Gratitude

My parents and I went to Branson Friday and Saturday to see Samson and another show called Six.  The main show to see, though, was Samson.  Several people in Mom and Dad’s church had seen the show and were going on and on about it.  This was the last weekend for it, and it was worth the trip.  Samson, born in the Hebrew faith and tradition, was a typical child and teen who wanted a different life.  The Hebrews, forced into submission by the Philistines, attempted to maintain their traditions and beliefs while navigating their public behaviors according to Philistine rule.  Samson wanted to be freed from the restrictions of the laws and live unfettered.  In the play, he spoke about the chains that held him down and the rules that he believed stifled his spirit.  He complains and argues and bargains and fights and runs from the pull of his heritage.  

It is this background of Samson, the understanding of his living in tension between his faith and tradition versus the pull of the world and supposed “freedom,” that draws me further into our texts for this morning.  While Samson pulls away from the call of God for his life, Paul offers a completely different approach.  Samson draws back and isolated himself, and, as a result, he suffers greatly.  Paul, however, suffers and that suffering draws him further into the bosom of God.  

We have been reading for several weeks now the letters of Paul to Timothy.  In these letters Paul speaks to Timothy in encouragement to accept the servant Onesimus despite the servant having betrayed Timothy at some point in time.  Paul also writes of encouragement, humility, persistence.  And all of these attitudes are to be acquired through the grace of Jesus Christ.  In our passage for today, Paul seems to take a different turn at first.  He actually writes as if he is complaining.  Look at what he says:  “I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal.”  He offers to Timothy a physical image of what his life looks like in that moment.  He complains, he speaks with honesty and truth, but that process of naming his sufferings is for a purpose.  Complaining is one way he gets to bottom of his humanity, and there he comes face to face with his strengths and weaknesses, his abilities and limitations.  And it is at this bottom of his humanity that we understand why he writes as he does.  He states his discovery:  “I endure everything to the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory.”  He endures hardship, physical pain, isolation so that those who know what is happening to him will understand that he gives all for Jesus.  That Jesus is worthy of all he could possibly endure so that others will come to Jesus and believe.

In the play, God continued to call Samson to greatness, to leadership, but Samson struggled against that plan for his life.  And it was through this struggle, his complaining, that he came to the understanding of his own limitations.  He realized that his choices continually took him away from the presence of God and in turn he was restless, angry, isolated.  

While I understand that Paul and Samson did not complain for the same reason, their results were similar.  Samson suffered AGAINST God, and Paul suffered FOR God.  And if complaining, or naming our sufferings, gives us understanding of our limitations, I would like to unpack what Paul speaks of in his letter to Timothy.  And just as he offers encouragement to Timothy, we too are encouraged.  Paul reminds Timothy, and us, that we are not alone,  That we are not isolated.  As a matter of fact, not only are we not alone, but we are saved from this misery of our own humanity because of our proclaiming our faith in Jesus.  Paul refocuses our attention and our intention upon Jesus Christ.  Paul slips the story from the pain and hurt being the center of his world to Jesus Christ being the center.

How does he do this?  Exactly how does he shift the focus from suffering to Jesus?  One simple word:  “Remember.”  The word “remember” is the Greek is anamnesis, which means to bring into remembrance.  To bring forward.  To bring into the present.  This word “remember” is in Holy Eucharist as well when “We remember his death, we proclaim his resurrection, we await his coming in glory.”  Paul names his own suffering, and then he brings the suffering of Jesus into the present.  He makes Jesus the center and focus of his attention rather than himself.

But there is a fine thread here that I wish to bring forward.  In suffering there certainly is pain.  I mentioned last week about those in our family here in All Saints who suffer.  Many are at various points of treatment for physical pain.  Recovering from surgery, preparation for surgery, or surgery in the very near future.  Emotional pain.  There are relapses.  There are good days and very, very bad days.  This thread I see in Paul’s letter goes deeper than the actual suffering, be it physical or emotional pain.  And what I see Paul implying here is the implication of shame in suffering.  He speaks of suffering hardship to the point of death.  But, in our lectionary reading he also speaks with authority that conquers shame.  Look with me at the words he uses:  “that is my gospel”… “but the word of God is not chained” … “I endure everything” … “so that they.” [emphasis mine]  These are not words of submission but words of ownership.  Not words of defeat but words of power.  Paul shares with Timothy that suffering is inevitable, it will come.  But, Paul exhorts Timothy — and us — that when we suffer we are also triumphant.  We need have no shame because of our suffering.  

And you sit there and say, “Sure, Mother Janie.  That sounds all fine and well.  But you don’t understand how I feel.  You don’t know what this is like.  You cannot possibly speak to this.”  And you know what?  You’re absolutely right.  I don’t.  And I cannot know.  Unless I have been through what you have been or are going through, I don’t know.  

My response is, how will I know unless you tell me.  Unless you share with me.  And, it’s not just me, though.  Paul wrote his letter, but there was a recipient of the letter.  When you, when we, have sufferings, we are to share them.  We are to speak them to one another.  We speak the suffering and, as a result, we discover our limitations and expose our shame.  And when we speak, our attention is intentionally refocused on Jesus Christ who offers the balm to ease our aches.

And it is amidst the suffering that a miracle occurs.  When we share the burden and focus our hearts to Jesus, He transforms us to see hope, if even a slim glimmer of hope.  Our faith strengthens, even if it is only for one day.  With the faith, gratitude comes.  Gratitude for the small events of the day.  Gratitude for those who come alongside and suffer with us, pray with us, laugh with us.  Through faith we express our complete trust in God.  It may not be immediate, and it may not even be permanent.  But, if we look with intention, our faith will grow into gratitude because we know that God, the giver of all good gifts, hold all of life in His providential hands.

And this gratitude, a small ripple within one individual, echoes within the person sharing the suffering.  As we come together as a church body, we share in the suffering and in faith we pray.  We come to the rail of Holy Eucharist exposing the hurt of our lives and giving that suffering to Jesus Christ.  We pray.  We lay hands on one another.  Our gratitude for God and His grace grows, the ripples continue to echo.  This gratitude will reshape the character of our congregation.  No longer will we come to church to “get something out of it,” but we will come because we long to be together, to give thanks and praise together.  To stifle this gratitude would be as unnatural as holding one’s breath for a very long time.

I See You

“You is good.  You is smart.  You is important.”  These are familiar words from the movie The Help.  Many of you know this story, how it depicts the discrepancies within our history between the races, particularly during the Civil Rights Movement.  In this film the main character Skeeter, a young, white, female journalist, asks a significant question of the Black maids:  “What is it like to leave your own children in order to raise white children knowing these children will grow up and could be your boss?”  The responses that Skeeter receives are across the spectrum.  Some maids have wonderful experiences with their employers, many situations could be considered like family while others grit their teeth against the injustice they endured, one particular maid even saying that she was included in an employer’s will like a piece of property such as a dresser or box of tools to be the maid of the daughter.  

This film seems a portrayal of our readings for this morning in that there is an unjust system that is intentional in its nature, and there is a belief that there are individuals who are plagued by evil things and therefore are considered evil themselves.  How can this happen?  How can people allow such a system to exist?  To answer these questions, I would like to unpack these two perspectives of our readings.

The first portion concerns the rich man who delights in his wealth.  He lives without care and enjoys the rewards of his wealth.  This wealth affords him the privilege of insulating himself from the pain outside of his his priorities.  It is not the money that is the issue; the problem for the rich man is his attitude towards his wealth.  He is given good things and as a result does not recognize the pain around him.  He does not see.  I do find it interesting in that the rich man is not given a name.  In literary criticism this would be the “everyman,” the individual who represents the reader.  Much like Paul Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress who journeys through challenges and troubles carrying the reader along to be a witness, the rich man makes his choices and suffers his consequences.  His is a cautionary tale for us with the moral that implies if we pursue a goal to the detriment or even dismissal of the humanity around us, we will suffer.

The second portion concerns the man Lazarus.  In order to understand his situation, we need to be reminded of Jewish culture and law.  It was illegal, it was a sin, to be a leper.  To be a leper, a man covered with sores, was to be an outcast, unclean, incapable to living in community.  And, to be outside of the community would mean that the human did not exist, that there was no person whatsoever.  Additionally, the dogs are also a component of the story.  The reference to the dogs implies not only that they alleviated the sufferings of Lazarus but they also increased them.  Dogs in Jewish culture were not pets but were considered unclean and outside of the communal culture.  So, to have Lazarus plagued with sores and surrounded by dogs would have been a most horrific symbol in this parable.  

So what do we do with these two characters in our parable?  Who are they for us and what are we supposed to learn?  Returning for a moment to the film The Help, I want to offer a possibility.  The system in Jackson, Mississippi, as well as across the country at that time, existed because of a belief that injustice is inherent and morally right.  George Orwell discussed this idea in his allegory Animal Farm with the platitude, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”  In other words, equality is a movable line; equality is relative.  In the film, it was not until the vagueness of the line was identified and given witness by Skeeter that the steps toward change began.  You and I could be the rich man, wearing blinders to the world around us because of our love for _______________.  You and I are consumed by our need to be right in an argument that we verbally eviscerate our opponent.  Last year, my sending church of St. Matthew’s in Enid held the annual convention.  It had never been held in Enid before as most of the diocesan press is spread in either Oklahoma City or Tulsa.  So, to say that we accepted the challenge of hosting an extraordinary convention was an understatement.  Organizing volunteers, creating and printing bulletins and brochures, bringing in vendors and facilitating their set up and take down, coordinating the movement of events and breakout sessions and guest leadership and meals and snacks and coffee was an event nine months in the planning.  When the last day’s session was underway, I and the legion of volunteers from St. Matthew’s were exhausted.  There was a lady representing her parish sitting at the table with me and St. Matthew’s members.  She made a salty comment about something with the vendors.  Unfortunately, her comment came at the wrong time on the wrong mood with the wrong hours of sleep and rest.  I snapped back a retort that was most certainly unSouthern and quite definitely unChristian.  She shut up.  After I calmed down and reflected on the audacity of my response, I went to her and apologized for my behavior and asked for her forgiveness.  She was gracious and forgave me.  

I reflect on this story because I did not see her.  I saw only her words and reacted.  Have you responded in this way to another person?  Are there ways in which you and I are blind to the fears of others?  Are there moments when you and I cannot recognize the hurt we inflict when we criticize or judge or neglect?  A document from Vatican II states, “everyone should look upon his neighbour (without any exception) as another self, bearing in mind above all his life and the means necessary for living it in a dignified way lest he follow the example of the rich man who ignored Lazarus, the poor man.”

The sin for the rich man was not his wealth.  His sin was his negligence.  His incapacity to recognize the humanity of another.  His inability to bear witness to a man amidst excruciating suffering.  My prayer, my plea, is that we open our eyes.  That we recognize.  That we name the pain.  And by doing so we will see the beggar at the gate.  We will realize that the one who suffers is outside of the community and longs for someone to say, “I see you.  I recognize your existence.  I am here for you.”

Now Let Me Alone

Lectionary Readings for today.

As most of you know, I am an only child.  I had an imaginary friend — a monkey named Muntney — that I played with and who got the blame for things I did wrong.  But, I was a good girl and don’t believe I was a trouble child.  My mom, however, had a different perspective.  Several years back, I found my baby book.  You know the one with the first fingernail clipping, the first lock of hair, first words, and all the other firsts.  There’s a few pages towards the back where Mom could write her reflections.  In one section she wrote, “If Janie isn’t spanked every day she thinks something is wrong.”  That sounds horrible as I say it out loud because it could be taken one of two ways:  either I was a wicked, horrific child or my mom was abusive.  And the truth is that neither are the complete truth.  I did wrong sometimes, and Mom overreacted sometimes.

I have to say that I truly love the readings for today.  They are so rich in their connections and flow.  I should be able to say that about every reading from our lectionary, but honestly some weeks I struggle to see a thread.  But today is different.  Nothing so comprehensively expresses God’s love for us as we read here.  In our passage from Exodus we watch God’s anger at the Israelites.  Look at what God says:  “Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them…”  He continues, and hear the emotion in His words, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are.  Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them.”  God speaks to Moses with such power and force.  I admit I cannot fathom the frustration, the betrayal, that He must feel.  These people, this helpless tribe, have turned away and have chosen another.  We might be able to appreciate the power of this emotion when we have been betrayed by another — a friend who shared a sensitive secret, a spouse who crossed a line in some way, a child who moves down a path of life contrary to our hope.  We feel confused and lost, unable to comprehend what is happening.  Why?  Why are they saying this, doing this?  I don’t understand, and I am angry about what is happening.  God is responding in just this way.  And He speaks to Moses as a precious friend.  Sharing His grief.  Sharing His pain.  Sharing His anger.

Being made aware of God’s anger against a people who make a choice that is not Him, we come into our Gospel passage.  In our text we can see the movement of God in His Son who offers two illustrations of something that was lost and is now found.  God, whose wrath burned hot against the Israelites and wanted to consume them, has now sent His Son to seek the one lost lamb and bring it back into the fold.  The lame man lowered through the roof.  The leper at the city gate.  The woman at the well.  The prostitute.  Nicodemus.  The centurion’s servant.  The blind man at Bethesda.  Lazarus.  Peter when he denied Jesus.  All who crucified Him, and He asked that they be forgiven because they did not know what they were doing.  Jesus shows us that we are to seek those who are outside and bring them back in.  Jesus tells us that we are to be active.  We are to pay attention.  We are to watch and observe and recognize when something is amiss and out of place.  A friend who is wavering.  A co-worker who is responding out of the norm.  We must look up and see.  Arthur Miller wrote of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, “Attention must be paid to such a man.”  

We must be Jesus who goes to the lost and brings them back.  We must give attention to the one who has none.  And it is in this place of recognition, the moment that one who is lost receives confirmation that he is present, that he has been seen, that his humanity has been made known, that Paul writes to Timothy. And Paul offers us a perspective of the one on the other side.  He tells Timothy of what he was guilty:  a blasphemer, a persecutor, a man of violence.  He was a foremost sinner.  And Jesus came for him.  Jesus chose him.  Jesus, who was God, died for him.  Displayed utmost patience and offered mercy with the overflowing grace of love.  Paul writes with such passion and love and acknowledgment of who he was and who he is now.  

There’s a popular contemporary Christian song called “Reckless Love.”  I’d like to share with you a few of the lyrics:  

When I was Your foe, still Your love fought for me

You have been so, so good to me

When I felt no worth, You paid it all for me

You have been so, so kind to me

And oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God

Oh, it chases me down, fights ’til I’m found, leaves the ninety-nine

And I couldn’t earn it, and I don’t deserve it, still, You give Yourself away

Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God

I can imagine Paul writing these words.  He knows his worth.  He knows who he is.  He knows he deserves what God wanted to do with the Israelites in Exodus.  He knows God spoke of him to Moses when He said, “Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them.”  Paul understands he is deserving of all the anger of God.  He sees himself through the eyes of God and knows his value without Christ.

