PDA motto. It is the non-anxious presence that arrives on the scene as soon as possible after hurricanes, school shootings, earthquakes, fires, tornadoes… storms. Disaster Response teams provide support, long term recovery, compassion fatigue training, and emotional and spiritual support.
They help assess damage and connect resources. Last year $3.6 million was given in disaster relief with the confidence that log by log, brick by brick, hand by hand, heart by heart —lives, neighborhoods and communities rebuild by the grace of God and the generosity of faithful disciples.
This spring, PDA is at work throughout Nebraska and Iowa providing relief from the Missouri River floods, and in Mississippi and Alabama they’re helping with tornado and storm assistance.
They are us. Our One Great Hour of Sharing offerings make healing possible.
And our work is not limited to the United States. Whenever you hear of a disaster anywhere in the world, within days there will be a post on the PDA website about it. A couple of weeks ago, I received an email from PDA about the cyclone in Southern Africa.
On March 15th that storm landed in Mozambique. On the 16th it hit Zimbabwe. On the 17th, Malawi. According to the United Nations, This may be the worst disaster to strike the southern hemisphere. It hit and hit hard three of the poorest countries in the world. Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is working in partnership with the ACT Alliance of 151 churches and faith based organizations in 125 countries to direct funds for help. Their priorities: controlling water borne illnesses, providing security shelters, and food and water. Longer term, they’ll focus on rebuilding infrastructure.
We’re not drowning in fear and we’re not sleeping either, we’re reaching out in faith all around the globe: Out of chaos, hope.
From the beginning, God didn’t eliminate chaos, rather brought order to it. Storms will always come and they will recede. They will be brought to heel. The darkness will not overcome the light. Disciples of Jesus lead out of that assurance.
In highly emotionally charged systems anxiety is contagious. Frustration and anger are easily triggered and escalate quickly. It’s hard to hold a calm confidence… to remain non-anxious.
I saw it first hand that evening in 2010 when Alex and I swam in the Sea of Galilee. After sunset, our driver pulled the car up to the gate to exit the park. The attendant came to the window and said something. There were a few words exchanged and just like that, tempers flared.
The two men shouted at each other. Our driver wadded up a piece of paper and threw it at the gatekeeper. That led to more shouting and pointing.
I was sitting in the front passenger seat… getting nervous. I couldn’t understand a word they were saying. But it was tense. And then, just as quickly as it flared up, it settled down. They offered peace to each other, spoke softly, smiled and laughed. The guard raised the gate. They waved to each other and all was well. What was that about? I asked.
Both men could fluently speak Hebrew and Arabic. Our Palestinian driver assumed the guard was Israeli so he initiated the conversation in Hebrew. The guard then assumed he was Israeli. He asked to see the receipt, which our driver didn’t have. They continued speaking in Hebrew – each demanding something the other didn’t have or couldn’t give, each assuming the other was bullying, arrogant and privileged.
Just as things were getting out of hand, the guard saw something in the car that clued him in that our driver was Palestinian.
He began to speak in Arabic because he was Palestinian too. They mistook each other for enemies, but really, they were brothers. And as soon as they recognized it, they were at peace. They stoked each other’s anger and it wasn’t hard to do because the whole environment was anxious. It happens all the time here, our driver said as we pulled away.
It happens all the time here too. I met with another pastor in town last week for lunch and we talked about the Tecumseh schools. That’s an emotionally charged system.
We talked about the role of disciples of Jesus to be a non-anxious presence in the room and in the conversation… to be deep listeners, and conveners of hopeful work… to be encouragers toward healing and reconciliation.
How do we resist being pulled into the emotion of the moment? How do we hold a confident peace?
When in doubt – pause and turn to wonder: What is at stake? What is the nature of the anxiety or fear? From where will hope come? What is my part to play?
When the demands of the crowds press in, remember this lesson on the lake: Settle down. Settle down, Jesus said to the wind and the waves and his disciples in the boat, be still and know that I am with you. And the storm will come to heel. And the gentle waves will hold us with grace.
Scripture: Matthew 5:1-14 150th Anniversary Celebration
Who shall ascend your mountain, O Lord, the psalmist prayed: Who shall stand in your holy place? Those with clean hands and pure hearts… those who do not lift their souls to what is false and practice deceit. They will be blessed. Such is the company of all who seek you.
We celebrate today the anniversary of a dream turned reality. None of us here were alive that day 150 years ago when they dedicated this sanctuary to God’s glory, yet their voices still linger in the air and their fingerprints are embedded in the stones. They gave us a home… a sanctuary… a place set apart… holy, sacred, and grace-filled. Who shall ascend your mountain? Who shall stand in your holy place? Such is the company who seek you…
Please pray with me:
We join a company of hundreds and thousands who have gathered here in this very space to worship you. We have inherited a story and a responsibility. Draw us near to you O God, as Jesus drew his disciples close on that Galilean mountainside so long ago. Teach us to be good stewards of your kingdom, we pray. AMEN.
He drew a crowd everywhere he went. News of his revolutionary teaching and his ability to heal people from whatever ailed them spread throughout the land. They came from all over Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judaea and from beyond the Jordan, to see Jesus; to be touched by him and learn from him.
It was early in his ministry and he was a rock star. It was an exciting time to be one of his disciples; a perfect time for the talk.
When my kids were in elementary school their principal had a way of getting their attention when they were getting overly excited. I love you… sit down, she’d say.
Up to the mountain, Jesus took his disciples… away from the crowds… away from the fame… to teach them more about his kingdom… a kingdom that calls the downtrodden, grief-stricken, gentle, justice seekers, truth tellers, peace makers, and mercy givers blessed… blessed when they are persecuted… blessed when they are insulted… blessed when it hurts and it will.
Because Jesus loved his disciples and because he knew it wouldn’t always be exciting like this and because he knew the enterprise depended on them carrying it forward and it wouldn’t be easy, he took them up the mountain away from the crowds: I love you… sit down.
The place traditionally identified as the site of the beatitudes is idyllic. A gentle hillside slopes down to the Sea of Galilee. There’s a Roman Catholic Church there now, built near the ruins of another small old church from the 4th century.
Gardens and paths with markers guide pilgrims through the verses of Matthew 5: Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness… Blessed are the meek… From the gardens, you can see small fishing boats on the sea far below and imagine how it must have been.
When our group traveled there in 2015, we celebrated communion in a small covered pavilion on the hillside, using a pottery chalice and plate of the famous mosaic from the Church of the Loaves and Fishes – just up the road.
It was a high point. It was a physical high point – up in the hills overlooking terraced gardens, the sea and more hills beyond. And spiritually, it was a high point of the trip: prayerful, soulful, deeply connected to saints of the past; a perfect place to remember Jesus as we broke bread and shared the cup together.
That very night radical Israeli settlers burned the Church of the Loaves and Fishes, spray-painting their trademark on the walls. It was catastrophic… a low point for Christians in the region. When Father Elias Chacour talked to us about it the following day, he was moved to tears. These are hard days, he said.
Chacour, a Palestinian Israeli citizen and Melkite Greek Catholic priest struggles with traditional translations of the beatitudes. How could I go to a persecuted young man in a Palestinian refugee camp, for instance, and say, ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted’, or ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of justice, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’? That man would revile me, saying neither I, nor my God understood his plight, and he would be right.
Father Chacour prefers the Aramaic, which is the language Jesus spoke. Instead of the Greek word that translates as blessed, he prefers instead the Aramaic word ashray which means: Set yourself on the right way for the right goal.
The beatitudes, then would be a call to action:
Get up, go ahead, do something, move, you who are hungry and thirsty for justice, for you shall be satisfied.
Get up, go ahead, do something, move, you peacemakers, for you shall be called children of God.
To me, Chacour says, this reflects Jesus’ words and teachings much more accurately. I can hear him saying: Get your hands dirty to build a human society for human beings; otherwise, others will torture and murder the poor, the voiceless, and the powerless. Christianity is not passive but active, energetic, alive, going beyond despair.
Here in Tecumseh in the winter of 1863, they were bursting at the seams. Their faith family had grown from 130 members to 345 and by the looks of their children’s children, they would only continue to grow. Their simple wood frame painted white church… the place they’d called home for over 20 years… was in need of repair.
They could fix the existing church and make it bigger, but the city center was moving further west, away from them, and they wanted to be in the heart of the town. So by that next spring, they resolved to contract for a lot and build a new church home there… here.
When the calendar year turned to 1865 they’d raised enough to begin building — $15,000. Per the Consumer Price Index inflation calculator, that’s just over $232,000 today. Excitement was high. People came from all around on July 16th 1866, when they laid the cornerstone on this spot.
A year later they were out of money. The walls were up and the roof was on and the project was far from done. Then their beloved pastor became ill and had to resign. They’d all given so much and it wasn’t enough.
The new building had come so far and then stalled. Their beloved friend and leader was gone. Surely there were days as they walked past their unfinished dream and gathered to worship in their familiar simple white church that they wondered what have we done? How does a preacher preach into flagging enthusiasm, depleted resources, fears and doubts? What is the good news for the low points?
Listen once again to the beatitudes– this time from the Message translation in contemporary English:
“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.
“You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.
“You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.
“You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.
“You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.
“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.
“You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.
It is in the low times and in the hard times that the gospel of Jesus Christ has teeth. When we’re brought to the ground we depend on God’s strength to bind us together, to refocus our hearts and to raise us up again. We hear the persistent voice: Get up, go ahead do something, build a better humanity, move beyond despair.
Two more times they called on the flock for more financial resources to keep building the dream. In 1868 they raised another $8000. Then they held a meeting in the unfinished sanctuary. It was crowded and cold. The windows were boarded up and the four stoves and chimneys couldn’t generate enough heat. What a great motivator to raise another $11000 to finish the needed work!
They met in the wood frame white church on the North West corner of Chicago and Maumee Street for the last public worship on Sunday morning March 28, 1869… so many memories there: weddings and funerals, baptisms and prayers, choir festivals and Bible studies… it had served them well. Like Ernie Harwell said in his farewell to Tiger Stadium at the last game held there – September 27, 1999 –Tonight, we say good-bye. But we will not forget. Open your eyes, look around and take a mental picture. Moments like this shall live on forever. Farewell, old friend. We will remember.
The next Wednesday, March 31, 1869, 150 years ago today, they met to dedicate this church. It was magnificent. So much bigger and so much better. She was an impressive sight to behold. In his dedication speech, the Rev. C. N. Mattoon of Monroe sought to keep the company humble and faithful… thankful to God and focused on the mission:
Society has its wants, he said. These wants find their expressions in the institutions which society creates… our schools our institutions our bureaus of agriculture and chambers of commerce are mere outgrowths of these wants. But the highest endeavors of Christianity, he said, is to awaken people to think of God and to feel their need of eternal life through Christ.
The historical record of that day says: he gave some touching allusions to the old house which the fathers built and words of cheer to those whose toil and sacrifice have erected this more costly chaste and beautiful edifice… and the doctor closed his discourse with a most eloquent appeal for the welfare of the church.
It’s a challenge for churches with buildings like ours across the country; built with vision and resource and expanded in times of growth and promise. Times have changed. Shifting demographics, congregational crises, economic strife, and growing discontent with institutional religion leave congregations with shells that are too big for their needs alone and costly to maintain.
“Sometimes the elephant in the room is the room!” – said the pastor of a church that boasted 700 in its 1963 heyday, with two full-time ordained pastors, a staff of eight and an average worship attendance of 338. It’s a 20,500 square foot Romanesque Revival Fortress with a replacement value of $5,280,000.
