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.