And we, we deserve the very same anger of God.  We fail and we fight and we question and we run.  I will spare you the Johnathan Edwards “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon, but we deserve what we will not receive when we know Jesus.

So what does this mean, you are asking?  What am I supposed to do with this information?  What are you saying all this for?  Or, yes, I know all of this already…so what?

Paul says that he acted ignorantly in unbelief.  So, let me share with you what this means.  Who are the Pauls?  For some now, the old Paul is Donald Trump.  For some a few years ago, Barack Obama.  Timothy McVeigh.  The shooter in El Paso last month.  The rapist.  The drunk driver who struck and killed my student’s sister last summer.  The pedophile.  Your abusive ex-husband.  Your mother who ran off when you were a child because life got too hard.  These are the Pauls who are the foremost sinners.  These, and others you could easily think of right now, are the ones that Jesus died for.   You and I sitting here this morning are not the only ones that Jesus died for.  It’s hard for us to reconcile that “they” should have what we have.  For us, “they” shouldn’t have what we have.  But, truly, neither should we.  He died for them even if they have not accepted that fact.

We praise Jesus for His sacrifice.  We offer thanksgiving as Paul did saying, “to the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever.”  We also remember that Jesus died for all, whether we like it or not.  Whether we would approve or not.  And we pray for their salvation just as we pray for our own compassion towards them.

Jesus, Take Your Time

Good Morning!  When I wake up in the mornings, my cats are usually screaming at me to be fed while they herd me out of my room, down the hall, and into the kitchen to their food bowl.  As my coffee percolates on the stove, I scroll through Instagram to see the pictures of baby alpacas, baby goats, and baby bunnies.  The day will have enough trouble of its own, so the first images I want to see are happy ones.  As I listen to my kitties purr while they eat and I pour my coffee, I usually turn on Pandora for my Christian music.  Usually Shane & Shane, Lauren Daigle, and Casting Crowns.  On Monday this week I turned on Pandora and heard a new song by a group called Rush of Fools.  The particular song was “Jesus Hurry.”  A few of the lyrics are: 

Jesus, hurry come back for us we cannot wait

Jesus, hurry come back, we cannot wait, we cannot wait.

Until at last, we see Your face and behold Your glory

Until at last, we see Your face

We want to see all Your glory, all Your glory

Jesus, hurry come back, hurry come back Lord

This song got my attention.  Lyrically, it was simplistic and didn’t express much theological impact.  The greater impact, as with some of Contemporary Christian music, lay in the emotional affect it had.  As I listened I envisioned images of the heavens opening and Jesus returning.  I admit I felt a sense of calm and anticipation of living with Jesus in my vision of what heaven will be like.

As the song ended and I considered the words, a thought occurred to me, and a new perspective of the lectionary readings began to unfold.  Our passage from Sirach from the Apocrypha speaks of pride, and it speaks of the birth of pride.  Pride is a tiny infant born from a tiny movement — a blink, a breath — away from the face of God.  This tiny infant called Pride grows and matures and develops its own personality and behavior.  And in our passage from Sirach we are told what happens to Pride:  “For the beginning of pride is sin, and the one who clings to it pours out abominations….The Lord destroys them completely…The Lord plucks up the roots of the nations, and plants the humble in their place.”  What happens when pride takes root to a follower of God is a terrible thing; God is diligent in eliminating pride from His world.

And what does pride in action look like?  Our Gospel passage illustrates this answer for us.  Jesus offers instruction of what to do.  We are to choose a place of least recognition.  We are to choose a path in life where no one is aware of what we have done.  We are to give without consideration of the responses or of payback.  Many of you I am sure have heard of Corrie Ten Boom.  Corrie lived with her sister Betsie and her father and aunt in Holland.  When World War II broke and Hitler had his Nazi troops rounded up the Jews for the concentration camps, Betsie, Corrie, and their father Casper were taken to Auschwitz.  Their father was taken away immediately and they never saw him again.  Corrie and Betsie lived with many other women in the barracks, and at one point Betsie became very, very ill.  Corrie was able to get a bottle of vitamin liquid from the camp doctor, and she gave Betsie a drop or two every day from the precious liquid.  However, Corrie was secretive about supplying her sister with the vitamin drops as she did not want to share with the other women.  In time, the other women in the barracks found out about the vitamin liquid and began demanding that she share.  Corrie fought and argued with the women saying that her sister was very ill and desperately needed the drops.  However, Betsie, seeing the pained faces of the tortured women, turned to Corrie and told her to share.  Corrie was horrified and, looking at the last remnants of the liquid in the bottle, told her sister and the other women that she couldn’t.  Betsie, adamant about sharing the nutrients, told Corrie to share and that God would take care of them all.  Angered, Corrie reluctantly shared a couple of drops with each desperately ill woman.  She did this every morning for a couple of weeks.  After a time, Betsie turned to Corrie saying that she knew God would provide.  Corrie did not understand what her dear sister was referencing and looked at the bottle.  The bottle of precious vitamin drops had not run dry since Corrie and Betsie began sharing the liquid despite the fact that it should have run out many, many days past.  Corrie, from the promptings of her sister, looked to the needs of others and turned her attention to them, helping them even though she believed that she and her sister could suffer as a result.

But there is something else that I would like to draw our attention to in this Gospel passage.  Jesus says, “Do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place.”  Then in disgrace.  Jesus offers this instruction not only to explain what to do, but He also tells us why:  to avoid the inevitable disgrace that we would endure because we had chosen ourselves over our neighbor.  Jesus wants that we avoid being humiliated.  And His instruction is an opportunity for us to learn a lesson before we make the mistake.

I would like to return to the song I spoke of in the beginning.  The words to the song, much like the book of Lamentations or the Psalms, offers a brief burst of strong emotion.  An emotion of strong longing and great desire to go home to what Jesus has said, “In my Father’s house are many mansions” and that He goes to prepare this place for us.  I want to see my loved ones again.  I want to be with Jesus.  I want to be in peace and joy for all of my days.

But if I take this song and stress the actions within the song too greatly, I would incur a serious wrong.  As I reflect on the words of the song, a thought occurs to me.  And it is a thought that dashes away any sense of calm and peace that I felt when I first heard it.  While there will be many of my loved ones there in heaven and we will sing and laugh and rejoice, there will be many who will not participate in eternity.  There will be many people whom I have known in my life who will not be there.  There will be many who have lived since the birth of the planet who will have denied Jesus, denied salvation, denied God’s saving grace.  There will be many — so many — who will hear the words of God as is in Mathew 10:33, “I don’t know you” and will be turned away.  If I sing this song or have these comforting thoughts of heaven and peace cover and saturate me, overwhelm me to the point that I do not see what happens around me, I will have allowed that tiny infant of Pride to be born within me.  It will grow, and I will forget that there are so many around me who are without the hope of Christ.  I will become numb to their pain, and I will not speak the name of Jesus.  Instead of saying “Hurry Jesus,” I should instead be crying out, “Not yet, Jesus.  We aren’t ready. There’s too many who will not be with You. Not yet, Jesus.”

We must be vigilant against this great sin.  It can be so innocent at first, but if we allow the thought or action to happen within us and it takes root, just as Jesus warns, we will be disgraced.  We will fail to see those around us who hurt and ache with the pain of this life.  May we continue to be in our prayers seeking forgiveness and the gift of grace for those around us.  May we be ever willing to seek a lower place, seek a place of silence for the sake of our neighbor.  Only then will we understand that what we do will be in praise to God and for the love He offers that never runs dry.

Who are you?

Lectionary Reading for Today

Some of us here this morning are young enough that we are building those “back in the day” stories.  Some of us are, well, perhaps a little more like a fine wine or a wheel of cheese:  we have lived — or perhaps survived — those “back in the day” stories.  Now, instead of calling ourselves “old,” we might say “I’m a rare vintage blend.”  Well, for me back in the day, in another life and living in Seattle, I was standing in line to see a concert.  In the typical Seattle way, it was raining.  Not the downpour we’ve had here the last several days.  Seattle rain is between a drizzle and a pour.  Seattle-ites can tell a tourist a mile away because tourists are the only ones who carry an umbrella.  So on this night, wearing my hoodie just like everyone else, I was wet but not soaked.  

On the ticket were Godsmack, Lamb of God, and Metallica.  I’d been standing in line for almost two hours before the show because I knew this venue, and I knew where I wanted to stand.  So, I wanted in as early as I could get.  Those of us in line were laughing and talking together, talking of other groups we’d seen and where, sharing our stories.  Which groups gave a good show and which ones were horrible when we saw them live.  Essentially, we were all having a great time anticipating the next several hours of the night.

Well, up ahead about ten people in line, a group of about seven or eight people were joining some friends who’d been standing in line.  They greeted each other and started talking about what was going on and about the coming show.  But, the new group who entered the line didn’t leave.  They continued to stand there.  And when the gates were opened, they started walking in with those of us in line.  Here I was, having bought my tickets as soon as Ticketmaster posted them, standing in line for two hours and not being the first in line, and a group of fresh, dry people walk up and get immediately into the show.  I was furious!  Who did they think they were?  How were they able to get in with all the rest of us?  Why didn’t anyone behind the group say anything?  Ugh!  If they took “my” area on the floor where I’d planned to stand, there was going to be a fight!  (Not really.  I’m a Rottweiler in a Spaniel’s body.)

Last week I spoke of fire being not necessarily a force that scorches and burns but also a living presence, the living presence of our God.  The presence that heals us and leads us and offers us comfort in the darkness and warmth in the cold.  It is this presence that the writer of Hebrews desires to reveal to the people.  They are accustomed to the fire that scorches and burns.  But, this new fire is one that loves with the passion of sacrifice and endures to the end of time.  This new fire is a consuming one, not of pain and anguish, but one that desires all that they are.  Every part of our past, every story we hide, those incidents we have witnessed or experienced that we neither want to look at nor would we share with our grandchildren are consumed by this new fire.  All those failures and flaws are consumed in this new fire.  The new fire, this presence of the living God, desires to have all, to bring to light all that we are, all that we want, every part of us.  And, this fire wants to know us and to change us and to make us new.

And in what ways are we to be made new?  How might this fire change us?  Well, let us look to the Gospel passage for today.  Jesus is teaching in one of the temples on the Sabbath.  This is a behavior that He has participated in since He was twelve years old, and the people are not surprised with His actions.  As a matter of fact, Jesus is known as rabbi — teacher — and all of the areas He travel to know that He will lead them in His teachings.  So, on this particular Sabbath, He is engaging with the crowds and teaching.  And, on the fringe of the crowd is a woman who is bent over and cannot stand up straight.  The Gospel writer Luke is a doctor and so would know about her physical ailment.  However, he says that her physical situation is one of spirit.  We read often in Scripture about illnesses that have been with individuals since birth or have come as a type of plague.  But here Luke states that this woman is tormented by an illness of spirit.  Jesus heals her and the leaders of the temple — the Pharisees — are enraged.  As a result, Jesus engages with them regarding the customs and what He has done. 

It is at this point I want to pause for a moment.  I realize that this is only my second Sunday with you, but I’m going to go out on a limb and try something with you.  I would like each of you to close your eyes.  I would like to lead you through an exercise.  Imagine if you will you are a member of the crowd.  You have waited and waited to see this Jesus that you’ve heard so much about come to your village.  You’ve gotten up early to travel into the city on the day He’s there and you’re trying to push your way to the front of the crowd so you can really get a good look at him.  Much like any person would do at a concert.  Perhaps you have your children or grandchildren with you and you want so badly for them to see this Rabbi who claims to be the Messiah.  You see a woman right across from you, and Jesus glances in her direction, and then He actually looks at her and addresses her.  He says something to her that you cannot quite understand, but all of a sudden she stands up straight.  She stretches herself and the most beautiful smile breaks on her face.  Her lips, her cheeks, her eyes smile and tears stream down her face as the years of pain and physical fracture are suddenly removed.  How do you feel as you witness this event?  What do you notice about this Jesus now? 

Now, I would like you to shift your focus.  Instead of being a member of the crowd, you are the woman.  You have traveled so far to see Jesus.  You have heard so much about Him and you truly believe that He is the Messiah, the one spoken of by your ancestors.  You are old — no, you are vintage — and wish to see Him before you pass.  You simply want to hear His voice and see his eyes and hands as He teaches.  You slowly move through the crowd.  Some people are irritated by you because you look so strange while a few are kind and help you to move in front of them.  You finally make it to the front and have to twist your face sideways because your back won’t allow you to stand normally.  Out of the corner of your eye you see Him, and He is so beautiful.  His voice is strong and comforting.  And just there, He looks at you.  He looks straight at you.  And before you can breathe, you see that He is walking towards you.  He stands before you, but you cannot see Him very well because you cannot bend your neck properly.  He bends down to you and speaks to you, “You are set free from your ailment.”  He takes your hands and lifts you up as you stand straight for the first time in many, many years.  And His eyes, His face is all you see as you look up.  You never wish to see another thing again in your life He is so beautiful.  How do you feel?  What are you thinking?  What would you wish to say?

And now, I want to shift your focus for one last time.  You are one of the church leaders.  One who has learned and studied and trained and memorized all the texts and stories from the ancients.  You know all the names.  You know all the places.  You know all the procedures.  And you are in the temple on the Sabbath and see this man you have heard so much about.  You have witnessed what He just did with that woman.  And all the studying and training and practice has flooded to your mind and you know what has just happened shouldn’t have happened, at least not today of all days.  Who does He think He is?  You have to make this right.  This man is here for only a couple of days, but you are here every day, doing your work, helping these people, leading them in the ways you have been taught.  You approach this man in order to correct Him and to remind Him of the rules that have come from your forefather Moses.  But, this man rebukes you.  He basically tells you that you treat your pack animals better than you do the members of your community.  What?  You see the crowd turn and look at you.  You see the looks in their eyes.  How do you feel?  What thoughts are going through your mind?

Now, I would like you all to open your eyes again.  What we have done is actually one element of a form of prayer:  Ignatian Prayer.  We read a passage of Scripture and imagine we are one component of the story.  The component can change depending on the story or where we are in our lives.  But, a purpose of this practice is to look at the story from more than just one perspective.  Ultimately, we are to see the event from all eyes, and I’ve only chosen three from this passage.  

My questions to you are: from each perspective that you watch the event, how do you feel?  How might Jesus feel towards the woman, the crowd, the Pharisees?  How might the woman, who was likely marginalized and invisible in the city, feel when all eyes were on her as the Messiah talked to her and changed her body?  How did the Pharisees feel when what they taught and believed was challenged by a man who had a following much larger than they’d ever experienced?  Were any of these people changed?  Do we have a different perspective of the story?  And, ultimately, who am I or who can I be in this illustration?  In my concert story at the beginning, I was most certainly a Pharisee sitting in judgment and condemnation of what I believed was a wrong being committed.  But there could have been much more to the story than I was aware?