In my first year at Calvary, he said, we had to address two critical risk recommendations from a recent insurance inspection: jersey barriers for a parking lot near the nursery school ($3,000) and a ventilation hood for the 20-burner gas oven ($21,000). Year two the air conditioning unit gave out ($20,000) and the dreary lighted sign in front demanded replacement ($5,000). Year three we filled and patched the sinkholes in the parking lot ($11,000) but held off on the resurfacing ($30,000) that would have completed the job. In year four we rescued the red cross on the State Street tower ($6,000) and replaced some of the very old gas pipes that were beginning to leak ($4,000) in the boiler room. One of the trustees reminded me the boiler pipes and cast-iron radiators have lasted much longer than we have a right to ask (estimated cost $42,000). The organist reminded me that the “leaking expression shades” need repair soon ($29,000) and a hole in the “blower reservoir” needs repair now ($4,000). “Should I start playing hymns on the piano?” he asked…
A few years ago for us it was crumbling front steps facing Chicago Blvd and then it was the second floor heating and cooling system and then the bell in the tower and then last year, the roof, sub-roof and insulation, and this winter it was burst pipes and water damage… Our old gal– she is absolutely beautiful and she is demanding.
And more and more people throughout this town are falling in love with her. Homeschoolers and dancers, people in recovery, artists, organic foodies, actors and seamstresses among others throughout the community now call this their home away from home.
You are the light of the world. Or as the Message translation says it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.
We look to the future with hope and excitement. We’ve been given a home… holy, sacred, grace-filled… a home to share with love. In the words of our newly approved facility mission statement: We are a loving community of faith, following the teaching of Christ. We strive with our minds, our hearts, and our place in the community to live the inclusive gospel, by:
- Being well in body and soul
- Being multigenerational in education and creativity
- Being expressive in word, song, and movement
- Being an incubator of kindness and enterprise
- Being a spiritual shelter from neglect and cold
- Being engaged in stewardship for all beings and the environment
In short, we’re blessed to be a blessing in the heart of this town, to the glory of God and for the wellbeing of all God’s children: yesterday, today and tomorrow.
Scripture: Matthew 10:1-14, 40-42
His grandfather was his inspiration. In 1889, at the age of 17, he packed a few things in a small wooden chest, left family and friends and sailed from Sweden to America. He imagines this young farm boy, packing for his long journey, setting aside everything but the essentials. He keeps that chest, even now, near his writing desk. That chest… it could not possibly hold everything I now require for a summer picnic, he thinks.
Traveling light… the light by which we travel… a journey unencumbered, uncluttered, without distraction—a journey of focus and intention… a journey of lightness and light.
Inspired by journeys of simplicity, like his grandfather’s, Quaker Philip Harnden collected lists… inventories of the belongings of light travelers. He cherished them like poetry… the modest personal effects of Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Peace Pilgrim, Henry Thoreau, Mahatma Ghandi, Bilbo Baggins… a watch, a pencil, one cup, one spoon, a prayer book, a handkerchief, reading glasses…
How many hooded sweatshirts do you need? Andy asked me as I was cleaning out my closet recently. I figured I’d bring them all out and choose which ones to keep – which ones, in the words of Marie Kondo, “sparked joy”.
No, he said. Before you bring them out, decide how many hooded sweatshirts you need.
“How much should I carry with me? is the quintessential question for any journey, especially the journey of life,” said Bill McKibben.
Ponder this mystery, wrote Philip Harnden: We take delight in things; we take delight in being loosed from things. Between these two delights, we must dance our lives.
Jesus and his disciples were light travelers.
Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff… No money, no food, no extra clothing, no protection. Take nothing that gives the illusion of self-control.
Go light. Go free. Go without the usual things travelers take. There’s nothing usual about this mission.
Take with you only what you need for this journey: Go with authority. Go with a message. Go with a blessing of peace. They didn’t need a satchel to carry those things, only a heart ready and willing and full.
We’re talking about the geographies of Jesus this Lenten season – the actual places Jesus and his followers walked. And we’re contemplating them as interior landscapes of our souls. Our first Sunday we talked about vista points; the invitation to take the exit ramp to a scenic overlook and survey the big picture of our lives. Jesus said:
Whoever wants to save their life will lose it.
Whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.
What if you gain the whole world and suffer the loss of your soul?
What’s worth trading your soul for?
This opened more questions for us to consider:
Who am I? Whose am I? How did I get here?
Why am I on this particular journey at this particular time?
Is this the journey I’m meant to be on?
Last Sunday we talked about the desert wilderness…a place of solitude, silence, prayer, and presence… where Jesus and his followers for centuries have retreated to break free from the slaveries of this world and pattern their lives by the rhythm and purpose of God. We considered what it would mean for us to carve out time and space for desert spirituality in our lives: to practice quiet, focused emptying in order that we may be filled anew.
Today we turn to the physical place at the heart of the ministry of Jesus and his disciples… their home base: Capernaum. Capernaum is on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. At the time of Jesus, it had a large population of faithful Jews whose lives were centered around the synagogue. There was a Roman garrison stationed just outside of town. Money changed hands through the customs station in Capernaum. Cultures mingled in that fishing town.
Now there’s a church that sits on top of the ruins of the house believed to belong to Peter… there are ruins of a synagogue on top of the ruins of the synagogue where Jesus taught and healed… and archeological remains of homes and commerce are all around. Walking through this place, sitting on the bench of the synagogue, overlooking the Sea of Galilee, I could almost hear his voice.
This was where he called Matthew from his tax collector’s booth to follow him. This was where he healed a synagogue leader’s daughter and a woman who bled for twelve years. In Capernaum, he touched the eyes of blind people and made them see… with a word, he drove out spirits and restored people to their right minds… and by his touch, Peter’s mother-in-law was healed. In the synagogue of Capernaum he taught about a kingdom of freedom and truth and peace.
It was their classroom… where they watched and learned, and from where they were sent — to do like he did: preach, heal, restore.
Jesus didn’t give a lot of details… no map…no script. There was no catechism they needed to memorize and recite before they could go… no ordination exams to pass. All he gave them was the full weight of his authority.
And, he said, in the towns and villages you visit, find those who are worthy and stay with them. Find those whose welcome befits the gravitas of your message… whose welcome is similarly weighted to the depth of what you bring.
In Greek, both the word for authority and the word for worthy carry a connotation of heaviness. Jesus sends his disciples to find people and places where the scale balances… where people will fully pick up what they’re laying down. Time is short and the need is great. Stay focused. You carry the kingdom of God within you.
People of the Church, you are heavy weights fighting like fly weights, said Dr. Robert Smith to our group in Jerusalem in 2015. Robert was married to Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith, pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, the English-speaking congregation in Old City Jerusalem. We worshipped there one Sunday.
Robert is a historian who specializes in American Christian theologies in the Israeli-Palestinian context. He was the Lutheran Global Mission Area Program Director for the Middle East and North Africa. He’s written books on the roots of Christian Zionism and on fostering justice, peace and hope in the land called holy. Robert is a heavy weight.
Like a coach giving a half-time pep talk, Robert addressed our group after coffee hour that Sunday morning early in our pilgrimage. He encouraged us to take seriously the power and authority given to us by Christ and to speak boldly… to act courageously… to bear witness to and embody truth.
Jesus addressed his team similarly. It won’t be easy. Everyone will not welcome you. Don’t take rejection personally. They’re not rejecting you, they’re rejecting me, he told his disciples.
Jesus knew firsthand that some would mock them… others would seek to discredit them… to trivialize their message. Still others would argue with them and twist their words.
Don’t linger in those places and among those people, move on. And don’t take their baggage with you. Shake the dust off your feet as you leave, he said. Bless those people and places that give you a worthy welcome. Leave those who dismiss you. And take your peace with you.
A few weeks ago we read where Jesus said: Don’t give what is holy to dogs; and don’t throw your pearls before swine. They’ll trample them underfoot and turn and maul you. Makes more sense now: shake the dust off your feet and get out of there. Find the people to whom you have been sent. Don’t waste valuable time and energy.
Where is our Capernaum today? Where is the classroom where we gather to learn from Jesus… to listen to his words… to find our place in his story… to be sent with his power?
Every Sunday I pour water into the baptismal font as a reminder of who and whose we are – baptized into Christ, filled with the Spirit, marked as God’s own.
Every Sunday we confess our wandering and remind each other of God’s amazing grace that welcomes us home with open arms.
Every Sunday we give and receive the peace of Christ with each other, we pray for each other, we hear the ancient stories read and interpreted anew and at the end of the worship service we’re sent out.
From this place we’re sent, week after week with the weight of his authority to bear witness to a grace-filled way of being in the world.
Like those earliest disciples we’re to travel lightly, because what we carry is weighty enough. We carry the kingdom of God within us.
How will we know where to go?
Where is the map?
How will we know what to say?
What is the script?
Don’t you think those first disciples had those same questions? Jesus sends them on their way and then turns and heads back into the house and there they stand… empty-handed. What do we do now?
Go. Go light. Go free. Go without the usual things travelers take. There’s nothing usual about this mission. Go with authority. Go with a message of hope, of healing, of new life. Go with a blessing of peace. Listen and go. God knows where we need to go. In fact, God has gone before us to prepare the way.
The Spirit is our gift…our guide… our inner teacher… the one who dwells within us… who never leaves us… who knows us and knows where and how we need to go… the light by which we travel…
Everything we need for this journey is within us. Every place we need to go will be made clear. The words we need to say and the words we need to hear will be given to us. The way we need to be, will be revealed. We’ll know what we need to know when we need to know it. We’ll sense when we need to stay and when we need to go.
Will we feel a holy nudge? sense a whisper through the wind? Will an opening question asked by a friend lead us to speak the Spirit’s voice with the voice of our own soul? Dreams, visions, words spoken by others, poetry, art, messages received from God’s creatures all around us…
Biblical writers and pilgrims from spiritual traditions throughout the ages testify: the Spirit of the living God is infinitely creative with ways to get our attention.
Is it possible that the lighter we travel, the greater the light within us that illumines our way?
Disciples are traveling light—light bearers on a journey unencumbered, uncluttered, without distraction—a journey requiring focus and intention… a journey of lightness and heavy import.
I’m heading on a retreat this afternoon with a few faithful friends. They are spirit guides for me. Over the past several years we’ve gathered. We’ve offered each other gracious space to process all kinds of questions: from vocational calls to journeys through grief, challenges with children, aging parents, when to act and when to be silent. We pray together, encourage each other and there’s quiet time to walk and sit by the lake.
This afternoon I have to pack: a journal, a pen, slippers, a shawl… Take only what you need for the journey: a heart ready and willing and full.
Scripture: Matthew 3:1-2,13-4:1
Matt chooses the artwork for the cover of the bulletin. Early in the week, I give him the contents: the scripture, the prayers, and the music, and when he prints a draft for me, it’s got a picture on the cover that he’s chosen to fit the theme… as he understands it. Matt’s Lutheran. And Matt has an affinity for high Church art: Renaissance, gothic, etc.
This week’s first draft of the bulletin had a lovely icon of the baptism of Jesus. I sent it back with a note: Need a wilderness cover – not talking about baptism this week.
His second effort was a beautiful lush wilderness – Eden-like. I sent it back with another note: wilderness like dry, hardscrabble desert – Judaean wilderness.