My challenge for all of us is not only to experience our lives but be present in them.  Slow down and watch.  Why is someone acting as they are?  Do they need a grace that I cannot offer by myself but only Jesus can through me?  Do my own beliefs need to be challenged, the methods I act and respond within?  Ultimately, in what way is Jesus approaching me to be healed or rebuked, and how am I responding?  In what way is Jesus coming to someone next to me to heal or rebuke, and how am I responding?  Or, is Jesus moving within me to heal or rebuke someone, and how am I responding?

Only you can answer these questions.  Seek guidance through prayer and reflection and allow Jesus to show you yourself.  And, allow Jesus to come to and, in His consuming fire, allow Him to do His work within you so that you are drawn closer into His consuming presence.

The Fire is His Presence that Gives us Faith

This morning I step into a unique and beautiful position.  This position is one that affords a perspective of a people who has faced many challenges in the past two years.  This group of people — you — have been forced to examine who you are and where you have come; in turn, you have had to face yourselves and determine where you are going and what you want.  And what has happened in these years has caused you to grow closer, to speak more intimately, to laugh with more understanding and companionship.  Those whom I have met this week and during the days of my interviewing speak together as if you were — dare I say — almost a married group in that you speak honestly as you finish one another’s sentences.  And what you have discovered and what you have determined is that you want God to be in your midst, to be in your hears and on your lips, to be in the work of your hands and to be carried to the places you go.  I have seen the presence of Christ within you, and I have witnessed the desire for more of Him in your lives and and in your work.  God tells us in Jeremiah 29 that we will find Him when we seek Him with all our hearts, and when we pray He will come to us.

And it is this idea of presence and what results from it that I want to guide our focus this morning.  We see in the passage of Jeremiah 23 that God declares His presence in all the world.  Nothing can hide from Him and from Him there is no shadow.  While some are either drawn away or fall away from the community, it is His presence that is complete and cannot be shaken.  His presence fills the void and offers a deeper regard for Him when He cannot be seen or heard or felt.  His presence within us brings us faith.

In Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, he speaks of faith.  And Paul knows his audience.  He recognizes their awareness of their ancestry and lists prominent individuals who were known for their faith:  the Israelites fleeing through the Red Sea, Rahab, Gideon, Samson, David, and those nameless thousands who were persecuted for their faith.  As Paul addresses the Hebrews speaking of where they have come, he offers respect for their faith, their determination, despite their struggles by reminding them that struggles have been with them from the beginning.  But Paul is doing something interesting here.  Instead of saying, “Look!  Faith produces freedom.  Faith brings peace.  Faith offers security” he reinforces that understanding of faith.  When we look at this passage we can see that the results of struggles were good: the fall of Jericho, administration of justice, freedom of the Israelites from Egypt.  Additionally, the result of faith was also one of pain:  chains, imprisonment, persecution, death.  So what is Paul saying here?  Why is he speaking of faith in such a way that would appear encouraging but offer such examples that could dishearten the Hebrews?

Before I come to that I want to share a story.  My mom’s side of the family got together at my grandmother’s, I called her MeMa, every year on Christmas Day.  She made the dressing and pies and everyone else would bring something:  turkey or ham, beans, yams, homemade bread.  The list goes on.  We raked leaves and then burned the piles, the pecans snapping and popping and they burned.  We laughed and enjoyed one another’s company for the day.  Well, my cousin John and I would go walking around the neighborhood so that he could smoke a couple of cigarettes.  Her little neighborhood was in the middle of a larger space of pastureland and wooded areas.  At the end of one of the roads was such an area of wooded space.  John and I would clear out the leaves from the dirt and sand and build a small fire.  There, in the darkness and cold of the winter, we would sit together by the fire and listen to the wind and the owls and the mysterious rustling in the shadowed brush just beyond the light of the little fire.  

It’s this image of fire that brings us into our Gospel passage.  Jesus says that He has come to bring fire to the earth.  He says, in the fullness of His humanity, that He wishes it was already kindled.  And then He echoes the words of the prophet Micah who spoke of family against family, member against member.  What is Jesus saying here?  Why is He wishing for something to happen that will ultimately bring pain and fracture?

Both Paul and Jesus are speaking of the presence of God.  In the passage from Hebrews Paul speaks of faith that conquered kingdoms and of faith that the world was not worthy to witness.  But he also speaks of faith that resulted in torture, imprisonment, death.  Jesus speaks of the presence of God that will divide and will separate.  Make no mistake, these passages are not soothing, satisfying illustrations of peace and tranquility.  These passages hold pain and fear and anxiety.  These passages reflect the pain and fear and anxiety that we experience in our world.  

How often do we see pain within our families?  How often do we witness fracture and hatred within our society?  How often do we experience heartache when we are or a loved one is maligned for who they are or what they believe?  Who among us has experienced betrayal?  Within our world is abuse, divorce, addiction, hatred, and emotional and psychological issues as a result of trauma.  Our world can be messy and cruel and empty.

What we see from our passages of text this morning, ultimately, is that God is present.  He is present through His word that holds power like fire.  He is present in the column of fire that lead the Israelites by night.  He is present in the fire that Jesus brings and kindles.  He is present here and now that the candle above the tabernacle testifies to.

While we live in a messy and fractured world, we have the assurance of the presence of God here, right now.  And how do I know this?  Because of your faith.  The faith that continued to knit you together these years.  The faith that brought you together in community many years ago.  Some of you were born in this church.  Some came as children.  Some came as you moved into the area.  Some of you have been baptized, celebrated your first communion, been married here, had your own children baptized here, and your children’s children.  This faith has bonded you to one another despite the anguish of the world.  You laugh and mourn and pray and heal and serve together.  You believe in the presence of God here in this place because you bring Him with you.  Every time you gather, you bring Him with you.  Are your days always peaceful and joyous?  I don’t believe they are.  And yet, you still endure.  God sustains you and has sustained you.  You remain faithful to Him and the community He is shaping you to be.  You remain faithful as this church as you move into the community in which you live, this fractured and messy community here in Southeast Oklahoma.  My hope is that we continue to know, to be assured, to have the faith of our ancestors of His presence within each of us and within our church family.  My hope is that we love Him and remain faithful to Him and we carry Him into this community in which we live.  Although there will be uncertainty and perhaps pain, my hope is that we remember and remind one another of His presence and the faith that will be perfected within us.

Let us pray.  Almighty God, Keeper of our souls, You bring all things under your sovereignty.  Cleanse us and reveal Yourself to us.  Draw us back as we stray and help us to forgive ourselves and others.  Guide us as we seek to serve You in our community.  All these we ask in the name of Your Son our Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

A Handful of Humility and a Pound of Persistence

One of my favorite books is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  This story holds a wealth of lessons and illustrations and anecdotes about life, relationships, hardship, injustice, doubt, grace, and community.  In the text Scout Finch is raised by many people:  her father Atticus, their maid Calpurnia, their neighbor Miss Maudie, and Atticus’ brother Jack.  It’s this relationship between Scout and her uncle that I want to highlight for a moment.  Scout’s father has taken a case in his law practice that has the whole town on edge.  It’s a scandal, actually.  Young Scout is six and has many questions about what is going on in the town and why people are changing as a result of this case.  There is much she doesn’t understand, but she has developed a bond with her Uncle Jack —  their bold and blunt personalities feed one another — and so she goes to him with her questions.  Additionally, she goes to him because she is certain she will receive answers.  His patience with her seemingly endless questions and his respect for her desire to understand continually draw her to him, and their bond grows stronger as the challenges of life push Scout to adapt and mature.

I think of this relationship between Uncle Jack and Scout as I reflect on our readings for this morning.  If there is a theme moving through the readings from today it would be the ideas of humility:  inadequacy, inability, meekness, less than, and the idea of persistence: steadfast, effort, relentlessness, or in our Southern way:  grit. 

The communication between Abraham and God in the passage from Genesis attests to both humility and persistence.  God hears the cries against the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah and desires to verify the truth of what He hears.  He speaks to Abraham of His frustration and decides to wipe them out.  In return, Abraham begins what appears to be negotiation with God for those few righteous men within the walls of these two cities.  Abraham entered into a conversation with God for the salvation of those righteous ones.  And it is within this rather long negotiation that we notice a pattern.  Look at what our text states towards the beginning of the negotiation:  “Then Abraham came near and said…”  Abraham came near what?  He came near to God.  He entered into His presence.  Abraham took a step forward and approached the living God.  Yahweh.  The I Am.  Abraham came near the Almighty God who would strike down the Levite priests who entered the Holiest of Holies with unclean hearts, with unclean intentions.   

And how did he approach God?  With full knowledge and awareness of who he was and what he was doing.  Again, let’s look at our text.  Abraham knew his worth, his value, his relevance.  He comments regarding himself, “I who am but dust and ashes.”  He knew he could bring nothing to God.  He knew he was nothing before the Almighty God.  He could bring no good thing outside of God.  And yet, he acknowledged this insignificance and came near anyway.  Abraham, fully aware of himself, stated, “Oh, do not let the Lord be angry if I speak.”  And he uses this same phrase later in his communication — his prayer — by saying, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more.”  Abraham understood himself as he entered into this prayer.  However, with full understanding of who he was, he continued to engage.  He knew he could be pushing the limits, testing the patience of God the Father.  But, he kept going.  Just like Scout asking and asking and asking her Uncle Jack, Abraham persisted in his questions to God.   

Now, using this concept of humility and persistence of Abraham, let us now look at our Gospel passage from this morning.  The disciples, who have been with Jesus watching Him preach and lead and heal and engage, now come near Him, come into His presence, asking how to do what He does with the Father.  They ask Him if He would teach them how to communicate — how to pray.  What Jesus does — preach, lead, heal, engage — are all external actions or activities.  What the disciples are actually asking Jesus how to do is enter into relationship with God through prayer.  Essentially, they are saying, “How do we have a relationship with God like you do?  How can we have an internal relationship with God like our father Abraham had with the Almighty?”  

And Jesus answers them with a specific response.  His answer is what we know as The Lord’s Prayer.  The disciples ask for help.  They ask for instruction.  And, the instruction Jesus offers echoes the communication — the prayer — that Abraham had with God.  

Abraham understood who and what he was before the great I Am.  Abraham said, “I who am but dust and ashes.”  Abraham acknowledged his inability, his incapacity to come before God on his own.  He, with humility, entered into the presence of God.  He needed the mercy of God in order to approach God’s presence.  So, as Jesus speaks with His disciples, He instructs them to accept their inability to approach God without mercy.   He tells them to call upon God’s power as they enter by saying “hallowed be your name.”  He then tells them to ask God for what they need and to forgive them for when they fall.  And, in the method of training that Jesus used, He offered an analogy, a parable, so that they could engage with the instructions.  

This analogy of the man who comes to his friend is a common story to the disciples.  One that applies to their own set of customs.  A man is caught without provisions by his last minute guests.  He goes to his friend in the middle of the night seeking assistance and will not go away until he is given what he needs.  We find a similar analogy in Luke 18 with the persistent widow and the judge.  The judge finally relents because the widow simply won’t let go.  In using this parable, Jesus is continuing to teach His disciples what to do as well as how to do it, that not only do they need to pray with sincere humility, they must also pray with tenacity, with grit.

Hebrews 4:16 states “Let us approach the throne of grace with courage — with boldness — so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”  We are to come to the throne room of God, the Holiest of Holies, with the self awareness to acknowledge we are dust and ashes, and we are to enter into the relationship with the Almighty with confidence asking for what we need.  We are to be humble.  We are to be persistent.  And ask.  And ask again.  And ask again. 

Did we see any frustration of God with Abraham’s persistence?  No.  Does Jesus instruct His disciples with the analogy of the insistent friend?  Yes.

Scout asked questions of her Uncle Jack knowing she needed help.  Knowing she was inadequate without him.  And she asked and asked and asked again.  Similarly, Abraham recognized his insignificance in the presence of God Almighty.  And he asked and asked and asked again.  Jesus, instructing his disciples, told them to acknowledge God’s holiness and their weakness.  To be humble.  And ask and ask and ask again.  So, too, may we be humble.  May we remember, like Abraham, that we are but dust and ashes.  And may we ask and ask and ask again. 

Let us pray:  Lord God, you are gracious and merciful.  You have sent your Son to teach us and to offer salvation to us.  May we come before You with all the humility that we deserve and may we also be persistent using the guidance that You teach.  We pray these things through Your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Nativity of John the Baptist

Lectionary Reading

We celebrate today the nativity of John the Baptist, the prequel to Jesus Christ. We know John. We know of his jumping in the womb of Elizabeth when her cousin Mary, pregnant with the Messiah, went to visit. We know his living in the wilderness eating honey and locusts. We know his baptizing Jesus in the Jordan River. We know his stating that One comes after him whose sandal straps he is not worthy to tie.

We know these truths of John’s life that attest to his faith in and passion for Jesus the Messiah. And yet, in our Gospel passage, the one who is gifted revelation is John’s father Zechariah. It is he I wish to highlight today.

Zechariah, from verse 6 of this chapter, is a righteous man. Upon the birth of his son, he understands that God is bringing fulfillment of His promises told in Genesis and Malachi. God’s pursuit of His promise of salvation for His people has not been forgotten. Quite the contrary, God is completing that promise through a significantly unlikely situation: an old man and his barren wife.

But, it is this unlikely situation that needs a bit of teasing out in order for us to appreciate what happens with Zechariah in our Gospel. So that we may understand, I would like to rewind Luke’s gospel to the first chapter. Zechariah is visited by the Archangel Gabriel who states that Zechariah and Elizabeth will have a son. Upon hearing this news, Zechariah voices disbelief based on the facts of his life and marriage. Gabriel silenced Zechariah in return for the lack of faith until his son was born.

Zechariah was given a word that defied all physical understanding. He voiced his doubt of “How in the world could this be happening?!” much like we would given the same circumstances. And yet, Zechariah and Elizabeth prayed for many years for this very gift. They prayed to be blessed with a child. Their prayers, however, appeared unanswered. It was St. Jerome who reflected, “Your prayer is heard. You are given more than you asked for. You prayed for the salvation of the people, and you have been given the Precursor.” We do not criticize Zechariah. No, we understand his reaction. We sympathize with his feelings of disbelief. He makes sense to us because so often we are right where he is. We forget. What we see is stronger than what we are told.

The moment that Zechariah went wrong was not in his skepticism that the message had come from God but in his placing their current physical situations ahead of the abilities of the Almighty God. As a result, he had five months without the gift of speech to consider his mistake.

So, when his son is born, he reclaims his faith. He accepts God’s faithfulness and fulfilling Grace. St. Ambrose said, “With good reason was his tongue loosed, because faith untied what had been tied by disbelief.” And in the acclamation of Zechariah, he dedicates his son back to the Lord by saying, “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God.”

And, like Zechariah, when we forget, let us remember the words of our teacher St. Josemariá Escrivá who said, “There is a story about a beggar meeting Alexander the Great and asking him for alms. Alexander stopped and instructed that the man be given the government of five cities. The beggar, totally confused and taken aback, exclaimed, ‘I didn’t ask for as much as that.’ And Alexander replied, ‘you asked like the man you are; I give like the man I am.’”

Let us pray:

Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imagination, so control our will, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated to you; and then use us, we pray, as you will, and always to your glory and the welfare of your people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Pray for the gift of unity, and we all will be changed.

Seventh Sunday of Easter Readings.

When I was in college, my grandmother wrote letters and cards to me quite regularly.  Most of the time, her letters were not very long — a small stationary page or two.  She also sent cards and would write a note on the facing page, underline or circle certain words that were printed on the card, or just write a simple “I love you, Sugar Bear” beneath the printed words.  Some of those cards and letters have been lost through numerous moves since college, but many I still have.  For some reason, I have had MeMa on my mind the last couple of weeks.  I thought about those letters the last several days and — not being able to sleep — got out of bed Friday night and searched for them.  You know how it is when you try to find something precious that is hiding from you:  feelings of frustration and anxiety and fear and loss begin to seep through in waves.  Finally, I found them and sat on the bed and read through them.  Then I took my PaPa’s preaching Bible and read through his margin notes.  I needed the connection, and those letters and Bible were — are — the threads that tie me with them.

I think about those letters, and I picture MeMa sitting at her kitchen counter, having arrived back home those mornings after delivering her pies to the restaurants in town, with her coffee and cornbread with milk.  I imagine her writing a letter or card and walking out to the mailbox — a mailbox huge enough for her gray poodle Poo Pet to fit into (I know because I put her in there several times) — and putting that letter in the box for the postman to pick up on his morning route.  Playing through my mind is this scene, and I envision that as MeMa writes the letter she is also praying for me.  After having read through her letters Friday night, I could understand that her letters ARE prayer or at least an AID for prayer.

There’s a movie called The Help in which Viola Davis plays the character Aibileen.  She tells another character Skeeter that it doesn’t do any good for her to say her prayers.  Instead, she writes her prayers to God.  She says sometimes her prayers are short and sometimes she is up until dawn praying — writing — to God.  It makes me think about the ways we pray or the aids we use in our prayers.  Some of us use rosaries or Anglican prayer beads.  Some of us use candles in our designated prayer time.  Some of us pray the prayers offered in our Book of Common Prayer:  there are so many beautiful prayers offered to us in this text, aren’t there?  Some of us pray as we sing hymns or worship songs, offering adoration and confession and thanksgiving and supplication.  Some of us pray aloud.  Some of us do not pray with words but instead imagine a certain person from Holy Scripture or a Saint that we are with.  Modern writer Anne Lamott states that, “‘Help’ is a prayer that is always answered. It doesn’t matter how you pray–with your head bowed in silence or crying out in grief or dancing. Churches are good for prayer, but so are garages and cars and mountains and showers and dance floors. Years ago I wrote an essay that began, ‘Some people think that God is in the details, but I have come to believe that God is in the bathroom.’”  No matter what forms our prayers take, we must continue to pray.

Fr. John told us last week during The Peace about the Thy Kingdom Come project, and this project began Thursday.  As a part of this project, we are asked to pray every day.  During this intentional prayer each day we are to ask for transformation for us and for those we come into contact with, as well as transformation for the whole world.  As a reminder of this nine-day project, we might use beads and stones to assist us in our prayers.  The beads are for people or communities that we are familiar with, and the white stones are especially for those specific, targeted individuals who we wish for the Holy Spirit to powerfully move in and transform.  Ultimately, this project between the Ascension of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit in Pentecost is an opportunity for us to be reminded of one another, and these stones could be much like MeMa’s letters were for me.  

We see the foundation of Thy Kingdom Come through the prayer of Jesus in our Gospel passage for today.  Our Gospel comes from the portion of Jesus’ life as He is in the Garden of Gethsemane.  He knows what is coming for Him, but even with that awareness of the crucifixion, He prays for those He leaves behind.  He prays for you and for me.  And, the central theme of this prayer of Jesus is unity.

Jesus speaks to His Father, Our Father, for His disciples and for those who would believe through their teachings.  That’s us.  He affirmed that He and God are One, are unified, are the same.  Additionally, He testified that He had given the disciples His glory, which was also the glory of God the Father.  Finally, He desired — desired — that just as He and the Father were One that He and we would be one.  That we all would be together.  That the Church would be unified.  Because Jesus is perfect, it follows that the unity of the Church, the followers of Christ, is an essential property of the Church.  And this unity comes solely from the unity of the Triune God.  Saint Josemaría Escrivá reflected that every Christian should have the same desire for unity as Jesus Christ expresses in his prayer to the Father.  

It is difficult for us to see this unity sometimes in our fractured world.  Churches fighting within themselves, taking pot shots at those who occupy the pew across the aisle.  One Christian denomination bashing another because it endorses “heretical” doctrine.  And yet, we also see the barriers of denominations being broken as Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Pope Francis meeting together, building relationship.  Additional barriers are breaking now as the Pope travels to many Orthodox Christian countries, including most recently Moscow, as leadership speaks of peace and grace and faith.  

And, what are these leaders doing in their meetings?  They join together before Jesus and God the Father, entering into His Holy Presence, and pray.  As one theologian stated, “Prayer puts us, first and foremost, before the Lord, purifies us in intentions, in sentiments, in our heart, and produces that ‘interior conversion,’ without which there is no real ecumenism.”  In other words, prayer is what put us in position to be purified, to be made into the likeness of Christ.  And having been transformed into Christ’s likeness, we see no barrier, no difference, no hierarchy, no impossibility.  Furthermore, “Prayer reminds us that unity, ultimately, is a gift from God, a gift for which we must ask and for which we must prepare in order that we may be granted it.”  In brief, unity must not be assumed, and it requires conversion — of them, of us, of you.

Commit to prayer.  I will say, if you like yourself just the way you are right now and have no intention to be converted, then don’t pray.  But, understand you cannot engage in an active life of prayer and expect to remain the same.  Furthermore, if you and you and he and I and she commits to prayer, desiring the gift of unity, we will receive that beautiful gift.  And, remember that we are not alone when we pray.  Those who have passed on — the Church Triumphant — also pray with us and for us.  MeMa, no longer sitting at the kitchen counter drinking coffee and eating cornbread with milk but rejoicing with the Father and Jesus and all the Saints, prays.  As Jesus and God the Father are One, I pray that you and I are also made one in Christ our Lord.

And using the prayer offered for today through the Thy Kingdom Come project, let us pray:

O God of wholeness and hope, healer of broken hearts and homes and communities, impel us towards one another in acts of peace, teach us to recognize and reconcile our conflicts and show forth Your Kingdom.  In Jesus’s name.  Amen.

Where Have You Been?

Second Sunday of Easter Readings.

Today, we are a week past the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. A week ago, Jesus left His disciples and walked the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Pain, alone. Some watched Him. Some left Him. One denied Him. One betrayed Him.

And then there’s Thomas. Our Thomas who says that he will not believe unless he has seen the nail marks in His hands and puts his hand in the spear-pierced side of Jesus. Be careful, my friends, to chastise or shun Thomas for his statement. Remember that Peter is the rock of the Christian church, but he is also the one who denied Jesus three times. So with Thomas who states that he needs proof of whom the disciples are talking about. Before we look at our Gospel today, I want to gain a little more perspective of Thomas from earlier in John’s text.

In chapter 11 the friend of Jesus named Lazarus died. “Jesus tells His disciples, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has been asleep he will recover.’ Now Jesus had spoken of his death but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ The disciples remind Jesus that Lazarus was in Judea, and the Judeans attempted to kill Jesus. For Jesus to go back to Lazarus would also mean going to the place of violence and possible death. But, Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples. ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.'”

However, it is the words of Thomas that I want to pinpoint here. He tells his friends, his brothers, that they should follow Jesus so that they may die with him. So that they may die! These are not the words of a doubter, of a weak man, of a dissenter, of a man of fear. Quite the contrary, this is the sentiment of a believer, a man willing to die for his faith, and a man willing to lead his friends into that death as well. He is saturated with conviction and awareness of who Jesus is, his passion for Jesus even into death.

Now, let us enter our Gospel passage this morning. We are told that the disciples were in a room, and Jesus appeared to them. But, did they respond? No. Jesus spoke to them by saying, “Peace be with you.” Did they respond? Nope. Then, Jesus held out His hands, lifted his tunic and show them His side. Did they respond? Finally, yes they did. But, it was not until Jesus showed them what they already knew of Him in His final moments that they believed and responded. Did His physical presence show proof to them? No. Did they recognize the voice of their Shepherd? No. They had to see proof to believe.

Now, enter Thomas a week later. The disciples are so excited to talk to him and tell him what they’ve seen. Yes, his response it just like their’s. Our gospel writer is bold to note exactly what Thomas said: Unless I see the marks…I will not believe. For us now, these generations later, we criticize or question his faith. But, each of us could think through the events of our lifetimes and understand that if seeing wasn’t actual believing, seeing certainly made the event more impactful: the footprint of Neil Armstrong on the surface of the moon, the burning of Notre Dam Cathedral, the evacuation of Hanoi in Viet Nam, the Space Shuttle Columbia exploding, Ronald Reagan being shot, 9-11, the ticker tape at the bottom of the television screen stating that Elvis Presley had died, the Murrah Federal Building bomb site in Oklahoma City. I could go on. I am sure you have your own list of events that you truly couldn’t believe what you were seeing.

But, it isn’t the statement from Thomas — unless I see I won’t believe — that grabs my attention. No, because I am a logical, rational person. If I can twist and evaluate a situation in my mind to the point that I understand the rationale, I believe it. Hook, line, and sinker. I am a person who needs proof. Maybe it has to do with the fact I’ve been betrayed in my life. Maybe it’s because I like the adage of Ronald Reagan, “Trust, but verify.” I don’t know. But, it’s how I am. And, I suspect that many of us are also people who need to see the bottom line before we believe. I don’t think Jesus is chastising Thomas because he needs proof. However, I do believe that Jesus is saying there will soon come a time when He will be on the earth no longer and “seeing is believing” will no longer be an option. I think our Gospel writer captured the sentiment of Jesus as much as the words, “Blessed are those who believe and do not see.”

Again, though, it isn’t the statement from Thomas that gives me pause. The question that comes to my mind is: Where has Thomas been for a week?? What in the world has he been doing?? The Man that he was willing to lead his friends into death to follow has now died. I think Thomas was looking at the blood-stained Cross and realizing that his Hope was dead, rotting in the rock, lost. As a result, he left them. He got away. And, it is here, the space between the lines of our text, that I believe we receive our lesson for this morning.

What happens when we separate ourselves from the Church? What happens to us when we move away, isolate ourselves, cut ourselves off from the faith and support of our brothers and sisters? What happens when we step away from the liturgy that is the expression of our faith? This was no “going into the desert to strengthen my faith” journey. This was isolation from despair, fear, perhaps anger. What happens we we leave?

We make ourselves vulnerable. We leave a hole in the community to which we belong.

And, I’m going to go out on a limb here. Summer is coming. School is soon out. Many of us are even now already making plans for travel. To visit family and friends. I wish to make one request as summer approaches: Remember Thomas. Sure, he separated himself from his friends and brothers when Jesus died and he was likely strongly emotional, but even still he was away. He was not with them. It was pain management. For you, you may be making plans for fun. But, the fact remains, you will be away from your friends here, your community, your liturgy. Please do not be naïve that this separation will not affect you. Or will not affect us. As you travel, consider attending a church in the town where you visit. Stay connected to the Church. Continue in the fellowship of believers, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers. And when you are in town these next months, be vigilant against the temptation of fresh air and sleeping in, of making travel plans where church attendance is not a priority. We need one another. And, like Thomas, I pray that we all long to exclaim together, “My Lord and my God.”

Amen.

Maundy Thursday

Lectionary Readings for Maundy Thursday.

Do you remember Big Boy restaurants? My MeMa, without Mom’s okay, gave me my first solid food at a Big Boy. Mom was horrified, but I squealed and MeMa laughed. I also remember growing up and watching the commercials for McDonald’s with Ronald, Grimace, Birdie the Early Bird, and the Hamburglar.  I remember going to Dairy Queen and getting, oddly enough, their tacos and a dilly bar.  Do you remember dilly bars? And there was in my hometown, and still is, a hamburger place — a greasy spoon — called The Glass Kitchen.  That teeny place has been there since before I was born and the burgers are juicy, the cheese thick, and the buns buttery.  Sooo good!

As I read the Old Testament passage for tonight, a phrase struck me that I hadn’t noticed before, and in what can be a fast-paced life, I stopped and visualized what God intended to happen.  “This is how you shall eat it:  your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly.”  God did not desire for His people to linger at the table, savoring the selection of foods, laughing and engaging in fond and familial banter.  No, quite the contrary.  God told His people to cook it quickly and eat it basically standing up.  And they were to eat it all leaving nothing behind.  And as I read and visualized what that Passover meal would look like for them — the first institutionalized fast food — it caused me to consider how I come to the table and partake of Holy Eucharist.  In what attitude do I hold my hands to receive the bread, to drink the cup?  Do I linger?  Do I drink quickly?  When we come to the Table in a few minutes, consider your thoughts and your responses.  Be aware of what is happening within you in those moments.

The instruction for the meal in our Exodus passage would have been keenly familiar to the disciples as Jesus was with them.  They would have known the historical impact this story had for their ancestors as the stories were passed down from generation to generation.  Likewise, Jesus would have known.  He knew what what about to happen for Him, and Scripture tells us, “He had always loved his own people in the world; now he love them right through to the end.”  John, as he wrote our text, also knew that by mentioning a Jewish festival, he would want his reader to understand that he was actually speaking of Jesus.  He would be making the connection between the rites and rituals of the past to the actions and expectations of the present.  And we, even now, discern the relevance of the old stories with the events of this night. 

And, within the framework of the Passover celebration, Jesus continues the instruction that His Father began.  But, instead of telling His disciples what to do, He shows them.  The Son of God, removes his outer garment and wraps it around his waist like God told the Israelites to do at the Passover.  Then, in a strange gesture, Jesus takes a bin of water. He crouches down and begins washing the feet of His disciples. These men were His friends, His beloved companions, His children.  And with this act of mercy and humility and servanthood, He gives a new commandment:  We are to love one another.  Jesus says, “Just as I have loved you, so you must love one another.”  

Ah!  What a conviction for me!  I can easily think of those whose feet I would never want to touch, let alone wash!  Jesus, forgive me for my arrogance and break me for what breaks You.