The Judaean wilderness is small — only about 50 miles long and 15 miles wide. Yet in terms of theological and spiritual significance its huge. The Bible opens in a garden and ends in a city, but much of the story takes place in this wilderness, this desert, where God’s people are formed, fed, sheltered, and tested… where they worship and fight, give birth and die; the place they run to and emerge from wiser, stronger and deeply changed.
The desert was exile for the slave woman Hagar and the son she had with Abraham.
The desert was home for the Hebrews learning to leave Pharaoh and Egypt and slavery behind and become God’s free people.
It was refuge for kings and prophets whose enemies sought to kill them.
It was a place of preparation for ministry and restorative prayer for Jesus.
Wilderness: desolate, untamed, intensely quiet, and God-filled. Sometimes we choose to go there. Other times we’re driven there against our will. Either way, God sees us and meets us there.
The paradox of wilderness: an uninhabitable, uncultivated, lonely, dangerous, stark, desperate place is also fortifying, nourishing, grounding, enriching, profoundly simple, honest and real. It is both repelling and compelling… emptying and filling.
By its very nature wilderness is humility: raw humanity vulnerable and dependent upon God. In the wilderness, natural limits meet supernatural abundance and crisis meets grace. Solitude… silence… prayer… presence… peace.
I have lived in Michigan, Connecticut, Florida and Pennsylvania. The physical landscape of the desert is not well known to me. Thankfully, desert spirituality doesn’t depend upon physical geography.
In 1994 a good friend and mentor gave me a little book by Catholic priest Henri Nouwen called The Way of the Heart: Desert Spirituality and Contemporary Ministry. Written 25 years ago, the book’s prologue says:
Many voices wonder if humanity can survive its own destructive powers. As we reflect on increasing poverty and hunger, the rapidly spreading hatred and violence within as well as between countries, and the frightening buildup of nuclear weapons systems, we come to realize that our world has embarked on a suicidal journey. It seems that darkness is thicker than ever, that the powers of evil are more blatantly visible than ever, and that the children of God are being tested more severely than ever.
In 1981 when he wrote that book, Henri Nouwen believed that the desert fathers and mothers of the 4th and 5th centuries had wisdom to share… an ancient yet relevant perspective of honesty and simplicity and faithfulness borne out of wilderness.
Thomas Merton also believed their voices and practices were important in 1960 when he wrote: The Wisdom of the Desert. Thomas Merton was a Catholic Trappist monk, a peace activist and an advocate for racial justice.
Of the 4th century hermits who fled to the deserts of Palestine, Egypt, Arabia and Persia, Merton wrote: Society was regarded by them as a shipwreck from which each single individual man had to swim for his life. They knew they were helpless to do any good for others as long as they floundered around in the wreckage. But once they got a foothold on solid ground, things were different. Then they no longer had the power but even the obligation to pull the whole world to safety after them.
Why did these men and women of the 4th century consider society a shipwreck, when the Roman Empire around the year 320 declared Christianity the official religion? Because they didn’t believe in a “Christian state.” They didn’t believe the values of the state would ever line up with the values of Christ. They could see, even then, people declaring themselves followers of Christ in name only, while ordering their lives by the priorities of the empire.
These humble monks didn’t want to be considered above society and they didn’t want to be ruled by it. They went into the wilderness seeking God in the solitude of the desert and the silence of their hearts. Like the Israelites, they sought to break free of the slaveries of the world and pattern their lives by the rhythm and purpose of God. Like Jesus, they sought the strength to resist the temptations of a dishonest and greed-driven state cloaked in religion.
They started a movement. By the year 400, 70 monasteries flourished in the Judaean desert. And people from all over flocked to the desert fathers and mothers for saving wisdom.
St. George’s Monastery
In Ireland the wilderness looks more like Matt’s second attempt at a bulletin cover. Everything is lush and green. But the Celtic monks who began building monasteries in the 6th century resonated with the desert fathers and mothers too. They worked on cultivating an inner desert landscape… a retreat of the heart. On the wild cliff edges and on remote coastal islands they built small hermitages to imitate the caves of the desert. They functioned like cells.
Dysart O’Dea Round Tower, Corofin, Co. Clare
When they crossed the threshold into their cells, the monks left behind distractions and pressures of the world in order to spend time in silence and prayer. When they emerged again into the bright vibrant creation around them, their souls were filled with gratitude and renewal.
The story is told of one Celtic monk – St. Kevin — who chose a cell on a lake where for six months the sun did not shine. He intentionally chose the shadow as a way of staying present to his own struggles and inner wrestling.
What about our day? What about us? Are there ways for us to become apprentices to the wilderness by practicing solitude, silence and prayer like the desert fathers and mothers?
What would it look like to fashion a cell- an actual room or a cell within our hearts? a place we can retreat to for a few minutes each day to leave cell phones and ipads and laptops and todo lists behind… to resist checking facebook or news feeds or the advice of friends… to refuse to take meetings or listen to music or even read a book… to cross the threshold and enter the cell alone – leaving behind anything and anyone else – no coffee or snacks even – for a piece of each day — to enter in silence… rest in silence… and lean on the heart of God…
We have an old deer blind on a ridge next to one of our ponds that I cleared out a couple of years ago with the intent to use it as a prayer closet. I closed the door after I cleaned it out and haven’t opened it again since.
I’m thinking about it. What would it feel like to cross the threshold and sit inside it with nothing but myself – no journal, no reading material, no Bible, no coffee… no distractions and no expectations?
Sounds kind of claustrophobic. Sounds like I’d get restless in about 30 seconds thinking about what I should or could be doing.
Go into the wilderness seeking God in the solitude of the desert and the silence of the heart. Sounds like a gift: solitude… silence…
Years ago I walked into the doctor’s office and saw a sign on the counter that said: Can Silence Prolong Your life? At least I thought that’s what it said. Actually, it said: Can Science Prolong Your life?
It’s no secret I’m a talker. Yet I also know the value of silence. It is life-giving. Some days I feel inundated by words.
The day our golden retriever Zeus died unexpectedly, the vet would not stop talking. He was trying to be helpful going over all of the possibilities of what could have happened. It might have been this… it probably wasn’t that… the systems are interconnected and something could have triggered something else and on and on and on and on and on he talked…
Although I couldn’t bear leaving Zeus there on the table and I couldn’t bear pulling out of the parking lot… I had this agonizing desire to flee into the wilderness to go far away from anything and everything and not hear or say one single word… the darker the cave the better…
Some days I feel inundated by words – my own included. How many words really are better left unsaid? Maybe the most loving, most grace-filled, most honoring, most supportive thing we can do is to simply be with someone… fully present without anxiety or impatience – without saying a word. Silence is a gift that actually teaches us to speak more fruitfully – when words finally do come forth.
What can we learn from the desert mothers and fathers about prayer?
They prayed short lines of Scripture they held in their hearts – as they breathed: lead me… fill me… make me lie down to rest… restore my soul…shelter me…abide with me… They emptied themselves in silence before the presence of God – listening. And they carried in their hearts prayers for the healing of the world. It is inclusive prayer. In Henri Nouwen’s words: a heart large enough to embrace the entire universe. Through prayer we carry in our hearts all human pain and sorrow, all conflicts and agonies, all torture and war, all hunger, loneliness, and misery, not because of some great psychological or emotional capacity, but because God’s heart has become one with ours.
In the epilogue of Henri Nouwen’s book, we find these words:
How can we minister in an apocalyptic situation? In a period of history dominated by the growing fear of a war that cannot be won and an increasing sense of impotence? Solitude, silence and unceasing prayer form the core concepts of the spirituality of the desert. Solitude shows us the way to let our behavior be shaped not by the compulsions of this world but by Christ. Silence prevents us from being suffocated by our wordy world and teaches us to speak the Word of God. In unceasing prayer, we enter through our heart into the heart of God, who embraces all of history with his eternally creative and re-creative love.
Nouwen ends with this story: Three Fathers used to go to visit the blessed Abba Anthony every year and two of them used to discuss their thoughts and the salvation of their souls with him, but the third always remained silent. After a long time Abba Anthony said to him: ‘You often come here to see me, but you never ask me anything,’ and the other replied, ‘It is enough to see you, Father.’
That is the wisdom of the wilderness: God of all that is, it is enough to see and be seen by you and to minister likewise in your name.
Scripture: Matthew 16:21-27
They were his disciples – his apprentices. They’d bought was he was selling… were inspired by his vision… had enrolled in his school. They’d spent the last three years eating, sleeping, praying, watching, learning, practicing the life he described. They wanted the world to change.
Who do you say that I am? Jesus asked them. You are the Messiah. The Son of the living God, said Peter – and he believed it. Jesus blessed him for saying that.
And then, almost immediately, he cursed him: Get behind me Satan!
One minute he’s building his church on Peter – giving him the keys to the kingdom. The next he’s a stumbling block. One minute Peter’s top of the class, the next he’s missing the point altogether.
You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things, Jesus said to him.
-It’s human to want to protect your teacher and your friend.
-It’s human to want to defend the movement you’ve devoted your life to.
-It’s human to want your side to be the winning side.
-It’s human to be afraid of suffering and death—and to wonder what will befall the people who follow him.
-It’s human to think about everything you gave up to be here and not want it to be in vain.
-It’s human to worry about how history will tell this, if they speak of it at all.
-It’s human to question and doubt the plan.
-It’s human to not know what you don’t know yet act like you know all there is to know.
-It’s human to feel so sure you’re right and yet be so wrong:
Suffering and death? Jesus, this must never happen to you.
There was no talk of crosses and suffering when they started the journey. When they dropped their nets and followed him, they were filled with excitement; their lives beginning anew with adventure. They hitched their wagon to this rising star… this rabbi people were talking about… the one who invited them into a kingdom they had only dreamed about. They weren’t thinking about the end game when they started. Was he?
Whoever wants to save their life will lose it.
Whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.
What if you gain the whole world and suffer the loss of your soul?
What’s worth trading your soul for?
From the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus faced temptations to trade his soul. Remember in the desert? There were three:
- After fasting for 40 days, his body gripped by hunger, he heard the tempter’s voice: Use God’s power to turn these stones into bread. What good is a suffering savior? Feed yourself. Strengthen yourself. Take care of yourself.
- And again the tempter’s voice: Stand on top of the Holy City and throw yourself down—you’ll rise victorious and everyone will know who you are. Draw attention to yourself! Prove your rightful title and throne: Son of God, Messiah.
- And the third: You can have it all – all the kingdoms of the world—only bow to me – the slanderous one… the one who sets out to thwart the mission of God at every turn… the one whose purpose is to trap in a lie or worse, a half truth… to tease and ultimately destroy.
Throughout his ministry these temptations were echoed in the voices of church leaders and experts in religious law, who claimed to speak for God. As time went on they got angrier and more insistent: demanding Jesus reveal his credentials… prove his authority… stay within the boundaries of church law. He talked his way out of the traps they set for him…loved his way through their threats.
He heard the tempter’s voice echoed through the voice of his cousin John the baptizer from prison: Are you the one we’ve been waiting for, or not? Speed it up – show us clearer signs.
He heard it in the voices from his hometown… how could he be who he says he is – we know his parents and his sisters and brothers.
He even heard it from his closest friends… his disciples… you can’t die… you can’t lose. You must have it wrong.
Throughout his ministry from the beginning, Jesus heard the tempter’s voice and throughout his ministry he stepped away to pray… to silence all other voices and to seek the true voice that filled his soul. He took time to reassess… to restore… to center in God’s purpose.