There is one more element to our readings that I want to leave with you.  When love comes alive, when Jesus takes His final steps toward the Cross, the shadow of evil looms ever larger, closer. Through Judas, evil creeps in the shadows, seeps into the cracks, and is willing to wait, to be patient.  Not only is the service tonight about how we receive the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of [God’s] Son our Savior Jesus Christ, how we are commanded to love one another as He loved, as He loves us, but we also are reminded that as we surrender our lives to His will and to His work, evil will lurk attempting to pervert what Jesus is doing through us.  So, it makes sense that we would serve one another while standing together alert, deliberate, vigilant as we receive His precious sacrifice.

Amen.

It’s Not What He Did

Lectionary Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday in Lent.

Because my parents are visiting this Sunday, I’m going to take advantage of their presence. I remember my summer between high school and college. I was working at Church’s Fried Chicken. I hated that job, but it got me out of the house. I was SO ready to go to college, but terrified at the same time. Everything Mom said and did irritated me, made me long for college. Dad was so harsh and immovable, and I could not wait to get away from them. Without question, I was a horrible teenager! I wanted my independence and freedom. I wanted to move on in my life, stay up late, study subjects I actually cared about, be somebody new and different. And yet I was stuck. At home. In a dinky little town. I was suffocating.
In some way or other, I am sure many of us can relate. Jobs we hated. Relationships that were not working. This feeling of frustration, resentment, claustrophobia, is palpable and overwhelming. And here is where we enter our parable this morning. The younger son — frustrated, resentful, claustrophobic — goes to his father and asks for his inheritance so that he may move out and begin his life, reinvent himself. And so, without hesitation according to our text, the father gives his son what he asks for, and the son moves away, leaving the family and the childhood responsibilities. But, we need to have perspective for this portion of the story so that we understand its scope of impact.
There is a cultural and philosophical perspective to this story that grounds it to the foundation of family and heritage. N.T. Wright tells us that when the father divided his property between his sons before he died, the father was actually dividing himself. And, when the younger son pawned his half of his inheritance for cash, he was actually selling his half of his father. He was telling his father, “I want you gone. I am killing you.” This, as harsh as it is, would have rippled throughout the community as well as many would pity the father while others would condemn the father for what they would see as an ignorant business decision.
But, while I want to offer an initial cursory overview of our story, it is actually not the younger son that I wish to focus on this morning. No, I believe the story of the older brother deserves focus just as much as the younger one. Scripture begins his portion of the account with him in the field. He has been working. How long he has been out there, we are unsure. But, this is where he enters the situation. He approaches the house and hears a party: music, singing, laughing, smells sumptuous food. Essentially, he hears and smells pure joy. (I don’t blame him for thinking as he does at this moment — smelling the smoke from a juicy, thick ribeye steak on the grill will bring me running to the supper table too!) But, as he approaches the house, a servant informs him what is happening. His younger brother has returned, and the household is having a welcome home party for him. Immediately, the older brother is angry. And, I really don’t think we could blame him for being angry. Let’s step back from the story for a minute to see why.
I explained earlier regarding what it meant for the younger son to ask for his inheritance while his father was still alive. So, understanding the gravity of our history, let us turn our attention to the reasoning behind his anger. I would suspect that when his little brother asked for and received his half of the inheritance and then quickly moved away, the older brother had to face a broken father. I can imagine that his life radically changed. Before this event he might have viewed his father as a dad, as a strong man capable of wrestling a mountain lion or a bear with his bare hands. He was probably in awe of his dad, seeing him as an impenetrable force, knowing the answers to every question a son could possibly ask.
But, when his selfish, stupid little brother left, the older brother saw his father break in half. He might have seen his father weep, perhaps even sob for the very first time. Because of the choices of his little brother, he had to grow up essentially overnight. He might have had to take care of his father, listen to the “Why did he leave?” and “When will he come back?” And, these were questions that the father now had no answers for.
And, not only did he have to see his father so heartbroken, he had to watch the community whisper and stare and avoid and question his father. The community who once saw his family as strong equals perhaps now doubted the wisdom of his father. The older son was left behind to pick up the pieces and reassemble the foundation of this fractured family. So, when this son refuses to enter the party, we can understand his reluctance.
We heard the story from the New Revised Standard Version translation. However, I’d like to read this passage from The Jerusalem text: “He was angry then and refused to go in, and his father came out and began to urge him to come in; but he returned to his father, ‘ALL THESE YEARS I have slaved for you and never once disobeyed any orders of yours, yet you never offered me so much as a kid for me to celebrate with my friends. But, for this son of yours, when he comes back after swallowing up your property — he and his loose women — you kill the calf we had been fattening.’ The father said, ‘My son, you are with me always and all I have is yours. But it was only right we should celebrate and rejoice, because your brother here was dead and has come to life; he was lost and is found.’”
The older son had remained faithful to his father and his family. He stayed, took care of his father, milked the cows, sheered the sheep, planted crops and worked the fields, trained the workers, managed the business. Ensured his father’s reputation within the community was upheld and given value. Every request and chore his father had for him during these years had been completed with respect and diligence. He was the “perfect” son.
And in the father’s reply we see the difference between the sons. His father says, “My son, YOU are with me always.” The older son believes that what he has done should earn him his father’s love. He has done everything right. He has not strayed or erred in any way. His actions are right. They are by the law.
But, where is the older son as he is speaking to his father? Where are they standing?
Outside the banquet. Outside in the darkness. They are standing where the younger brother has been. On the outside.
But on the outside of what?
On the outside of love and light and hope. On the outside of grace.
You see, when the younger son left the father, essentially he died. He chose his path of life, away from his father’s love and the light of his home. And, when he came home, he was reborn. He sought his father’s forgiveness, and because of his faith it was granted through grace. And yet, the older brother tried to do all the right things, make the right choices, be a “good” boy. And he believed he earned love because of what he did. Ephesians tells us that salvation is not granted because of what we do but because of who God is. All these years the older brother believed he was earning his reward when in reality he needed only to accept his father’s grace and love. And, that grace was right beside him the entire time.
There is one last element I wish to highlight in our passage. Where was the father when he spoke to the older son? Where did he need to go to talk to him?
Outside. The father left the banquet, left the light, left the 99 to get the one.
And where or what is the “outside”?
Death.
The father went into death to meet his son. He went to the outside, into death and separation and darkness, to meet his son and tell his son that he was loved and in his father’s grace all these years. All he needed to do was accept it and come inside.
The father in our story is God reaching for us. The father welcoming us home when we have been selfish and stupid and irresponsible offering a banquet and music with all the heavenly choirs. The father who also sends His own beloved Son for us, who as the song says, “didn’t want heaven without us so He sent heaven down.” Our heavenly Father sent His own Son into the darkness of poverty and isolation and anger –death — when we have tried to earn His love through what we do and bring us back home by offering grace and love.
Let us pray.
Gracious Father. You love us and offer your grace despite where we are and what we do. We thank you and praise you for your ever-present faithfulness towards us. May we openly receive You and follow you. And, when we forget and try to earn your love through our works, be swift to come for us and bring us back to the safety of your presence. Through Your precious Son, Jesus Christ, we pray. Amen.

And we scratch our heads in disbelief

I subscribe to Christianity Today and read this article today regarding the SBC discussing the expulsion of churches within their organization who have been covering up abuse. My response is twofold.

  1. “The SBC is considering requiring background checks for denominational leaders and has urged churches to include such screening in the ordination process.” This quote is taken directly from the article. I am horrified that they don’t require background checks! They’ve left the door open and are now shocked that the fox is in the chicken coop. **I understand that it is a church-by-church basis regarding vetting employees and volunteers. But, not to have an organizational policy is negligent at best.
  2. “All SBC seminaries will now require students to undergo training on caring for abuse survivors.” Also taken directly from the article. Why train seminarians if the whole church body is cast out from the fold? While it is necessary and valid for seminarians to be trained in coming alongside abuse victims, why does the larger parent of the SBC not come alongside the church and offer support? Instead, they cast out the offensive church treating it much like the older brother did towards the prodigal son. In reality, John and Jane Doe who sit in the middle of the pew on the left side of the church may not have ever be aware of what was happening within their church. Now, a huge scandal has shaken them to the core, and their co-workers and neighbors are asking all kinds of questions that they cannot answer. And, when they as well as 90% of the congregation are grieving and angry and hurting, they need stability and prayer and counsel. Instead, their parent of the SBC shuns them, casts them out, expels them without a shred of grace and compassion.

And we wonder why so many people leave the church. This article reflects on younger adults who leave the church. I’m not surprised. Why wouldn’t they leave?

And we scratch our heads in disbelief.

It’s a Matter of Perspective

Our lectionary readings this morning brought to mind so many different scenarios for me.  There is a wealth of instruction and encouragement from these passages, and I was inspired to reflect on stories I have heard and relationships in my life.  So, this morning will be a different sort of sermon from what I have expressed before.

When I was young, from around six through twelve years old, I went to my grandmother’s church for summer church camp. She and my grandfather were Church of God church planters throughout central and north central Texas. She lived on the retired pastors’ campground in Weatherford, Texas. Summers in Texas were hot and dry, made even more grueling with the rule of no shorts or pants, skirts only, below the knees. So, to escape the heat, I would go to her house in the afternoons, and she helped me memorize Bible verses in the cool of her window AC unit. We started with the Beatitudes from Matthew. Having Luke’s version of the Beatitudes in our lectionary reading brought back wonderful memories from my summers with MeMa.

Continuing the thread of stories that these readings brought to mind, we will begin.  A farmer and his son had a beloved stallion who helped the family earn a living. One day, the horse ran away and their neighbors exclaimed, “Your horse ran away, what terrible luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”

A few days later, the horse returned home, leading a few wild mares back to the farm as well. The neighbors shouted out, “Your horse has returned, and brought several horses home with him. What great luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”

Later that week, the farmer’s son was trying to break one of the mares and she threw him to the ground, breaking his leg. The villagers cried, “Your son broke his leg, what terrible luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”

A few weeks later, soldiers from the national army marched through town, recruiting all the able-bodied boys for the army. They did not take the farmer’s son, still recovering from his injury. Friends shouted, “Your boy is spared, what tremendous luck!” To which the farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.” 

C.S. Lewis said, “What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.”  

There is a story of three men sitting in a cave who face the back wall of the cavern.  Within the cave they are chained in such a way that they cannot turn their heads nor their bodies to see behind them.  Outside the cave, people are walking back and forth.  Birds fly through the sky and dogs chase cats which chase mice.  These people and birds and animals cast shadows against the back wall of the cavern, and the three men watch these shadows flicker and sweep against the wall.  These shadows are all they have ever known, and they believe these shadows are the truth of their lives.  

One day the chains are broken for one of the men, and he is free.  He gets up and turns around.  He sees the campfire that offered flickering light for the men.  He then walks outside.  He blinks and squints as he looks up to the bright orb of light in the sky.  His eyes adjust and he sees colors for the first time.  He see the brown trunk and green leaves against a blue sky.  He sees a red bird flapping in a water fountain.  He looks into the fountain and sees the reflection of himself in the water.  He sees a black and white dog and bends down to pet its long, soft fur.  He does not understand how he sees these images, but they are distinctly different from what he has known.  He runs back to the cave to tell the two men remaining there what he has seen.  He explains the grass and sky and sun and people and animals.  They think he has gone mad.  They cannot perceive what he is speaking of.  The two sit in their cave believing their truth while the third man engages in a different world perceiving his. 

W.B. Yeats also said, “The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”

Is the one man wrong?  Are the two men wrong?  As Plato wrote this Allegory of the Cave, he expressed that what we see is not always Truth.  Our perception is based upon where we are, either inside or outside the cave. 

Schopenhauer said, “Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.” 

A man has all that he’s ever wanted: a beautiful wife, strong and intelligent children, great wealth that includes land, animals, workers.  One day, out of the blue, a blight kills all his crops.  The next day, disease kills all his animals.  The next day, all his children are killed in a collapsed building.  The next day, he wakes up to horrific boils all over his body that causes him excruciating pain with every movement.  The next day, his wife tells him to curse his God and die.  The next day, his friends come and tell him to repent of his sins as he has undoubtedly done much to anger God and cause such calamity.  His response is to rebuke his wife and his friends saying that he will not deny his God and that his faith in God is strong and resolute.  It was

Anais Nin who said, “We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.”

I have a student who comes to me quite regularly.  We sit together and he asks rapid-fire questions:  Why does God allow evil?  Did God create evil?  If God loves us so much, why would He allow us to suffer?  Why would He create a beautiful garden that had a tree with so much potential damage?  Why does God hate him?  Why does he feel abandoned?  Why is he alone?   How can God love him?  Where is He? 

Arthur Rimbaud said, “I believe I am in Hell, therefore I am.”

A man is driving down the road of the Mojave Desert at 80mph.  The wheels of his truck hit a patch of gravel and he begins to slide a bit.  He overcompensates the steering wheel and loses control.  His truck jumps the guardrail, flips a couple of times and comes to a stop close to a drainage ditch in the opposite direction in which he was traveling.  The man was knocked unconscious and sustained only a few bruises and a small cut on his forehead where his side window busted out and the shattered glass spewed across his face. Fortunately, another driver came up soon behind this truck and got out to see what was going on.  As the driver began to come to, he asked questions like:  What happened? Where am I?  How did I get here?  The other man was helping the driver out of his vehicle, however, had a significantly different series of questions:  How in the world did this happen?  How did you manage to land where you are?  How can you still be alive?  What the driver didn’t yet realize that the rescuer did was that the truck didn’t just land in a drainage ditch.  No, it landed in a drainage ditch which was less than 12 inches away from a cliff drop of 200-ft to the valley below that feeds into the Grand Canyon.

In our readings from Jeremiah, the Psalm, and Luke we are told of the distinctions between those who put their trust in mortals, in what they can control, in what they can see and touch and grasp.  For these, truth will fade and wash away.  In times of trouble, faith will waver and doubts will creep.  In days of grief, emotions will flux and fear will flourish.

But, those who look to God and cry to Him for mercy and courage will hold fast and know peace.  Will the hard times not happen for those who trust God?  Certainly not.  Just ask Job from our story above. But, the fear and doubt and anger and pain will not overshadow the calm and hope that come from God.  

From the teaching of Paul, he says:  Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.

 And from words that we easily recognize, let us pray:. Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night; and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your Love’s sake.

Amen. 

.-.. . – / .. – / -… .

I listen to a podcast from Mike Rowe.  You know him, the voice behind most of our current-generation Ford commercials and dozens of nature and science related documentaries as well as the television show “Dirty Jobs.”  Well, Mike has this podcast called “The Way I Heard It.”  It’s reminiscent of the Paul Harvey-style of storytelling:  offering clever, behind the scenes nuggets of information about people or events, offering a sponsor-endorsed ad for, say, the Bose Wave Radio.  Then, he’d return to his story of the person or event.  And with a final flick of his voice, the veil was lifted and he would close with “And now you know the rest of the story.”

Well, Mike Rowe tells stories in the same fashion, candidly admitting his reverence for and desire to emulate Mr. Harvey.  Mike has a story about a young, lowly lieutenant listening to the telegraph taps of German, Italian, and Russian news systems during WWII.  On one such occasion, after sitting in his wooden chair hunched over the radio, earphones tightly closed about his ears, he heard a distinct series of tapping.  There, amidst the static of the radio on that cold evening of March 5, 1953, our lieutenant heard a rhythmic tapping, a secret that only this young airman could discern.  The most hated and feared political leader in all the world, a man who organized the slaughter of thousands upon thousands of innocent lives, a brutal and sinister human being.  The rhythmic tapping told the news:  Josef Stalin was dead.

We read this morning in 1 Corinthians of the various gifts of the Spirit:  wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, prophecy, and others.  Each one of these are a part of the whole.  If one should fail, the whole is incomplete.  However, when one responds and reaches out using the gift God has given with each being that “one,” the whole is truly, well, whole.

I find this passage apt for THIS particular morning as today is our annual meeting.  This is the time of the year that we gather as a church body and celebrate the presence of the Holy Spirit throughout the previous year.  We speak of opportunities that we were presented before:  faithfulness in stewardship; responding to community needs; caring for the temple—this building and its objects; nurturing God’s people through various ministries; comforting those who have experienced loss this year.  We are St. Matthew’s, and we are the Body of Christ.  And we, like our young lieutenant from Mike’s story, sit hunched over the receiver listening for the tap tap tap of God telling us the next move we are to make.

In the story from our Gospel, it is actually the mother of Jesus who is doing the tapping.  But I will come to that in a moment.  There is a great deal going on in the fabric of the text.  There are so many symbols shifting in and out within our reading.  For example, the wedding feast is in its third day.  It was Jonah who was in the belly of the beast for three days.  After the crucifixion of Jesus, He was gone from the earth for three days.  And there are three symbolic links to the Passion of Jesus:  Number ONE:  He says that His hour has not yet come just as He told His disciples throughout other instances of the Gospel texts.  Number TWO:  water symbolizes the Jewish purification rites of the Old Testament and yet it is Jesus who brings the new way of purification.  And Number THREE:  when the water was changed to wine and the “sign” was performed, His glory was revealed to His disciples, and they believed.

As these signs gave issue to things to come, we see in this episode of Jesus’ life the first step in the things to come for Him.  There He is, the Son of the Most Holy God, a guest at a wedding with his disciple friends.  I can imagine Him enjoying the music and laughter and joy of this immense event.  I can see Him smiling and hugging the other guests.  I can imagine His humanity in this event.  Divinity breaking into the lives of man and walking amongst them.  And as He is participating in this feast, a potential event happens.  

This is a moment that could be a possible disaster, significant humiliation for the bride, groom, and families of the new couple.  Wedding celebrations were to span seven days.  It’s day three, and they’re out of wine.

But, someone has been watching.  Someone has seen the faces of the servants in attendance, faces of joy and laughter and tears and as they move throughout the rooms sharing in this happy celebration.  A few of those faces gradually shift from joy to doubt to worry.  These few faces begin to seek one another, to huddle together in hushed voices in the corners.  Someone has observed the changes and feels the tension creeping in like a smokey shadow desiring to snuff the shimmering candle.

Mary.  She was paying attention.  She saw these furtive movements, these strained faces, snd what did she do?  She went to her son.  Mary.  Our Lady who in Luke told the Angel Gabriel, “Let it be done to me.”  She bore the Son of God and gave birth to the Savior of the World, for all generations.  And we call her Blessed.

She saw what was happening.  And she acted in the only way she could:  she spoke to her Son.  And as a result, I see the humanity of Jesus, one enjoying the celebration of a wedding, become the Divinity of God Almighty as He performed His first recorded miracle.  And the symbolism of the event — Jesus changing water to wine at a wedding while we His followers are called the Bride of Christ — is a most powerful event.  And as He responds to the promptings of His mother, this Jesus of Nazareth steps into His call as the Savior of the World and takes that first step towards His crucifixion.  

And it was Mary who proclaimed her Fiat:  Let it be!  Mary brought forth the Savior of all.  Holy is her name.  And in the event of our wedding of Cana, she was the catalyst that saved this celebration from ending in disaster.  She participated.  She observed.  She attentively watched.  And, she responded.

My prayer, as we continue this new year of our church model ourselves like Mother Mary as we watch, as we observe, as we pray, as we say Yes, Let it Be Done, as we respond to Christ our Lord.  And, as we sit hunched over our own desks — as our young lieutenant did (a young Johnny Cash) listening to the tap tap tapping of the telegraph through the static — while we pray and praise and weep and celebrate, I pray we remember that we are all one working together living into our gifts and vocations and desiring above all to love God and serve Him through His church of St. Matthew’s of Enid.  

Amen.

What I Heard from the Pulpit

Sermon from The Rev. Dr. John Toles.

One of my favorite bands is Rush. They have a song from their Counterparts album called “Double Agent.”  The first two lines of this song are, “Where would you rather be? Anywhere… Anywhere but here.  When would the time be right? Anytime but now.”

This sermon from John+ speaks of getting rid of the proverbial boxes. Letting our guard down with God and saying “yes.” Giving Him control. Total control.

But that’s SO hard, I often say. Well, yes. Yes, it is hard.

It’s about the beast within:  ego.

To give control to God is to confess pride, arrogance, self-sufficiency, narcissism, conceit, audacity, bravado.

But those are ugly words. Those don’t describe me. I’m not any of those ideas.

No?

Really??

So what would you call it then???

The fact of the matter is plain and simple. God says “Be still” (Ps 46:10). When we aren’t still in God, those things that aren’t God will fill us instead: fear, anger, skepticism, self-preservation, exhaustion, and the list goes on and on.

So, when you find yourself in the middle of a decision, “large” or “small,” check your emotions and your mental state. Are you frustrated? Are you tired? Are you quick tempered? Are you procrastinating?

My response: stop declaring war on God. Like Jacob, stop fighting the Angel.

Will it be smooth sailing? Perhaps not. Will the Heavens open up and the plan boom from the voice (like James Earl Jones) of God? I can’t say a resounding “Yes!”

What will happen? Honestly, I can’t say because God will do what He will do. What is right for you. What will need to happen to take care of you.

And, as John+ (and Howard Stern) said, get rid of your backup plan and stop fighting.

God’s Ball of Yarn

Little Nellie and her father were visiting an elderly neighbor. They were raking the neighbor’s leaves, organizing the neighbor’s garage, putting the trash out, and performing other small jobs around the neighbor’s house. The little girl had not really seen the elderly neighbor closely, but on this day she was going to meet the neighbor up close for the first time. When she met her neighbor, she asked him how old he was, and her father was horrified by his daughter’s question and attempted to apologize to the neighbor, but the neighbor laughed and said that it was ok, she’s just curious. The elderly neighbor told Nellie he was 92 years old. The child had a look of unbelief and quickly asked her neighbor, “Did you start at the number one?”

As we sit here this morning, there have been so many events throughout the world this year that have caused us to laugh or cry or something in between. The boys’ Thai soccer team who was trapped in a cave for 18 days, the wild fires in California, IHOP briefly rebranding to IHOb in order to endorse their burgers, the Tide pod challenge, online DNA testing breaking onto the market with the advertisements saying “Your gift will be the most remembered if you offer the gift of ancestral history,” the passings of both Barbara and George Bush, and the Philadelphia Eagles winning the Super Bowl.

As I have reflected on the events of this year, I noticed various perspectives, much like little Nellie, in observing what happens in the world when we read the Scripture passages for today. Isaiah calls Him Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Isaiah continues to speak of the power and righteousness in which He will come as He brings truth and light to the world.

Our Psalm speaks to God’s majesty and glory and splendor and honor and holiness. Throughout our Psalm we see joy. We see hope. We see nations of people brought together in praise of Him.

Salvation is brought to the world as we read the passage from Titus. This text, written after the death and resurrection of Christ, proclaims His majesty and intention of redemption and purity for us. Titus writes for those who “are zealous for good deeds” will have hope as they wait for the coming of Christ our Lord again. And this is the nugget of truth for us today. Hope. However, this simple word is actually not so simple at all.

I heard something a little over a year ago. This definition or perspective of time has forced me to rethink all I assumed, and I simply cannot shake this theory. Time, according to God, is like a ball of thread. It’s wound tightly with all the threads rubbing against one another, and it can fit within the palm of a hand. And while we see time as linear: a start, beginning, and end, God knew and still knows. While little Nellie saw her neighbor as a very old man moving through each number from one to 92, he likely saw his own life as having passed in the blink of an eye.

So, with this idea of time as a process that happens all at once, folding and swirling and bending within itself, it sheds a new light on our readings for today.

Isaiah states, “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us…For the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice…” Our Psalm exhorts us to “Sing to the Lord and bless his Name; proclaim the good news of his salvation from day to day.” There are other passages of Scripture that speak of salvation through the Child, but these passages are Old Testament. Titus, which was written after the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus, states that “we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior.”

And so, this morning, as we read again about the decree going out from Emperor Augustus and the child in the manger and the shepherds traveling to Bethlehem to see this baby, let us remember — no, let us KNOW — that God gives life to us and He offers hope to us through His Son. God was and is and shall be.

And as we move out from this place into the world, let us carry this hope of God’s love and salvation with us. In our places of work, our families, our neighbors, and even ourselves let us know that even through stretches, tangles, knots, and breaks, God sent Christ Jesus for us then, now, and always.

Christ the King

A few weeks ago at our Wednesday evening study Kneeling With Giants, we talked abut Teresa of Avila. In that chapter of our text, we considered the various ways that we address God when we pray. For example, we talked about Jesus as friend: one who walks with us and remains with us through the deepest darkness as well as the brightest heights. We talked about Jesus as confessor: one who bears our burdens and sins and secrets. We talked about Jesus as guide and Savior and shepherd. There are many names and roles for Jesus throughout Scripture. And in that Wednesday study, we were to pay attention to how we address Jesus, what attitude we go to Jesus with when we pray. We were to be mindful of where we are in our thoughts, in our needs, in our emotional awareness. And when we pray, what did we need Jesus to be for us? What did our relationship need to be in those moments of prayer?

So, before we start to unpack those questions now, I want us to understand why we have this day in our liturgical calendar. In 1925, the world was in significant turmoil. While World War I had ended a few years prior, the aftershock of an entire planet at war — nation against nation — was reverberating throughout the countries. The economic landscape of the world was forever changed; one after another of the countries in Asia and the Middle East began fighting against colonialism; with troops traveling across countries, disease was spread unlike any era had ever seen; a shift in balance of the genders began as women from all countries were left at home caring for families as well as businesses and social systems; also, as a result of travel during the war, ethical and religious ideologies were challenged as people who might never have known one another were suddenly face-to-face with differing belief systems. It was in just such an aftershock that Pope Pius XI realized a critical element about mankind: he had forgotten who was the Eternal King, and man had replaced the Eternal King with the rulers of the nations. Mankind, in his fear or violence or hubris, was turning away from the Supreme Justice. So, in order to foster a re-establishment of the perfect hierarchy and remind man — whose faith was waning in the chaos of those days — Pope Pius XI proclaimed this as Christ the King Sunday. Even though the nations may not agree politically, socially, economically, even morally, there would be a dedicated Sunday each year that we mark Who has already won the greatest war.

So, this Sunday is a unique day. Why is it different? What makes this Sunday unlike any other Sunday? Well, consider our passages of text. Our passage from Daniel tells of Daniel’s prophecy of seeing God on His throne. It speaks of hair as white as pure wool, of dominion and languages and glory, of thousands upon thousands attending to Him, of the books of judgment being opened. As a matter of fact, we actually see the Holy Trinity in this passage from Daniel: the Ancient One is God on the throne; the stream of fire issuing and flowing out from His presence is the Holy Spirit; and the one like a human being coming to the Ancient One is Christ.

“Well,” you say, “this doesn’t answer why this passage is different from other Sundays.” Okay. Then, let’s consider our Psalm. We see that the Lord is King and puts on his splendid apparel. We see that since the world began, His throne is sure and everlasting. We see His might and His holiness. We see the voice of the waters claiming the testimony of God.

“Nope,” you say, “still not helping in what makes this different…” All right. Let’s look at our Epistle from Revelation. Here we see the sacrifice that Christ completed for us, for the world, reinforced when we read that it is through His blood that he has made us to be His kingdom. John continues to write that he saw Jesus coming in the clouds and every person will see him, even those who crucified Him. God says that He is the Alpha and Omega, and He is the Almighty.

“Still no,” you say, “I’m just not seeing what’s different here.” Well, considering our Gospel passage, we see Pilate and Jesus having a conversation about Jesus. Is Jesus King? Is he King of the Jews? But, Jesus never directly answers Pilate’s questions. Instead, He follows His own line of response in that He was born specifically to do what He was about to do, which was to die.

So, finally, what is it that makes this Sunday’s readings different from any other day? The fact that we are stop and to reflect on the fact of Jesus as King. Each passage tells us a different quality, a different character of Christ as King. In Daniel we see the glory of Christ and the multitude who will worship Him. In the Psalm we see His permanency, His significance over the earth. In Revelation we see what He has done for man through His death and that even those who killed Him will bow in submission to Him. Also in Revelation, God echoes who He is when He says, “I am the Alpha and Omega…who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” And in our Gospel, we see, through Jesus’ rhetoric with Pilate, who He is as God as human.

When our world may not be enduring a world war as in Pope Pius XI’s era, there are many corporations and nations jockeying for supremacy. Our world faces a crisis of conscious as our medical advancements move faster than our systems of bio-ethics can afford. When our youth are taught more by youtube, Snapchat, and Reddit than by the presence of the family around the supper table. When nations war and citizens weep.

What does today remind us to do? Recognize Jesus as King. Acknowledge His power. Confess His supremacy. Praise Him. Adore Him. Worship Him. Be still and know that He is God. Remember that when all seems lost or hopeless, that God is ultimately in control. We have a beloved Savior who knows our pain, our fear, our anger, our loneliness. Believe that Jesus is the Son of God. Know that He was crucified, died, and was buried. Know that Jesus is supreme and IS coming again in Glory. We serve the Risen King, and we pray that His will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.

What Are You Doing?

“We live in the time of silence, between the flash of lightning and the sound of thunder.” My cousin Fr. John gave his sermon today regarding the Gospel passage in Mark 13:1-8 when Jesus’ disciples asked Him what the end time will look like. He told them there will be hard things happening, that there will be the “birth pangs.”

What I heard first was a reprimand for living too slowly, for being lazy, for taking too much time and wasting too much time.

Then I heard something else: a reprimand for being too busy, for allowing the demands and activities and desires to “do” overtake everything else so that existence is exhaustion.