In these times, Jesus surveyed the landscape of his soul – taking in the bigger picture: remembering who he was and whose he was… what he’d seen and heard… why he was on this journey… where he’d been and where he was headed. When he turned his face toward Jerusalem with strength and resolve, he did so, confident in the inner voice that filled his soul.
Peter’s not there. He’s still setting his mind on human things. That’s not surprising — he is human. And we’re human. And we live among other humans. We all get caught up in the same kinds of things.
We’ve all got our own stuff and people we’re trying to protect… movements we’re part of that we want to succeed… investments we’ve made that we want to see pay off. We don’t want our loved ones to suffer or die… we don’t like to think about our own mortality. We wonder about the impact of our lives – have we made a difference? We get impatient with the world as it seems to be and the ever increasing sound of our biological clocks: tick tock tick tock.
In Mary Oliver’s words: What are we doing with our one wild and precious life?
Whoever wants to save their life will lose it.
Whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.
What if you gain the whole world and suffer the loss of your soul?
What’s worth trading your soul for?
We’ve heard public figures in the news lately talk about gaining the world and losing it all. President Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen said: misplaced loyalty cost me everything — my family’s happiness, my law license, my company, my livelihood, my honor, my reputation and, soon, my freedom. Paul Manafort, former campaign manager said to the judge in a statement before he was sentenced for tax fraud: I know that it was my conduct that brought me here…my life professionally and financially is in shambles… I feel the pain and shame.
Losing your soul doesn’t happen overnight. It’s more like death by a thousand cuts. Somewhere in their past, long before either man worked for the president, there was a first, second, third, fourth cut. Tiny breaches of ethics… self-interest… buying half-truths… blighting the soul. Did it become so normalized that it didn’t hurt after a point?
I’m reminded again of a parable told by Peter Rollins called Finding Faith. It appears in his book entitled: The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales.
It’s about a fiery preacher who possessed a powerful but unusual gift. He found that, from an early age, when he prayed for individuals, they would supernaturally lose all of their religious convictions. They would invariably lose all of their beliefs about the prophets, the sacred Scriptures, and even God. So he learned not to pray for people but instead limited himself to preaching inspiring sermons and doing good works.
However, one day while traveling across the country, the preacher found himself in conversation with a businessman who happened to be going in the same direction.
This businessman was a very powerful and ruthless merchant banker, one who was honored by his colleagues and respected by his adversaries. Their conversation began because the businessman, possessing a deep, abiding faith, had noticed the preacher reading from the Bible. He introduced himself to the preacher and they began to talk. As they chatted together this powerful man told the preacher all about his faith in God and his love of Christ. He spoke of how his work did not really define who he was but was simply what he had to do.
“The world of business is a cold one,” he confided to the preacher, “and in my line of work I find myself in situations that challenge my Christian convictions. But I try, as much as possible, to remain true to my faith.
I attend a local church every Sunday, participate in a prayer circle, engage in some youth work, and contribute to a weekly Bible study. These activities help to remind me of who I really am.”
After listening carefully to the businessman’s story, the preacher began to realize the purpose of his unseemly gift. So he turned to the businessman and said, “Would you allow me to pray a blessing into your life?”
The businessman readily agreed, unaware of what would happen. Sure enough, after the preacher had muttered a simple prayer, the man opened his eyes in astonishment.
“What a fool I have been for all these years!” he proclaimed.
“It is clear to me now that there is no God above, who is looking out for me, and that there are no sacred texts to guide me, and there is no Spirit to inspire and protect me.”
As they parted company the businessman, still confused by what had taken place, returned home. But now that he no longer had any religious beliefs, he began to find it increasingly difficult to continue in his line of work.
Faced with the fact that he was now just a hard-nosed businessman working in a corrupt system, rather than a man of God, he began to despise his activity. Within months he had a breakdown, and soon afterward gave up his line of work completely.
Feeling better about himself, he then went on to give to the poor all the riches he had accumulated and began to use his considerable managerial expertise to challenge the very system he once participated in, and to help those who had been oppressed by it.
One day, many years later, he happened upon the preacher again while walking through town. He ran over, fell at the preacher’s feet, and began to weep with joy. Eventually he looked up at the preacher and smiled, “Thank you, my dear friend, for helping me discover my faith.”
13th century German theologian Meister Eckhart said:
“A human being has so many skins inside, covering the depths of the heart. We know so many things, but we don’t know ourselves! Why, thirty or forty skins or hides, as thick and hard as an ox’s or bear’s, cover the soul. Go into your own ground and learn to know yourself there… The soul is the place in which God is alive within us.”
Jesus turned his face toward Jerusalem knowing he would suffer and die there at the hands of the chief priests, head pastors and Bible teachers. That’s a cautionary tale for the church. What skins and thick hides, disguised as religious convictions and beliefs actually prevent us from accessing the voice of God alive yet buried deep within us?
Today is the first Sunday of Lent: a season of preparation, reflection, honesty, soul realignment. It’s an invitation to intentionally step aside… take the exit ramp to the scenic overlook of your soul… ask the deeper questions: Who am I? Whose am I? How did I get here? What is the bigger picture of my life? Why am I on this journey? Is this the journey I’m meant to be on? Which voices am I listening to? How can I tune the ears of my heart to the true inner voice of God within me?
Wednesday nights 6:30-8:30 at the church throughout Lent are set-aside as vista points: opportunities to get off the highway of pressing commitments and relentless tasks and get reacquainted with your soul. They’re opportunities to enter into a community learning to listen and to be more fully present to each other. They’re opportunities to give and receive grace.
We’ll eat supper first because everything’s better with snacks.
Each Sunday morning, we’ll introduce a different landscape and talk about how it informed the life and ministry of Jesus. Our Sunday morning class at 9 will include actual video footage on location in the different geographies. After worship, you are invited to take a purple packet if you don’t receive emails from the church.
If you do, you’ll get an email each Sunday night with the contents of the packet: essays and poems and suggested journaling questions designed to open that particular interior landscape of the soul. We’ll visit these writings together the following Wednesday night.
May this be a fruitful season of soul restoration. In the words of the late poet John O’Donohue:
Landscape has a soul and a presence, and landscape—living in the mode of silence—
is always wrapped in seamless prayer.
One of the lovely ways to pray is to take your body out into the landscape
and to be still in it.”
I look forward to taking this Lenten pilgrimage with you.
Scripture: Matthew 16:24-17:8
What happened to Jesus on that mountaintop? Three gospel writers tell the story – all more or less the same: in an instant his face… his clothes started glowing. His appearance changed from the inside out, right before their eyes, says the Message translation. Sunlight poured from his face. His clothes were filled with light. He was transfigured.
Not a well-worn word – transfigured – outside of church circles that is. If you’re a Harry Potter fan, you might remember Professor McGonagall’s transfiguration classes, but turning animals into water goblets or beetles into buttons isn’t what’s happening here.
The Greek word is metamorphoo: meta meaning after; morphoo to form or to shape so that the real and inner essence matches the outward expression. What’s inside becomes what’s outside, and the aftereffect is beautiful.
I took a field trip to the Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago during seminary. There was a special traveling exhibit of 90 contemporary African sculptures called: Chapungu: Custom & Legend, A Culture in Stone. They were all hand-carved from native Zimbabwe stone. Throughout the grounds, inside and outside, they nestled into their surroundings: the natural grays, browns, reds, yellows and greens of the stones polished to a high shine.
The class was called The Teaching Ministry of the Church. Our assignment was to develop a lesson plan incorporating the story of the sculptures and spirituality.
Over and over again, people say this exhibition has changed them, said Roy Guthrie, director and founder of the Chapungu Sculpture Park, and he was right.
The sculptures themselves are breathtaking, illustrating eight universal themes: nature and the environment, village life, the role of women, the elders, the spirit world, customs and legend, the family and the children.
The sculpting process is transfiguration.
The Shona people believe all things are inherently spiritual, including the rocks they carve. In the sculpting, the artist releases the spirit within. Every step of the process is sacred: from selecting the stone in the quarry to meditating and listening and coaxing out the hidden image. Then the sculptor begins spontaneously and sometimes energetically to carve without sketching or modeling… almost as if dancing… joyfully liberating the true essence buried in the stone.
I follow the shape of the stone. If the stone is standing there, I can see the different points which are important and I make it out of my instinct; there’s a harmonious relationship between myself and the stone, says Henry Munyaradzi, one of the Ziimbabwean sculptors.
Henry was the son of one of the traditional spiritual leaders of his community and later he joined the church of a Christian preacher and learned to read the Bible in Shona. His sculptures express deep connections between the natural world and Christianity.
Nicholas Mukomberanwa is another Zimbabwean artist whose sculptures express the depth and complexity of his beliefs. He studied under a swiss priest. His works are a unique blend of African spirituality and traditional Christian iconography.
The Chapungu…transfigured stones… shaped and formed by the hands of a master artist to be what they were destined to be.
On that mountaintop, Jesus was transfigured by the Master Artist. The aftereffect of his metamorphosis was stunning… blinding. The fullness of God within him released to shine brilliantly forth from him. In that moment, he was the embodiment of the glory of the Lord revealed.
Noone has ever seen God, wrote the gospel writer John, but the one and only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, has made him known. We have seen his glory.
Lord, it’s good for us to be here. Peter said. Isn’t that an understatement! Can you imagine? We feel that in our bones every time we experience the exhilaration of climbing to the top of a mountain. Most recently when we climbed through the Monteverde cloud forest to emerge at the top above the clouds and took in the breathtaking view… It is good… it is great for us to be here! Nobody was in a hurry to go back down.
In addition to the natural beauty all around them — there’s Jesus — the glory of the LORD shining through him. And all the hard teachings… all the craziness of the journey since they said yes to following this man… all the silly talk about crosses and going to Jerusalem to die –it all falls away in this moment of resplendence. It’s validation… vindication… Jesus is in the hall of champions – w/ Moses and Elijah.
Who do you say that I am? Jesus asked his disciples just days before they scaled the mountain and Peter said: You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God! And this is what that looks like. Amen! This changes everything!
But the hard truth is, this changes nothing about what is to come when they go down the mountain. And while Peter can’t yet wrap his head around this, Jesus knows. This display is for their own transfiguration and for ours.
Jesus is the firstborn of those who will be transfigured, not the last or the only.
This is my Son. Listen to him, said the voice from the cloud. And he’s talking about crosses.
Whoever wants to be my disciple, must take up their cross and follow me.
Following a teacher in Palestine meant apprenticing: go where I go… do what I do…walk where I walk… abide with me.
We’ve got this new foster dog – an Australian Shepherd. He literally goes where we go – everywhere we go – he’d follow me into the bathroom if I’d let him – into the shower even. They’re called Velcro dogs for a reason.
Jesus says: Follow me to the high and to the low.
Peter, we’re not staying on the mountain top. We’re going down to the valley. We’re going to Jerusalem and that road leads to the cross. And we won’t be afraid because the fullness of God dwells within us. The same power that dwelt within Jesus, is within us.
I imagine God looking at me, looking at you, like a Shona stone carver. Each of us a stone selected from the quarry with the image of God’s glory deep within us, maybe buried beneath all kinds of stuff that needs to be chiseled away.
It will take a lifetime of chiseling – by one who is infinitely skilled and patient and joyfully dancing while working on us, with us and for us. God sees what no one else sees – deep within us – light and love and grace – a mirror of God’s self.
The Apostle Paul wrote to the church of Corinth: whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away… And we all, who with unveiled faces mirror the Lord’s glory, are being transfigured into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
Get up, Jesus said, and don’t be afraid.