And then, I listened deeper and realized that, for me, it’s a “neither/both.”

It isn’t a place of laziness, but it is.  It isn’t a place of crazy busy, but it is.

At the core, it’s a matter of what exactly is being done with the time that is given?  I thought of Plato’s “the true, the good, and the beautiful” and applied that to my actions of my days.  If what I’m doing isn’t true to God’s call or good towards my neighbor or bringing beauty to the Kingdom of God, that forces me to evaluate what I’m doing with God’s gift of my life. The message this morning wasn’t a shame on you for being still; it wasn’t a shame on you for being too busy.  Instead, it was a “let’s pause and look.”

Thanks John+

All You Have

Corrie Ten Boom, a watchmaker who lived with her family, helped to hide Jews during the Nazi occupation of Holland in WW2. Her family was discovered, and they were rounded up with other Dutch citizens and sent to concentration camps. Corrie and her sister Betsie were at the Ravensbruck camp. She wrote several books after her release — which was a clerical mistake — that testify to the presence of Jesus she and her sister knew while they were in the camps. In her book The Hiding Place, Corrie tells of just one incident of God’s providence towards her, her sister, and the women who were in the barracks with them. She writes:

Another strange thing was happening. The liquid vitamin bottle was continuing to produce drops. It scarcely seemed possible, so small a bottle, so many doses a day. Now, in addition to Betsie, a dozen others on our pier were taking it.

My instinct was always to hoard it — Betsie was growing so very weak! But the others were ill as well. It was hard to say no to eyes that burned with fever, hands that shook with chill. I tried to save it for the very weakest — but even these soon numbered fifteen, twenty, twenty-five…

And still, every time I tilted the little bottle, a drop appeared at the tip of the glass stopper. It just couldn’t be! I held it up to the light, trying to see how much was left, but the dark brown glass was too thick to see through.

“There was a woman in the Bible,” Betsie said, “whose oil jar was never empty.” She turned to it in the book of Kings, the story of the poor widow of Zarephath who gave Elijah a room in her home: “The jar of meal wasted not, neither did the cruse of oil fail, according to the word of Jehovah which he spoke by Elijah.”

Well — but — wonderful things happened all through the Bible. It was one thing to believe that such things were possible thousands of years ago, another to have it happen now, to us, this very day. And yet it happened this day, and the next, and the next, until an awed little group of spectators stood around watching the drops fall onto the daily rations of bread.

Many night I lay awake in the shower of straw dust from the mattress above, trying to fathom the marvel of supply lavished upon us. “Maybe,” I whispered to Betsie, “only a molecule or two really gets through that little pinhole — and then in the air it expands!”

I heard her soft laughter in the dark. “Don’t try too hard to explain it, Corrie. Just accept it as a surprise from a father who loves you!”

Betsie references our passage from the Old Testament this morning. Elijah goes to a woman and young son who are about to starve. He tells her to bring him some bread. But her response is that she is gathering sticks to make a last bit of bread to feed herself and her son knowing that they will soon die. What shocks me about this passage is her honesty. She doesn’t tell Elijah to leave. She doesn’t offer an excuse. She doesn’t try to negotiate. She simply tells him what is happening in her life and what will soon occur for herself and her son. Elijah hears her, and though we are not told of his emotional response, we do see what he says to her. He tells her to use that meal and oil and make the bread and feed him with it. She does, and they all eat for many days for neither the jar of meal nor the jar of oil were ever emptied. This story is simple and unadorned. God moves within the lives of these people with powerful simplicity. And in order for Him to be able to work, it only required one thing.

We move on to our passage in Hebrews that speaks of Christ dying once for us so that we may have atonement for our sins. In the Old Testament, the priests had to enter into the Holy of Holies and offer the sacrifices for the people each year. But with Christ’s death and resurrection, that sacrifice is complete. The atonement never ends. The jar is never empty. The forgiveness is a well that never runs dry.

Corrie Ten Boom shared an encounter that occurred much later in her life. She writes, “It was at a church service in Munich that I saw him, a former S.S. man who had stood guard at the shower room door in the processing center and Ravensbruck. He was the first of our actual jailers that I had seen since the time. And suddenly it was all there — the roomful of mocking men, the heaps of clothing, Betsie’s pain-blanched face.

“He came up to me as the church was emptying, beaming and bowing. ‘How grateful I am for your message, Fraulein.’ He said. ‘To think that, as you say, He has washed my sins away!’ His hand was thrust out to shake mine. And I, who had preached so often to the people in Bloemendaal the need to forgive, kept my hand at my side.

“Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. Jesus Christ had died for this man; was I going to ask for more? Lord Jesus, I prayed, forgive me and help me to forgive him. I tried to smile, I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so again I breathed a silent prayer. Jesus, I prayed, I cannot forgive him. Give me Your forgiveness.

“As I took his hand the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me. And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on His. When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself.”

We come to our Gospel passage, and in it we witness the one thing that caused the widow, her son, and Elijah to have an endless supply of meal and oil. Through our Gospel we understand how Jesus offers salvation once for all of time and humanity. And the story from our Gospel is the widow who gave two copper coins out of her poverty into the treasury. In these illustrations we see that these people gave all they had to Jesus. She didn’t question, she didn’t boast, she didn’t hesitate. She simply gave.

What happened to the widow and her son after Elijah left? What happened to the widow who gave the two copper coins, who gave all she had? We aren’t told. We don’t know. But why don’t the writers include the results? Well, to put it plainly, I don’t believe the result is the point. What happens next isn’t for us to know. Instead, the lesson to be learned is what our behavior is to be. It isn’t an “if…then…” situation. We are simply to be honest with ourselves and with those around us. We are simply to be willing to admit that alone we are inadequate. We are simply to give all we have. Not in the expectation of a response and not in the assumption of a potential outcome.

Will we always have the answers? Will we always have the right words? Will we always know what will happen next? Sadly, no, we won’t. But, it’s in that willingness to speak the words “I don’t know” that we find Jesus. Isn’t He all we need?

I pray that we remain honest. I pray we accept Jesus in every part of our lives. I pray we give everything to Him. And I pray that His love and guidance and protection continues to overflow and overwhelm us even when we can’t and won’t know what happens next.

We Define Ourselves by What We Are Not

There’s a conversation in one of my favorite novels between a father and his six year old daughter. Scout is confused by the anger and tension that is going on in her town of Maycomb, Alabama. Atticus joins Scout on the front porch swing and begins talking to her about what’s going on. He says to her, “Scout, you know what a compromise is?”

“Bending the law?” she responds.

“Um, well, not exactly.” He continues to explain that if one side will come to the table with another side, the two can begin to have a conversation. The point of the conversation, Atticus says, is not to look at what is wrong with your opponent but instead look at what is not necessary within yourself, and let that go. While sitting on the swing, they decide that if Scout will continue to see the need to go to school, Atticus will continue to see the need to read with her every night.

Our gospel passage this morning tells us of the scribe, the Sadducees, and Jesus. What struck me about this passage, however, was how out of context it is. Here we we have a lone scribe watching the exchange between Jesus and the Sadducees. We can infer from the passage that the exchange is a bit contentious.

But, before I was able to unpack this specific text, I needed to go wider into Scripture. When we back up our reading beginning in verse 18 of this chapter, we will see that the Sadducees were arguing the truth of the resurrection and can a widow marry her husband’s brother. That text discusses how the Sadducees, who say that there is no resurrection, ask Jesus questions about who will be the husband to a woman in Heaven. She has been married to seven brothers and never had an offspring. Jesus responds that they completely misunderstand his message. God is not God of the dead, but of the living. He concludes by saying: You are quite wrong.

So, in this exchange between the group of Sadducees and Christ, the scribe was the outsider. He had a different perspective. The details of that conversation floated below the surface, but what rose to the top was the most powerful lesson in all the world. What the scribe saw, in the periphery of his engagement, was the heart of the exchange. He saw what the Sadducees could not, did not.

When I was fifteen, my parents and I went to visit my Uncle Don. My cousin John was staying with Don that summer, and he and I decided to go to see the movie Aliens. It was opening weekend, and it was supposed to the the blockbuster of the decade. We walked into the theater, and the only two seats available together were on the very front row in the very center. For 2 hours and 34 minutes we cocked our heads back and stared wide-eyed as the movements and sounds bombarded our senses. I was thrilled! Partly because I was a naive 15-year old seeing the biggest movie on opening night in Dallas and partly because I always idolized my 21-year old cousin and he wanted to hang out with me.

But, years later, I saw that movie again. And you know, it was amazing what all I missed when I saw it the first time! Seeing it again on my DVD player was like watching a brand new movie. Sure, I could still see the details. But what I could really see was everything at once. All the movements flowing and jumping and colliding together.

Our scribe saw through to the very heart of the issue: the Sadducees quibbled over details of marriage and widows and rules and “supposed to.” He saw what they said and knew it wasn’t what was real. The scribe new the law; he’d been writing and rewriting the law his whole life. And he new the law was important, but it wasn’t the most important thing. Our gospel says that the scribe saw that Jesus was answering them well. He stepped in and asked Jesus which commandment is the first of all. Then, Jesus told him what the second commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. In my opinion, it seems quite audacious for the scribe to tell Jesus that He’s answered rightly. What courage! There is something in the scribe’s strength and honesty that Jesus recognizes and appreciates.

John and I were watching the Godfather II yesterday. Michael tells Carlo, “Admit what you did, Carlo. Only don’t tell me you’re innocent because it insults my intelligence.” I see Jesus as Michael Corleone. The scribe understands the heart of this conversation is not about the rules. It isn’t about marriage. It isn’t about the widow and if husbands and wives will know each other in heaven.

The heart of the issue is love. Love for God. Love for one another. The Sadducees are really sad, you see, because they view love as subordinate to law. However, Jesus recognizes the pursuit of love in the scribe. The scribe knows how one side will never see the other.

So, what do we do with this? Where are we in this story? Well, we see a comment online or hear something in the office or from a neighbor that is frustrating or hurtful or, in our opinion, just plain stupid. Okay, we say, I’ll show him! I’ll tell him how wrong he is or what a moron he is. I’ll cut him down with a verbal retort that will strike him to the core, and he’ll finally see how shameful his perspective is. And the words pierce out of you razor sharp and you feel smart and powerful and vindicated and triumphant. But then, if you really care more about how that person is a sinner and child of God just like you are, you’ll realize what an arrogant idiot you are and you’ll have a twinge of regret. Yes, you’ll try to squash that regret saying that you were justified, you were doing the right thing, you have no need to feel badly. That regret, that twinge, my friends, is the Holy Spirit. If you came to the conversation with anything other than love and compassion and faith, you were wrong. Isn’t that exactly what Jesus told the Sadducees? He actually said, “You are quite wrong.”

It’s when we put our rules and our well-defined boxes and our comfort zones above our relationships with family, with friends, and yes even with enemies that we are wrong. We have to stop defining who we are by what we are not. Instead, we should be willing to climb on the front porch swing with another person, figure out what really isn’t that important, see that person as a child of God, and be willing to put their humanity above our own systems of rules and guidelines and definitions. Until we do that, we are the Sadducees arguing with Jesus.

After the beauty and teamwork and compassion that I have seen from this family over the last months, and especially in the last 72 hours, this family is closer and closer to our scribe, though, than the Sadducees. And I pray that, like our scribe, Jesus says to us, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.”

Would You Like a Glass of Wine?

A group of 8 friends were having a dinner party out on the back deck of a home one Saturday evening. Nothing fancy. Mostly finger foods. Ribs. Plates of cheese. Olives. Chips. Wine. The friends had not had a chance to get together in a while, and their conversations flowed effortlessly peppered with Oohs and Aahs as they shared stories from work and family and home. These friends shared long histories and great love for one another.

As the evening continued, a stranger walked into the backyard and the few steps up to the deck. As the friends continued to chuckle from the last story, they looked to the stranger as he walked towards them. When he reached the table, he pulled out a gun, held it to the head of one of the friends, looked to the group, and he said, “Give me your money!” The friends, shocked and immediately frightened, began telling the stranger that they had no money. They’d come for a simple gathering and did not have anything with them. The stranger then moved the gun from a male guest to the wife of the host. He told them again that he wanted all their money. Again, they said that they had none.

Tensions were rapidly rising. One of the guests realized that this situation was escalating quickly, and she believed that it was not going to end well at all. She looked at the stranger and quickly reflected on what had been — up to this point, at least — a beautiful evening. She glanced at the table and decided to ask the stranger a question.

“Would you like a glass of wine?”

“What?!” he said. And his face changed.

“Would you like a glass of wine? We’ve been talking and catching up tonight, and this wine is really good. Would you like some?”

He said what they did not expect: “Yes.”

He took a couple of sips and responded that it really was good wine. He reached down for the cheese and put the gun in his pocket. The man drank his wine and ate his cheese and for the third time that night said something that no one expected.

“I think I’m at the wrong house.”

The friends were like, “Hey, I understand.”

They all sat in silence for a moment. And then he said something so strange: “Can I have a hug.”

The wife of the host gave him a hug, and slowly each of the friends hugged the stranger. Then he walked away.

All they could think to do was to run into the house and cry in gratitude.

Our passage of Mark’s Gospel is the basis of many wedding ceremonies, mine included. “A man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife…Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” These weddings are intended to bring two people together for the rest of their days. Through all circumstances that life can bring. My parents will celebrate their 50 years together next April. And I am so proud that they have weathered many storms and frustrations in their life. I wish I could say that I too will be like them some day. No one who gets married intends for the marriage to fail. But, look around. While there are many who marriages have high numbers to prove their worth, there are also many here whose marriages have fallen.

And while this passage of Scripture includes these references to marriage and divorce, there’s more to the story. But in order to understand what is coupled to Jesus’ words, I need for us to lay a bit of foundation first. Our passage speaks of divorce. Divorce. What is that? What does divorce mean? Well, it means a marriage that is broken, splintered, not repairable, fractured. A relationship that was once one is now two. Would it be safe to say that in the context of the greater community that a friendship can be “divorced”? A family be “divorced”? Can a church “divorce”? I would answer “Yes” to all these questions.

Okay, now that we have a bit more groundwork built for our idea, let’s look at the second part to our Gospel. Scripture states that the people were bringing their children to Jesus that He might touch them. The disciples, rough and grumpy fishermen that most of them were, told the people to leave Jesus alone with the little ones. And as we read, what was Jesus’ response? “Don’t stop them. Let them come.” And Jesus took the children into His lap and blessed them. He knew the children could be a nuisance. He recognized the children were a financial burden to some of the families. He understood that some of the children were more high maintenance than others.

But, do any of us here truly believe that Jesus was dealing ONLY with children? Jesus was talking about US! We are the children: lost, crying, suffering, hurt, broken, scared.