What is being transfigured here is your mind, is a line from the John O’Donohue poem For the Interim Time:
You are in this time of the interim
Where everything seems withheld.
The path you took to get here has washed out;
The way forward is still concealed from you.
You cannot lay claim to anything…
In this place of dusk,
Your eyes are blurred…
Do not allow your confusion to squander
This call which is loosening
Your roots in false ground,
That you might come free
From all you have outgrown.
What is being transfigured here is your mind,
And it is difficult and slow to become new…
The poet’s describing a movement from what was, to what is becoming—a turning toward something new… a truer more mature calling… the mind… the soul… the heart is being transfigured.
On Wednesday we begin a Lenten pilgrimage with a service of ashes. Throughout Lent we’ll review the life of Jesus by the places he walked – the wilderness and the mountains, the seas, the villages and the gardens. As we do, we’re invited to review our own lives and give thanks for the hand ever at work transfiguring them.
People say this exhibition has changed them, Roy Guthrie said of the Chapungu. It changed me in the same way going down to the potter’s house changed the prophet Jeremiah:
The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words. So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him… Just as the clay in the potter’s hand, so you are in my hand.
May the authenticity of our souls… the true essence within us… the power and glory of God… shine in us and through us. May you and I and we as church be transfigured into the image of and for the glory of God.
Lance Wiesmann MVP Intern
Scripture: Matthew 13:24-43
Picture the scene of our Scripture reading this morning: Jesus is teaching from a boat on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Crowds stand around him on the beach. Today he’s talking about sowing seeds.
His was an agrarian society. 80-90% of Galilee’s population was engaged in agricultural work. Everybody knew about seeds and weeds and fields and harvest.
Let anyone with ears, listen! Jesus often said. How we hear depends upon who we are… the circumstances of our lives… our backgrounds… our socioeconomic position… our openness… our willingness…
The crowd is diverse: land owners, tenant farmers, day laborers, peasants and beggars and maybe even a high ranking government official or chief priest is listening.
Today, Jesus is teaching in parables – stories of life on the ground with a twist… introducing a new way, a different way of thinking and being… individually and in community.
He’s just talked about what we in the crowd know to be true: even in these fertile Galilean hills, we only get 10-15% yield on the seed we sow. So we sow a lot of it. Some dries up and some blows away and some gets eaten and diseased and choked… We’re always vigilant with our tilling and our working of the soil – everyone depends on a good harvest.
Jesus gets our attention when he talks about yields of a hundredfold and sixtyfold… even thirtyfold… it sounds amazing. What’s he offering? A new kind of tool? soil enrichment? magic seeds?
Let anyone with ears, listen! I’m listening!
Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.
“The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’
“‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.
“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’
“‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”
The weed he’s talking about… those of us in the crowd know all too well: we called it zizania. It’s a type of darnel. When it gets in the wheat field it contaminates it… like an infestation. The seeds are poisonous to humans and animals alike. It’ll make you dizzy and nauseous if you accidentally eat it. Some say it blurs vision and can make you crazy. It’s even been known to kill.
The truth is, enemies do sow it in fields and have throughout the ages. It’s a kind of agro-terrorism. Some in our 1st century society bake it in small doses in their breads and mix it into their drinks in an effort to escape the daily hardships of life. But it’s dangerous and easy to do permanent damage. That doesn’t stop troublemakers from using it to trick and hurt people. A whole shadowy economy exists of people making money off of other people’s desperation. It’s even been suggested that evil rulers will plant this nasty seed as a way to control portions of their populations.
We know it all too well. It ruins us. We don’t want it in our fields.
It’s nearly impossible to tell the difference between it and good wheat until it’s ears open and then, it’s too late because more seeds fall from it. The best way to manage zizania is to keep it out – to be diligent in sowing good seed and stay awake guarding the fields.
Once it gets in, we all know what to do: get it out as soon as possible – certainly before it matures. We do it by hand, one by one. We know we’ll lose some wheat in the process – accidentally hurting what we’re trying to protect… but the zizania must go.
Let them both grow together? That’s absurd. Any good farmer knows letting zizania grow is a recipe for a perpetually contaminated field; year after year yielding a fraction of its potential and with inherent risk and threat. The Kingdom of Heaven is like this? How?
What about you land owners in the crowd? is this how you would manage your land? You day laborers – you want to work in that kind of field? Beggars – you want to take your chances picking up wheat from the edges of a contaminated mess? Tenant farmers – you want to take your chances on what kind of yield a field like that’s gonna produce?
When he was talking about 100-60-30 fold yields, we were interested – but this? This is foolishness. Who’s still listening when Jesus tells the next parable?
He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”
He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”
Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable.
So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet:
“I will open my mouth in parables,
I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world.”
Then he left the crowd and went into the house.
And this was how Jesus described the kingdom of heaven to the crowds: hearing it once… nothing explained or further defined… left to talk among themselves… to ponder what it would mean to live in a kingdom like that…
Years ago we lived in a subdivision with a common wooded area. Being a fan of labyrinths, I thought it would be fun to make one in the woods for everyone to share. So one June afternoon Andy and I dragged a bunch of branches to a clearing and built a labyrinth. After we built it, I wrote about it:
The design is circular and simple. An upright stump with a rock on the top sits at the center with a stump on its side serving as a small seat. A downed tree lies at the opening providing a great place for contemplation prior to entering. It’s tough to find unless you know it’s there, but if you stumble upon it, it provides a sacred space to walk, to think and to pray.There’s a raccoon home inside a hollowed out tree just off to the side of it and the other day, a deer ran by… and of course, there’s always the background music of birdsong and the rustle of other small critters. All around it stands a majestic timbered choir.
What’s beautiful about it is also what keeps it hidden. Off the beaten path and completely blending with its environment, it does not draw attention to itself. Once found, it’s easy to find again. Yet undiscovered, it is likely to remain that way.
A month later, I wrote about it again:
With summer well underway, the prayer labyrinth in the woods has become even more hidden. Lush groundcover makes the path difficult to discern and there’s a new challenge: poison ivy has emerged.
The rock at the center is still plainly visible. It rises above the dense groundcover and beckons. It’s still possible to make out the edges of the path; easier if I look carefully and let the limbs along the edges guide my way. Poison ivy appears occasionally at first and it’s easy to avoid, but upon entering the outside circle, it becomes more and more dense… in fact, avoiding it becomes a major distraction. I’ve nearly forgotten about the path altogether, I’m so fearful I’ll touch a poison leaf. There’s great temptation to step out and abandon the journey until winter.
On the edge, I see it barely rising out of the growth: one of the stumps I’d placed as resting stops along the way. A closer look from a different angle reveals there’s much more safe, lush, plant life than poison. Although they coexist, the threatening plants are not choking out the rest, in fact, the opposite might be true. Encouraged, I finish the walk to the center. It’s well worth the trip.
When I first discovered the poison ivy, I considered taking a shovel to it and systematically removing all of it from my prayer walk. “Let both of them grow together,” the Scripture says.
Does the continued existence of evil along the journey of our lives serve any good purpose? Does its very presence encourage us to be more awake, more focused, more disciplined? Evil is a distraction that is ever around and within us yet its power is a ruse. Even when its presence is particularly dense and palpable, seeming to face us at every turn, God is stronger still – cheering us on… beckoning us to live more fully and freely… unafraid… trusting in God’s love.
And then there’s my dog. Totally oblivious, he’s just rolling in all of it without a care in the world as if it’s all his playground. With a whistle he comes bounding to the center, gets a treat and runs off again with sheer abandon to explore all that awaits… each butterfly a wonder to behold… each squirrel a brand new adventure… each birdcall a reason to pause, to look up, and to listen with full attention. Let anyone with ears listen!
Back in the house, the disciples want an explanation of the parable of the wheat and zizania and I wish he didn’t give it to them. Most of the time he doesn’t. Jesus floats his parables out there for generations to wrestle with them – to turn them over and over again like diamonds – revealing more and more facets and layers – opening endless possible interpretations.
But this time he gives it to them:
Jesus answered, “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.
“As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear.
We aren’t working in the field in this parable, we’re growing in it. And God’s love and grace is so expansive… so complete that nothing can pluck even one of the children of God’s kingdom prematurely. Instead each one is allowed to grow… to sink healthy undisturbed roots into rich soil, grow and bear fruit.
To fledgling disciples who saw crowd sizes dwindling and felt shrinking support, Jesus talked about the importance of tiny mustard seeds. Imagine how many find shelter and protection and hope and life in what grows out of one tiny seed! Yours is not to fret about who is not hearing – yours is to grow into the fullest and most beautiful you to open your arms in love.
To a movement that by the time of Matthew’s gospel faces constant threat and persecution and does much of its work in secret, Jesus talked about the hidden ingredient yeast. Have confidence in what you do not see and God’s power to make it grow. His kingdom, like yeast gets in the world and changes it from the inside out.
It’s not overnight. In fact, it’s like a postcard I have of a man with a pair of scissors on his knees in the middle of his large front lawn. The caption reads “Making Slow Progress.”
It’s not without struggle. Let them grow together implies perpetual challenge…
It’s not obvious. Look around – what evidence do you see?
It raises more questions than answers and invites a lifetime of seeking, asking and knocking…
What kind of kingdom is this? The Kingdom of Heaven.
Are you still listening?
Scripture: Matthew 7:1-14, 24-29
In the early morning hours last Tuesday, I had a dream. I was driving, I turned on the signal to turn right, I made the turn and immediately police lights began flashing in my rear view mirror. I didn’t think I had done anything wrong, but I pulled over, pulled out my driver’s license, got my registration from the glove box and turned to lower the window. The policeman’s face filled the window: big… black. At his side a dog barked.
I woke up with a start… terrified.
I laid there, my heart pounding. And the next thought that entered my awakened mind was this: welcome to black history month.
When it comes to dream analysis, I usually don’t have much to say – mostly because I rarely remember my dreams. But this one was different. And I’m convinced there’s something to it.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. pointed to racism as the plank in the nation’s eye. In his 1949 sermon entitled Splinters and Planks on today’s passage from the gospel of Matthew he said: While we see the splinters in Russia’s eye we fail to see the great plank of racial segregation and discrimination which is blocking the progress of America. He talked about the plank of racism in the eye of the church and the planks of racism in the eyes of black and white brothers alike. He preached this sermon 70 years ago.
Welcome to Black History Month 2019 where everybody’s got an opinion on Northam and Neeson and I woke up from a disturbing dream… terrified.
I don’t like being pulled over for traffic violations. Who does? I get mad at myself. I know the police officer is just doing his or her job and I know my carelessness will cost me. It’s a waste of time and money. But I am never afraid.
Lying in bed that morning, I remembered a short video I saw a few years ago. I found it on the Presbyterian Mission website as a resource for Children’s Sabbath. Children’s Sabbath is an annual ecumenical initiative sponsored by the Children’s Defense Fund. It focuses on national problems that threaten the health, justice, love and life of children. This video was a collaborative project between a United Church of Christ congregation, a non-profit Christian media group and National Public Radio – all out of Indianapolis: Get Home Safely: 10 Rules of Survival, it was called.
There’s a life and death urgency in this video: Remember the goal is to get home safely… This experience is so different from anything I know. Fear.
Black history is so much different than white history yet the relationship between the two – our complex shared history — has grown into our complex shared present and we are, even now invited to play a part in shaping its future – by seeking, asking, knocking… exploring and listening for truth behind the pain, behind the loss, behind the fear.
The sooner you can become comfortable with seeking what you don’t know, as opposed to proving what you do, the more you will learn and the more effective you’ll become as a racial justice advocate, wrote Debby Irving, in her book Waking Up White: and Finding Myself in the Story of Race.
It begins with the planks in our own eyes.
Debby Irving says she wishes someone had given her a book like Waking Up White to read decades ago. Described as: a wake up call for white people who want to consciously contribute to racial justice rather than unconsciously perpetuate patterns of racism, it’s about stereotyping and bias, good intentions and misinterpretations. It’s Debby’s own journey as a white woman who took a good hard painful look at the plank of racial injustice in her own eye and learned to see.
In her words, it has been an unexpected journey that’s required me to dig back into childhood memories to recall when, how, and why I developed such distorted ideas about race, racism, and the dominant culture in which I soaked.
I grew up in a small Michigan town that was a predominantly white suburb of Flint. I went to a Class A High School with about 2500 kids, a handful of which were black. I remember when the first black family moved into our neighborhood and the ways people spoke in hushed tones about it.
I remember developing a friendship with a black colleague my age in a summer job in Flint. He was an engineering student and I was studying computer science. I remember bringing him home one day and seeing my grandmother’s car in the driveway, turning around without going in. I was embarrassed about the way she and my grandfather talked about black people and I didn’t want to hurt my friend. Thinking about it now – how must I have hurt him by not bringing him in my home?
I left that small Michigan town, went to the University of Michigan and moved out to the east coast. I met a much bigger world in Center City Philadelphia. Eventually we moved back to Michigan to raise our kids near our family.
Through church, I met a woman my age who grew up playing tennis. I played golf and the two of us decided we’d launch a non-profit Christian camp for middle-school kids to teach them about Jesus and how to play golf and tennis. Give God Your Best Shot, we called it. We worked with local churches to source the camp with kids – aiming to have 50% from urban communities and 50% from the suburbs. Black and white kids together — singing, playing and praying together.
We started in 1997 and the camp ran for 9 years. We were well-intentioned and naïve. It was a shocker to us that first year that some of the inner-city Detroit families were reluctant to drive their kids to Plymouth for the camp. At the time I knew nothing about the 8-mile line. Why would they have anything to be afraid of?
We were offended when the white woman who worked at the predominantly black church asked us who we thought we were: two white women do-gooders intending to sweep in and rescue these poor black kids? Forgive me, she said, but do you know how many people like you want to come into Detroit to do some short term something to make yourself feel better while never intending to have a lasting relationship with these kids. Did it occur to you that might do more harm than good?
When a balloon popped in a fun game of tag and one of our black kids hit the floor – sure it was gunfire — we stopped the game and hugged each other…
When we were relegated to the worst part of the facility and then kicked out all together because one of our counselors slid down a hall on a pillow and the facility person said: Our Catholic kids just don’t behave that way, we looked at each other with heavy hearts and told her it was a white kid from a Catholic high school…
When a parent called me furious that I had put his white son in a room with a black boy – did I think because his name was Anthony that his son was black? I said no—we match the kids by age.
I always thought it should be simpler. Jesus teaches us to love one another. And we did love each other and at the end of each camp week after tears and hugs we went back to our segregated lives … our segregated churches and hometowns. It was kind of like Remember the Titans – camp is great, then you go home.
We believed we were doing something meaningful and important and faithful and we were… and there was so much we never understood and never thought to really explore about the dominant culture in which we soak.
After that, I went to seminary in Detroit, where I learned from one of my black fellow students that Presbyterians were racist – and particularly my home church of First Presbyterian Flint – the big white beacon in the middle of downtown Flint. She didn’t know any of us.
In seminary, I heard Jeremiah Wright preach, studied James Cone and took a class in black pastoral theology from Homer Ashby who patiently responded to my journal entries about the role of white people in urban ministry. And when Barack Obama became president, I dared to believe we’d made it to a post-racial era – living the dream we’d practiced in camp all those years ago.
Debby Irving wrote: White people must learn how to listen to the experiences of people of color for racial healing and justice to happen.
Ironically, that’s the voice that called to me in my dream… the voice felt in my bones… that shook me awake… the voice of a kind of fear I do not know and yet to which I am responsible. I had to go deep into my subconscious to tap into that kind of fear.
My nightmare is for many people, a daily waking reality still in 2019. That nightmare was a gift I couldn’t conjure up on my own… an invitation to explore its history.
Howard Thurman said: Keep alive the dream; for as long as a man has a dream in his heart, he cannot lose the significance of living.
This is a dream I intend to keep alive by reading and asking, searching and knocking – examining the plank in my own eye until by God’s gift of grace I can see.
I invite you to think about your racial autobiography. What are your experiences, memories, confusions or confessions of racial inequity?
And I invite you this black history month and beyond to listen to a voice willing to tell you a story unlike any you know.
Listen to a voice like Bryan Stevenson, born in 1959 in Delaware. Bryan grew up in a poor rural community with a sense that “there was this break in the world, and if you grew up on one side of that crack, it was definitely different than if you grew up on the other side of it.”
Bryan’s a lawyer and the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery Alabama, a private, nonprofit organization that provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system. We’re reading his book: Just Mercy, and discussing it for two Sundays: 2/17 and 2/24 after church. Come and see.
Listen to the voices of people long silenced whose stories live on through the Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. On our field trip in April, we’ll visit the museum that bears witness to thousands of documented victims of lynching between 1877 and 1950.
Listen to the voices of poets and artists and journalists and songwriters who write of fear and struggle and longing for freedom. Question preconceived ideas and interpretations. Let yourself learn as an exercise of faith. Justice, truth, peace, reconciliation… a hard road… a narrow road…yet one we walk with Jesus… the road that leads to life.
Scripture: Matthew 6:5-21
Years ago I facilitated a class on prayer with a group of Deacons. I started with a few questions – to get a sense of what the group thought about prayer:
What do you remember wanting to ask about prayer when you were a child?
What questions have you been asked about prayer that you found difficult to answer?
What questions do you have about prayer that you would like to ask now?
What do you believe about prayer?
Maybe you’ll hear yourself in some of their answers.
To the first question: What do you remember wanting to ask about prayer when you were a child?
the Deacons said:
Why did a loved one die the way they did?
Why do bad things happen to people?
Why doesn’t God answer my prayers?
Is God Real?
What is ok to pray for or to pray about?
Why were our prayers different from those of my Catholic cousins?
Why didn’t God give me what I asked for? – Since my parents always told me God answers prayer.
Who do I pray to, Jesus or God?
How can God really hear everybody’s prayer?
To: What questions have you been asked about prayer that you found difficult to answer? they said:
Where is God in this crisis?
It doesn’t do any good so why should I pray?
Why did God say no?
Why do we pray to “Our Father” and not “Our Mother”? My daughter wants to know.
When someone felt that his or her prayers were just hitting the ceiling, I could only say: keep trying.
To: What questions do you have about prayer that you would like to ask now? they said:
How does inter-faith prayer work – when people are praying to different understandings of God?
Why do I find it difficult to pray on a regular basis?
How can you tell whether your prayers have been heard?
How can I begin praying out loud?
How do you get “good” at praying out loud?
How does prayer help? Who does prayer help?
How should I pray?
Is prayer supposed to be formal or informal?
Is it OK to be praying for healing, jobs, marriages, weather, a good parking place?
How do you get comfortable praying with others?
We have lots of questions about prayer.
Prayer was a common practice for the crowd following Jesus. Jews and Gentiles alike prayed… a lot. Everybody was religious. They believed in an unseen spiritual world with gods and angels and demons. They prayed all the time for weather, food, fertility, economic success, marital bliss, health– all kinds of personal prosperity. Why pray? was not their question. How to pray the right way or the best way – that’s what they were after.
According to Jesus, when you pray, not if you pray… there is a wrong way and a right way. Don’t pray to draw attention. Don’t pray to impress. The hypocrites and the Gentiles do this. But you… remember who you’re praying to – the One who already knows what you need
and who you are.
I was at the hospital with a family: a husband and adult children. His wife was in surgery. A nurse came out to the waiting room and called us into the small conference room. The surgeon would be in to speak with us soon. We knew about how long the surgery was supposed to take and this was way too soon. In uneasy silence we waited. The surgeon came into the room and delivered the news no one wanted to hear. She left the room. Again, we sat in silence and then, one by one we started to cry.
After a few moments, the husband turned to me and said: Pastor, would you pray for us?
In that moment and so many moments like it, I love Jesus’ words – I’m liberated by them. I’m free of the anxiety that comes with needing to craft the perfect poetic profound lyrical prayer… God’s listening doesn’t depend upon my carefully chosen right or best words.
God’s been listening since before we entered the room… hearing our every breath… catching our every tear. Your father knows what you need before you ask him.
In that moment I knew that God knew intimately every heartbreak in the room. And God saw and knew and held the family member in the hospital bed — not yet awake from surgery… God knew all her hopes and fears too and loved her and would never leave her… would never leave anyone in that family through what would most certainly be a long and very hard journey.
That’s what I prayed for as we held each other. I spoke into the character and heart of God.
Martin Luther said: prayers should be brief, frequent and intense. No pontificating… no big theological words… no linguistic mastery. Remember who you’re praying to.
When you’re praying, this is how you should pray, said Jesus. Then he gave us a pattern of prayer… a series of phrases or themes… templates or frames into which we can put our own words from our own hearts. We can take each one on its own or pray them together as a set – which we do week after week on Sundays. It is as lovely and true and right to whisper just one fragment:
Abba, in heaven, he starts. That’s the who we’re praying to: Abba – not the band. Abba is an Aramaic title and most likely the one Jesus used. It refers to fathers and other respected people like teachers.
Middle Eastern scholar Kenneth Bailey tells the story of time when he was teaching the Lord’s Prayer in Arabic to a group of village women in Lebanon. As he talked about the word Abba, he noticed an embarrassed restlessness in the room. He asked the women if they wished to comment. One woman in the back shyly raised her hand: Dr. Bailey, abba is the first word we teach our children.
Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Jordan – all formerly Aramaic and now Arabic speaking countries –all kept that one precious, intimate word – like our word daddy.
Yet this abba to whom we pray dwells within the heavenly realm – majestic – completely other from us. These two parts of God’s title: Abba and heaven – keep us from being too informal or too formal. Prayer is deeply and profoundly relational yet God is not our buddy, or in any way our equal. Remember who you’re talking to.
Everything else flows from that understanding:
Abba in heaven — Let your kingdom come. Shalom, love, justice, mercy, compassion, kindness. This is our prayer when we learn of devastation to the planet… let your kingdom come – a restoration of tov – the goodness and rightness as it was in the beginning. This is our prayer when we hear of a mass shooting… let your kingdom come – with an end to human induced pain and suffering. This is our prayer when we see or hear bigotry, hatred and violence… Let it come – your kingdom of peace, wholeness, wellness… let it come in us and through us.
All that we need for this day, we pray – from your hand, Abba – daily bread – manna. Strength for this day only… patience sufficient for this day… energy and focus and attention for this day. This part of the prayer acknowledges generosity and limits… trust that tomorrow will bring what’s needed for tomorrow.
This is the prayer that sustains us when we are sinking… overwhelmed… exhausted… drained… Please – enough to get me through today…
When Alex was a toddler, we’d put him in a stroller and he’d arch his back and cry and fuss to be let out of it. As soon as we unstrapped him and he climbed out, he’d lift up his hands and say Carry me! He’d tug on our legs and beg: Carry me! He’d look up into our eyes and plead: Carry me.
That’s the prayer when we simply cannot take one more step: carry me! Abba in heaven lift me up with your grace enough for this day.
Forgiveness from all that we owe, we pray… The rabbis taught that every sin created a debt to God. Sins upon sins built a wall of separation from God. And every righteous deed offset it with an asset… like taking a brick out of the wall and using it to build a bridge to God. Jesus had the audacity to teach us to pray for a complete tear down of the wall we’ve created – a wiping clean of the slate – freedom from a burden and obligation we can never on our own fulfill.
Divine forgiveness, Jesus taught, is inextricable from human forgiveness. To ask for God to forgive us while we withhold forgiveness from a brother or sister is deceptive.
To ask forgiveness from God as a great benefit, and then to deny the same to others is to mock God, said 5th century archbishop Chrysostom. It’s illegitimate, says theologian Frederick Dale Bruner, to ask for a mercy we refuse to give.
Luther gave it a different spin. He said: when we find ourselves able to forgive others we have a kind of sacramental evidence that God’s forgiveness is at work in us. And poet David Whyte offers this: forgiveness is an act of compassion… to forgive… is to allow ourselves to be gifted by a story larger than the story that first hurt us…in extending forgiveness to others we begin the long journey of becoming the person who will be large enough, able enough and generous enough to receive that absolution ourselves.
Finally, to the one who gives us life, we pray to save our life – from harmful and hurtful decisions… from actions inconsistent with God’s will and kingdom… from listening to and following voices that lead us away from truth.
Jesus teaches us how to pray briefly, frequently and intensely with words that honor the one to whom we pray, honor our neighbor, honor ourselves, and honor the world in which we live. He doesn’t answer every question we have about prayer, but maybe we can answer our own questions when we explore the last question I posed to the group of Deacons: What do we believe about prayer? And how does that relate to what we believe about God?
This is not an exhaustive list and it’s ever evolving, but here’s some of what I believe:
- Prayer is an invitation into a relationship with a God who loves us and desires abundant life for us.
- God invites us to bring all that we are and all that we feel, all that we’ve done and all that we hope for, all our disappointments and all our thanksgivings, all that is on our hearts with regard to self, family, community, church, the world- to God – honestly.
- We can pray with our eyes open or closed, our heads bowed or uplifted, our hands raised or folded, standing, sitting, walking or driving… we can pray with our lips moving or not, by speaking words or writing words or thinking words… or sitting in silence…
- Prayer can be action, song, dance, artwork, poetry… prayer is an expression of the heart.
- Prayer is a vehicle through which we can grow into people of truth: before God, before others and before self.
- Through prayer creative insights can be revealed that were previously not known or considered and we can become convicted toward action.
- God hears our prayers.
- Scripture can guide us into prayer.
- We can pray with confidence, strength and fervor directly into the character and heart of God.
- Prayer, like God is ultimately beyond description and definition and is, finally, mystery.
Every week when we come together we practice praying with each other and for each other… giving voice to the deep yearnings of our hearts. We enact prayer when we generously give to help others in need, when we pass the peace of Christ to each other, when we sing songs we hope and pray we’ll live into reality and when we break and share bread sufficient for the day.
So Lord, teach us to pray with our minds, with our mouths, with our hearts with our hands… and with our lives to your glory.
Scripture: Matthew 4:1-17
It’s a great day to be preaching on the temptations – a Sunday after the first winter snowstorm of the year hits on Saturday. What a temptation it was looking out the window this morning… the Pillow Cathedral sounded awfully nice. So thank you, faithful remnant, for resisting the temptation and braving the elements to come to church this morning.
After Jesus rose up, aright, standing tall in his baptism… after the heavens broke open and the Spirit of God descended upon him… after a voice from the heavens spoke saying: This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased… immediately after all these things, Jesus was on a high. Seems like the perfect time to begin ministry. But no – not so fast – first there’s a trip to the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights to be tempted… tested… tried…
Literally, to be pierced – a word used by the ancient Greeks to determine how durable something was. Jesus, the Messiah, son of David, son of Abraham was led by the Spirit to the wilderness to be poked and prodded by the devil before he preached his first sermon.
The tempter was the devil- literally the slanderous one… the one who sets out to falsely accuse… to unjustly condemn… to maliciously injure with words which may be true or at least half true, but are used to purposefully trap and destroy. The sower of insecurity… insidious whisperer of doubt…
It was crucial field preparation for his call to ministry. And for our call to ministry: in his temptation, we see our temptation… in his response… a way for us to respond…
On Thursday night I went to the meeting of the finance and stewardship committees. It was the first meeting of the new year, and the topic up for discussion, the only topic up for discussion, was what to do about setting the church budget for 2019.
Last year, in an effort to get to financial sustainability, session voted to set an aggressive goal for 2019: cover 80% of planned expenses with pledges. Pledges are committed gifts for the year.
There are other types of income to the church: facility rental, gifts received that are not connected to an annual pledge, and donations to mission partners that go through the church. But those categories are not reliable. Overestimating them has led to consecutive budget deficits. Pledged income is predictable… dependable.
Church experts in financial planning recommend covering 80% of the church’s annual expenses with pledges. In other words, the people of the church together support the ministry of the church.
Anyway, it all made perfect sense and we launched the pledge campaign last year and Thursday night of last week we sat around the table looking at the black and white data on the screen. While there was much to celebrate, new pledges, increased pledges, overall net increase… as of today, our 2019 pledges will cover just under 65% of our planned expenses. Clearly that’s short of our goal.
The idea was for this team of people to make some recommendations to session for our next meeting at the end of the month: how will we set the budget for this year? What ideas will we implement to increase revenue? What cuts in expenses do we need to make? We met for over 2 hours brainstorming.
Later that night, when I got home, I picked up a book by the poet and author David Whyte. Consolations, it’s called, The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words. I scanned the 52 words in the Table of Contents looking for a word that matched my mood: Besieged.
Besieged is how most people feel most of the time, David Whyte wrote. Really, most people? most of the time – feel besieged? by events, by people, by all the necessities of providing, parenting, participating…to feel crowded, set upon, blocked by circumstances…
I felt besieged Thursday night. Not that I felt surrounded by enemies — no — we all shared responsibility and commitment to the conundrum. I felt overwhelmed. impatient. confused… desperate for a solution. And I thought about these wilderness temptations.
The first one the devil offered to a famished Jesus, having not eaten for 40 days and 40 nights: You’re the Son of God aren’t you? Make these stones into loaves of bread.
Frederick Dale Bruner says: The form this satanic voice assumes in addressing disciples is something like this: ‘How can you claim to be children of God when you are struggling with big problems instead of victorious over them? Get rid of your problems [turn these stones into donors], and we can believe you are in a strong relation with God.
This is the temptation of a quick fix; a bandaid for the immediate presenting need. Instead, what are we to learn from struggling together? from asking deeper questions? What do we really need? What are we hungering for? What will sustain us? Who will sustain us? Are we settling for fast food when there’s much better nourishment we’re missing?
Jesus replied: Man does not live by bread alone… The church does not live by money alone… but by every word that pours forth from the mouth of God. Bread sustains, yes and… Money sustains yes and… there’s so much more to discipleship: Growing as children of God… Bible study and prayerfulness… soul-healing – relying on… trusting in… immersing in the words of life.
The second temptation: Stand on the top of the Temple and overlook the holy city. You’re the Son of God, right? Throw yourself down in front of everyone and walk away unscathed – it is written – the angels will bear you up.
This is the temptation for the spectacular – the attention getter – the stunt that gets them talking. Smoke machines and strobe lights will get the cool kids to come. Be all the rage on the boulevard.
Throughout Matthew’s gospel, people pressure Jesus to give a sign – do something spectacular so we know you are who you say you are. Over and over again he refuses. Do we follow God or is God to follow us? What we do and who we are is not to draw attention to us, but to God.
And the third temptation: Stand at the top of the world and look around – it can all be yours if you but bow to the devil.
This is a temptation for power and influence – no matter the cost to the soul… A foreshadowing of unholy alliances formed between church and state throughout history – pulpits selling-out to the highest or most influential bidder, cheapening theology, polluting worship.
They’re all “prove-it” temptations in the end: If you’re the Son of God, prove it. And it just doesn’t work like that. God is the one who does the proving. It is up to us to remain faithful and patient.
David Whyte says: Being besieged asks us to begin the day not with a to do list but a not to do list, a moment outside of the time-bound world in which it can be reordered and reprioritized.
Here’s a start to a “not to do” list I offer for our church at this critical time:
- We are not going to panic.
- We are not closing our hearts or shuttering our imaginations.
- We are not leaving all of the idea generation and implementation to those who are ordained.
- We are not letting any circumstances divide us or pit one against another.
- We are not giving our hearts to anyone but God.
- We are not avoiding the next deeper question.
- We are not loving any other way but fully.
- We are not holding back forgiveness.
- We are not shying away from any conversation.
- We are not pulling away from the table.
- We are not forgetting who and whose we are and why we exist.
- We are not living in fear of failing.
- We are not choosing financial security over ministry.
- We are not expecting to grow without work and faithful struggle.
- We are not settling for immaturity.
- We are not willing to lose our soul in a quest for growth.
- We are not wasting energy on life depriving things.
- We are not under siege.
- We are not unaware of our commitment to each other.
- We are not going to stop believing that God is here.
In Martin Luther’s great hymn A Mighty Fortress, is this line: “And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear, for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us. The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him. His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure. One little word shall fell him.” That word above all earthly powers abideth: Christ Jesus, it is he.
What was the purpose of those 40 days and 40 nights for Jesus between his baptism and his first sermon? A piercing to check his durability? A dry run with what he would face throughout his ministry? An opportunity to empathize with us? with all the temptations humans endure? To teach us and show us the way? Yes to all of the above.
We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
Our financial challenges as a church are real. And our faith is steadfast. And our God is trustworthy and sure. We want our wilderness wanderings to be over and they’re not yet. We still have much to learn and God will provide water in the desert and a pathway through.
For today and every day, let us remember: Christ is the victor. Let us therefore with confidence pray with Martin Luther: “O Christ who has overcome the devil, help me!” Help me… help us be the kingdom of God.
Scripture: Matthew 3:1-17: Up and Out
Before he preached his first sermon… before he healed any wounded whole… before his public ministry vocation began, Jesus, the Messiah, Son of David, Son of Abraham left his home in Nazareth and traveled to the River Jordan to be baptized by his cousin John.
That was very odd when you think about it.
John was a preacher who preached one sermon over and over again with urgency for anyone and everyone who would hear it. He was clear and singular in his purpose. A new way was coming. God was behind it… shaping it… birthing it. It was real and it was close at hand:
Get ready… Get rid of all the junk in your life—the stuff that clouds your judgment – clear all distractions… don’t miss this train – it will be the adventure of your life – what you were born for – what the whole world has been waiting for. Come to the River Jordan. Go down under the water old and come up and out new. Be ready – one is coming who will fill you with God’s way and light a fire within you.
And on cue, he did come and lowering his head before John, Jesus said: Baptize me.
That’s the kind of Messiah Jesus is. He gets in line with everybody else wanting this kingdom life– the shopkeepers and the farmers, the peasants and the beggars, the landowners and the widows… A Messiah who is our brother. From the beginning – he bursts on the scene side by side with you and me… going under the water with you and me… coming up and out with you and me.
Up and out, she said after our First Look class last Tuesday, I keep thinking about up and out, she said.
Up and out… it reminded me of a class I taught over 10 years ago on the book Crossing the Jordan, Meditations on Vocation, by Sam Portaro. It was for people in career transitions… recently retired, downsized, or restless.
The reflections of the book came from student retreats. The author worked over 30 years in campus ministry as the Episcopal chaplain to the University of Chicago. In the introduction he wrote: among young adults and older ones too, I find that vocation is the central and enduring theme—the tie that binds and often chafes.
Through a collection of reflections on the life of Jesus, Portaro invited us to consider our own lives and call… authenticity and life purpose. We who invite his companionship also share his journey, he wrote, I invite you into conversation with Jesus through an exploration of his own vocational discernment.
I loved that class and I love the book. My copy is filled with underlining and notes in the margins. We had rich discussions every week around such quotes as:
Out of our worst and weakest features often come the resources of our greatest strengths.
In God’s economy, nothing is wasted. Each of our experiences is important.
I thought about this just this week when my daughter was stressing about a job choice. I texted her: Everything you learn will prepare you. I use everything I ever learned in any job in this job. Nothing is wasted.
Of Jesus’ baptism, Portaro wrote: it is the moment when Jesus accepts full responsibility for his life. And that is when all hell literally breaks loose… it was an act of radical personal commitment to an intimate relationship with God… a full realization of what it means to be loved and love fully…
That may have been the moment when one of the class members dropped his pencil on the table and said: Ok, that’s it. Am I the only one that sees the obvious agenda of this whole book?
The room got quiet. Clearly, he said, the author is gay and this whole book is about his coming out.
He’d looked into this author… read online about the groups he’d advocated for… his public stand in support of the recently ordained gay Episcopalian Bishop Gene Robinson. He was frustrated and angry… said he felt like this guy had hijacked the gospel for his own purposes.
When he was done, the room was quiet again. I said I didn’t know Sam Portaro was gay until that moment and I said I was confused as to what difference it made to the legitimacy of the book… his work… his witness… the way the Holy Spirit spoke through his life.
As a straight Christian woman, I loved what he wrote – it really spoke to me and obviously others in our group.
I wondered who was doing the hijacking. I was dumbfounded… I never saw that coming. And it hurt. My heart ached for the author and the way his prophetic voice was diminished.
And my heart ached for my brother in Christ, for whom I was pastor… a man who devoted himself to the church yet couldn’t see or hear this genuine heart of faith.
Change your mind and your heart, John the baptizer called out from the desert, God’s way is here. Line up.
People from all walks of life went out to the wilderness. Clergy went too. But John saw right through them. Apparently he knew they had no intention of being baptized as a means of getting ready for a kingdom in which they were already sure they had guaranteed front row seats.
Jesus, on the other hand, insisted. And after, he came up and out of the baptismal waters… Up and Out. Literally in the Greek: Jesus rose up, straight. Straight – not as in not gay… straight as in upright… not crooked or bent… straight as in forming the most direct path from A to B – from earth to heaven — perfectly rightly aligned.
Jesus chose to be baptized for all to see his direct orientation toward God and God’s way… an arrow, pointing – for all to see… for all to follow.
Last Sunday I baptized Grant Richard Walden, son of Richard and Kristin Walden, grandson of Rick and Pam Bunch and great-grandson of Tom and Sue Jacoby. Beloved child of God.
After the service I gave the family Grant’s baptismal certificate and a letter I wrote to Grant. I give it to his parents for safe keeping, so that when he gets older… when he no longer remembers what we did together last Sunday, they can bring out that letter and read it to him.
Today, January 6, 2019, you and I participated in a very important and beautiful celebration at the First Presbyterian Church, Tecumseh. Your mom and dad brought you to the church to be baptized.
You were only a baby, but on your behalf, your parents and the members of this church promised to teach you and support you as you grow and learn about God’s love for you and what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Then I baptized you with water in the name of God the Father, God the Son Jesus Christ, and God the Holy Spirit, and I marked the sign of a cross on your forehead reminding you that you are God’s child forever and for always.
Grant, I don‘t know where life will take you. I don’t know where you’ll live or where you’ll go to school . . . I don‘t know what wonders and surprises God has in store for you or what great plans God has for your life, but what I do know is this:
Wherever you go and whatever you do, God goes before you to prepare the way for you and to prepare you for the way. You are precious in God’s sight and beloved always. I pray that throughout your life, you will come to know God and God’s incredible love for you and you’ll follow Jesus with your heart, your hands, your feet and your mind.
The walk of faith is an amazing journey. It takes a lifetime to explore it. On it, you’ll meet people that will touch your heart and change your life. You’ll give and give and give some more, but never come close to what you’ll receive. It’s hardly easy but deeply fulfilling.
It’s holy and joyful and draining and confusing but God’s grace will carry you all the way. Be humble, be honest, love like crazy and always pray for a wide-open heart.
Your friend and sister in Christ,
The Rev. Cathi King
The Minister Who Baptized You
This is the letter I write to every child I baptize. It’s true. And it is my prayer for the church of Jesus Christ, baptized in his name… baptized in his life… baptized in his death… baptized in his struggle and in his victory… baptized in his steadfast heart of mercy and justice and welcome for all… rising up and standing tall with full stature and maturity, side by side, brothers and sisters sharing the kingdom life.
Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12: A Special Child
They named him Grant Richard – Grant Richard Walden. Richard is his dad’s name. It’s German: Ric (power), hard (brave) – it’s a name bearing strength and courage. Grant is an English name — meaning great or large. Maybe he’ll be a tall man. Maybe he’s destined for greatness.
What’s in a name? Calling? Conviction? Character?
The gospel of Matthew begins with these words: “This is the geneology of Jesus, the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” In the Greek, it’s the biblos geneseos. Biblos in Greek is the inner bark of the papyrus that the ancients wrote on – so this is the writing or journal… maybe the scroll or record… of the geneseos — genesis – beginning.
This is Matthew’s story from the beginning of the one whose human name was Jesus: Iesous – from the Hebrew Yehoshua – meaning Yahweh saves. His name too was a combination of his father’s name and his destiny: God saves.
Messiah was a title: Christos in Greek – the anointed one. Technically his name is not Jesus Christ, as if Christ is his surname. Rather, he is Jesus, the Christ — according to Matthew – the anointed one who is both son of David and son of Abraham; destined to fulfill two of God’s promises: a King forever for the people of Israel – and a seed of Abraham who will be a blessing to people of all nations.
All four gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were written many years after the death and resurrection of Jesus – 40-60 years later. All of them are legacy stories – stories for the world to know how this special child lived into his name: God saves.
In his opening line, Matthew sets the stage for his story of Jesus the Christ –the One through whom God will save God’s people – beginning with the covenant family of Israel and ever expanding to the whole world. This is the biblos geneseos… the story of the beginning of Jesus… the beginning of a new kingdom revealed among us… the beginning of a new hope and new life for the whole world.
Every story in Matthew, every argument, every illustration returns to this premise: God saves the world through this special child – it is his destiny.
Destiny… poet David Whyte calls destiny a word with storybook or mythic dimensions… a word that invites belief or disbelief… we reject or we agree that there seems to be a greater hand than our own working at the edges of life… a hand that might hang a star in the sky marking a special child for a special life.
The very way we respond to this question of destiny shapes our destiny. Again in David Whyte’s words:
Two people simply by looking at the future in radically different ways have completely different futures awaiting them… we are shaped by our shaping of the world and are shaped again in turn. The way we face the world alters the face we see in the world.
Early in the gospel of Matthew we have examples of two types of people looking at the future in radically different ways – responding to the face of God in the world very differently.
The first is King Herod. Herod was a Roman client king of Judea. Middle Eastern scholar Kenneth Bailey describes Herod’s interesting mixture of allegiances this way: he was racially Arab, religiously Jewish, culturally Greek and politically Roman.
The name Herod has mixed meaning as well. In the Greek it could be a combination of the words for hero and ode – meaning hero’s song. But in Arabic the word means to flee; and in Hebrew to tremble in fear. So to the Romans, this king had a powerful name, and to the Hebrews, his name betrayed his inner character: scaredy-cat.
Herod the Great. Was he great? It depends on who you ask and how you interpret. Historians are polarized on him. He was called great for his many building projects: the Temple Mount, fortresses and cities. These building projects provided jobs for lots of people and heavy tax burdens. Some saw them as monuments to self more than for the public welfare; ways to pander to some constituencies while offending others.
He was decadent and paranoid. No one trusted him and he trusted no one.
When Herod felt threatened, he acted quickly and brutally. He even ordered the executions of one of his 10 wives and 3 of his 14 children. And because he was afraid of the child they called “king of the Jews”, he ordered all of the children in and around Bethlehem to be killed.
Herod looked into the future and responded with disbelief, rejection, and rebellion – a foreshadowing of others in powerful political and religious positions who will seek to destroy rather than to be saved by God through this special child…
In the end, despite his bodyguard of 2000 soldiers, Herod died in Jericho from an excruciatingly painful and awful illness. Ancient texts describe his symptoms as “putrescent stomach, corpse-like breath, maggots breeding in the privy member, and a constant watery flow from the bowels causing inflamed madness.” An unknown horrific disease referenced in history simply as “Herod’s Evil.”
Destiny? We are shaped by our shaping of the world and are shaped again in turn…
Then there were the Magi. They looked into the future by studying the laws and messages of the stars. To practicing Jews, these people were idolaters: magicians, diviners, astrologers. Despite their intelligence, they would have been among the least likely to be considered wise men. Yet they are the believers, the receivers, the ones who fall down on their faces before God’s face in the child. They foreshadow the unlikely ones in the story of Jesus – the ones who will be touched by grace and compelled to follow his light and life; the outsiders welcomed inside.
What became of the Magi? Nothing more is said about them, only that after worshipping the child, they left for their home country by another way. Forever changed… shaped again in turn.
And for hundreds of years many Christians, particularly in Latin American countries, remember the faithful pilgrimage of the Magi by celebrating dia de los reyes – Day of the Kings.
Throughout the ages we’ve remembered them in our nativitty scenes: Magi, wisemen, kings. All three names apply, for they were students of the laws and messages of the stars, Cicero called them wise and learned men among the Persians, and might they be the ones referenced in the words of the prophet Isaiah who said: Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn…and all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.
From the beginning, according to Matthew’s biblos, there are some who rush to the light and others who refuse it… some who open their hearts and others who close them… some who seek truth and others who deny it… some who reach out for new life and others who do what they can to destroy it. And a whole cast of characters somewhere in between.
That’s true even today.
The way we face the world alters the face we see in the world.
Today we celebrate a baptism: Grant Richard — great, powerful, brave. Today he received a new identity– one that redefines who and whose he is… one that reorients him to understand greatness and strength and courage through the shadow of the cross: deep sacrificial love, self-emptying solidarity with all who struggle and suffer.
Today he joined a community driven with the mission of Christ: to hold out hope, to relentlessly lean into justice, to greet all people with grace and to illuminate the way of life.
As Grant’s brothers and sisters in Christ, we share this baptismal identity and mission. The mark of Christ is upon us and within us – the light – the star – the manifestation of God’s glory – the epiphany.
Today is Epiphany Sunday – literally in the Greek Shine upon.
May we the Church of Jesus the Christ, be stars that point the way to the special child, in whom and through whom all life begins anew.
May we, in the words of the apostle Paul: shine like stars in the universe as we hold out the word of life.
May we live into the calling, conviction and character of our name: Children of God: beloved, forgiven, destined in and for grace.