So why in the world did Mark put this passage about “children” immediately after one about marriage and divorce and relationships. Well, when I try to understand the context of this Scripture passage, I am reminded of the passage from John of the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus goes to a well for a drink and meets a Samaritan woman. He tells her to give Him a drink, and she responds that Jews and Samaritans do not speak to one another. He tells her that He has living water to offer her if she will get her husband and return. She says that she has no husband, and He says that she speaks the truth — she has had five husbands and the man she is with now is not her husband. But what Jesus does next speaks directly to our text this morning: He stays.

He offers her a glass of wine.

He does not condemn her for what she has done. He does not shame her for her prior actions. He does not call out to his disciples when they arrive and humiliate her. He does not attempt to shove her into submission.

Quite the contrary: he continues to engage with her and speak to her with dignity and respect and hope. He brings peace to her.

We are the divorced in Mark’s gospel. We — in a way — are all divorced. Who of has had a broken friendship? Who of us has a splintered family? Who of us has a relationship at work that is fractured and tense? We are the broken and shamed and lost and embarrassed.

So what do we do when we have someone enter our dinner party with a gun — with a political opinion with which we do not agree, with a question with which we have rant for an answer, with information we are not prepared to handle? What do we do? How do we respond? We do what is opposite to what we might wish to do, and, instead, we offer a glass of wine. What did Jesus do with the Samaritan woman? Did he beat her down with statistics and rules and fancy rhetoric. No. He offered her a glass of wine. He stayed with her and spoke to her and engaged with her and was present with her. What did Jesus do with the children? Did he chastise them and push them away and shame them into submission. No. He offered them a glass of wine, or maybe Welch’s grape juice. He stayed with them and spoke to them and took them in His Kingly lap and blessed them.

As we navigate our way in our lives and we come face to face with a person wielding a gun, that, instead of allowing our hackles to rise, mentally articulating a sharp response that will eviscerate their presence, and basking in the glow of a well-earned annihilation that we would stop. Breathe. Look at them. See them for the children of God that they are. Understand that there is always more to the story. And ask a simple question: Would you like a glass of wine?

Tend Your Baobabs

There is a children’s story written for adults. It’s called The Little Prince, and it tells the story of a small Prince from an asteroid far, far away. This Prince meets an airplane pilot who has crashed landed in the Sahara desert; the pilot is attempting to fix his plane before his rations run out. These two people share stories, and the little Prince asks many questions of the harried pilot. The Prince is especially keen to hear about baobab trees as he has the very same trees on his tiny planet.

The Prince explains that the baobab trees grow to great heights on his little planet, and he must be diligent to tend to the tiny shoots as soon as they spring from the ground. The Prince shares that he must watch the small saplings and distinguish them from other saplings like rose bushes or radishes. As soon as he can tell the baobab plant from a rose plant, he pulls it from the ground immediately. Why? The baobab plant will grow into a huge tree, suffocating and destroying all other living plants.

The Prince takes his task quite seriously but has the most simplistic approach: every baobab starts out as a small plant, easy to uproot. It’s when the plant grows roots and becomes larger that the responsibility of pulling up the destructive plant becomes a chore and greatly challenging. The Prince speaks of tending all plants and using the wisdom he has learned to be able to distinguish the good from bad plants. And, if he fails to tend his plants, he creates much more trouble for himself later.

Our Old Testament reading this morning speaks of commandments and land and ancestry and nations and children. It speaks of keeping statutes — careful of not adding or deleting anything — so that Israel could enter the land God gifted them with. But there were two points that stood out to me: The first is Moses said “You must observe them diligently…so that your wisdom and discernment will be known.” The second point is that the people were to talk of what they’d seen with their eyes to their children and their children’s children.

Let’s go back to the first for a minute. Moses instructs that the people follow the law for the purpose of wisdom and discernment He says for the people to watch themselves closely, notice their actions, observe their behaviors. Moses tells the people to stay awake and be alert. As a matter of fact, all of our readings this morning, including the Psalm, have quite a few guidelines: be quick to listen and slow to speak, slow to anger, welcome meekness, persevere in doing good, fear God, do not go back on a promise, do not give money in the hope that you’ll get it back, be gentle and kind to friends, do not hate your neighbor. There are more, but I believe you understand where I’m going.

The second point Moses states is to tell their children and children’s children. But did he intend for the people to share only the laws? To focus on the statutes? I don’t think so. No. I believe Moses is telling the people to celebrate what God had done in their lives, not the do’s and don’t’s of being Israel. He encourages telling the children about God and who He’s revealed Himself to be so that they don’t forget. The people have witnessed the God of unbroken promise, of salvation from the tyranny of Egypt, of satisfaction and nourishment during the desert years.

I believe we can find the response to the Old Testament passage in our Gospel. In Mark’s letter we read of Jesus confronting the Pharisees, those direct descendants in both blood and tradition who define their own righteousness by their adherence to the rules. These Pharisees question how the disciples can eat food with “unclean” hands. How can Jesus desire to be around this small group of men who fail so miserably to keep the rules of their ancestors? Why would this presumed Messiah remain in the company of such lawlessness and lack of respect for Jewish heritage? Goodness, sounds a bit like OSU versus OU, doesn’t it?

And the response of Jesus? He calls the Pharisees hypocrites because they say they love God and yet have hollow hearts. There is no love. There is only law. The Pharisees, throughout their ancestry, instructed their children and their children’s children focusing on one aspect of Moses’s instruction while losing the reality of miracles and beauty and grace of the Almighty.

I have a show that I binge watch. It’s on Netflix and called “The West Wing.” President Jed Bartlett and Toby and Leo and Josh and CJ and Charlie and Donna. I can laugh and weep in the same episode. It makes me proud to be an American. It inspires me to do more than I do right now. I was watching a Christmas episode the other day. A Yale men’s chorus was trapped at the White House because of a snow storm, so they were singing in the atrium.

“O holy night

The stars are brightly shining

It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth

Long lay the world in sin and error pining

Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth

The thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices

For yonder brinks a new and glorious morn

Fall on your knees

O hear the angel voices

O night divine

O night divine when Christ was born.”

The Pharisees, so blinded by their rigid ways, failed to see that the man who would save the world was standing in front of them…and they failed to fall on their knees. Their passion or need or dependency for law usurped their love for the man who actually was the mercy of the law.

The Little Prince says that when he completes his morning routine, he begins pulling the saplings of the baobab trees on his planet. And, we are to do the same. When we see a baobab in our hearts, we are to pull it out. We are to follow Moses and do so “diligently” completing the tedious work of pulling what will corrupt out of our hearts. We stay engaged in this work so that we will be able to recognize what draws us away from God more quickly, as Moses said that wisdom and discernment would become stronger. The work is easy. What makes it hard is when we let those temptations remain and grow roots and become established sin within us.

Jesus says that whatever is within the heart will come out. Nothing we do happens unless we have it in our hearts first. Good acts come from good seeds and bad acts come from bad seeds. What do you see within your heart that chokes the grace you could offer someone? What scraps of anger or humiliation or envy or revenge do you cling to? What weeds are you fertilizing because you don’t know how your life would be if it weren’t the way it is right now? What are you telling and teaching your children and your children’s children?

We will do this work in a few moments when we pray the Confession. Our thoughts and words and deeds. Not loving God and not loving our neighbors. What we’ve done and what we’ve left undone. We seek forgiveness for allowing ourselves to be stained. We pull the weeds.

And, as we do the work, we receive the love of Jesus as we receive His precious Body and Blood. It is at the Eucharist as a result of the love and reverence we feel that we fall on our knees and hear the angel voices. It is at the Eucharist that we take Himself that He freely offers, and we offer ourselves in return. And it is at the Eucharist that we receive love so that we give it back to one another, to our neighbors, to the orphans and widows, to our children and our children’s children.

Let us pray. Almighty God, you gave us life and you gave us your son. Keep us close to your laws because they guide us to your Son. Holy Jesus, you lived and taught and died for us. Keep us close to your truth of love and grace. Precious Holy Spirit, you speak and move through us from the Father and the Son. Move and inspire and be within us so that we may love you more and lead others to you. Amen.

Beware . . .

. . . this is gonna be a rant!  If you don’t want to read, skip it.  If you agree, great.  If you don’t, great.  Just know that these are my observations, my perspectives, my words, and (ultimately) my blog.

I don’t know if Gandhi actually said it or not, and I don’t really care.  But it’s attributed to him, so at the risk of plagiarizing, I’m going to follow the attribution:  Gandhi once said, “I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians.  Your Christians are nothing like your Christ.”

I do not like our Christians, either.

We attack one another with Sherlock Holmes-size magnifying glasses looking for holes, chinks, inaccuracies, inadequacies, flaws, problems, weaknesses . . . you get my point!  We jump on the bandwagon to tear down another person.  We look back at what has been said and pick it apart like a lawyer picks apart a testimony.

We are hyenas, hunting for the weak, the young, the vulnerable.  And when we find our prey, we howl and yawp and cry and yelp.  We feel triumphant!  We’ve caught him!  Victory for the diligent!  Power for the intelligent!  We have proven ourselves better, smarter, cleverer, faster.  MORE spiritual. MORE holy.  MORE Christ-like.  MORE approachable.  MORE real.  MORE inclusive.  MORE Biblical.

You who post on social media about Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s wedding sermon, about how flawed it was — how he’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing — how we as Episcopalians are blind — how he’s an unChristian leader — how he is not a real Christian — etc.

Be ashamed!  Shut your mouths!  Look in the mirror!

Are all your sermons theologically and doctrinally and perfectly crafted according to audience and period of time and culture and situation?  Is your own life perfectly aligned with Christ at every moment of every day with every breath?  Do you honestly believe that your every movement, your every thought, your every response, your every belief, your every word is exactly like Christ would have you be?

If you stood in front of Jesus Christ right now, what would be your response?

Would you stand tall and strong and confident?  Would you be silent and numb and awe-struck?  Would you fall at His feet in love and fear and trembling?

No wonder the world hates us Christians.  No wonder the world can’t understand what we stand for.  We don’t even know it ourselves.  Our actions are SO NOT what we preach from the pulpit, from the office chair, from the classroom, from the bumper sticker on the car.  We attack one another with all the theological and doctrinal fortitude and empowerment and vigilance and righteousness that our years of seminary and church service and holy human living can muster!!

It makes me sick.  And angry.  And sad.  And angry.

Shut up, people!

Instead of pointing out where you think so-and-so is wrong, why don’t you try supporting what you believe and feel and perceive is right?!  Instead of looking for flaws, look for the nuggets of truth.  Instead of attacking, why don’t you love.  Instead of tearing down, why don’t you build up.  Instead of throwing your self-righteous vitriol into cyberspace like a chameleon launches his sticky tongue towards a fresh meal, why don’t you clamp your jaws shut and force your fingers from flying over the keyboard.

At what point in your life did you stop loving?  What happened to you that you became so arrogant?  When did you lose your humility?

if you can’t show or speak or type or be love, shut up.

And with said said, I’m shutting up.

Be Prepared

The squirrels are out. They’ve always been out, scampering around, chasing one another, barking and chirping at one another, flicking their tails in territorial aggression. I sit at my table and look out my back window and watch “my” squirrels. My dad made a little platform that stands on a steel pipe. This platform stands about yay high, and he made it where it is fixed to my back deck just on the other side of a floor to ceiling window. As I sit at my kitchen table, the squirrels (and blue jays, opossum, and raccoons) jump up on the platform and eat peanuts and seeds and raisins. This menagerie of animals aren’t more that three feet away from me, and I am immensely entertained watching them eat. I have one squirrel who has a ripped ear, almost torn right in half. She hurt her front paw a while back, and I didn’t think she was going to make it against the aggression of the other squirrels. But, she’s on the mend and is bearing more weight on her paw. It makes me happy as I’ve been cheering for her these last weeks. Anyway, I digress. These animals are constantly busy. Especially now that the season is changing and autumn has finally arrived. They are gathering more and more seeds and nuts and burying them in my backyard. The neighbors put out corn cobs in their yard, but those silly squirrels drag those corn cobs across two yards to mine. Then they pull off the kernels of corn and bury them in my yard leaving the empty corn cobs as remnants of winter preparation carnage.

It is this mass of squirrels that I think about as I read the gospel passage for this morning. Our bridesmaids anticipate the coming of the bridegroom and desire to be a part of the celebration of the wedding. They are eager to share in such a joyous occasion and prepare themselves for the event. Apparently the bridegroom will be coming into the nighttime as the bridesmaids have their lamps with them. Jesus also tells of five of the bridesmaids being wise in that they prepared oil for their lamps while five were foolish in that they did not have oil. They all feel asleep and were awakened by the coming of the groom. Those girls who were prepared entered the celebration while those who did not have themselves ready were left alone and outside the gates.

While we have heard this parable many times before, I believe that we need to be briefly reminded here of the customs of marriages in some ancient cultures, including the Jewish culture. Although a wedding is certainly a joyous occasion here with a potentially large guest list, great feasts of food, a beautiful bridal cake, dancing, laughter, pictures, music, enough to make for a night to remember — for both the wedded couple as well as the invited guests. Marriage in the older traditions were as much a business transaction as a weaving of love between a couple. Livestock was traded. Prices were adjusted. Cloth and spices were given. A bride meant the future health success of the family name. As a result, she was almost priceless. So worthy was the joining of two lives and the potential future the marriage would bring forth that the marriage celebration often lasted a week. Feasting and drinking and dancing and laughing and sharing in the beginning of a new chapter for a couple as well as the families. It would be a beautifully exquisite event!

And what happens? Our bridesmaids fall asleep! The wise and the foolish fall asleep.

Wait! The “wise” AND the “foolish”? Yes! So, it isn’t that they fell asleep that distinguished the two groups? No. So what makes one group wise and other foolish? Their preparation, or lack of it. One group prepares both lamp and oil while the other group prepares their lamps but not the fuel it takes to burn them. So, what you’re saying is the indicator of a wise person and a foolish person is the extent of their preparation? In this parable, yes it is.

Let me offer some analogies. If you were to make a trek from here to Denver, CO, with no money for gas, are you wise or foolish? If you are turning in your taxes without having prepared the paperwork, are you wise or foolish? If you are driving through Okarche paying no heed to the town speed limit, are you wise or foolish? If you take a trip across the desert of Arizona with no water, well, you get my point.

Many of you know that my day job is a high school English teacher. In my capacity I teach all high school grades 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th. I also teach Advanced Placement junior and senior English. In my classes we cover symbolism, when one thing or idea represents a greater idea or understanding. If I were to give this parable as a potential analysis assignment to my classes, I would want them to scour the passage for meaning, rhetorical strategies, syntax, diction, symbolism, foreshadowing, allusions, and links to life and other media. For our purposes, I’m going to do something that would make my students gasp: what if we read this story just as it is presented? Instead of saying that “sleep” in our parable is a symbol for death and instead of saying that the lamps are a metaphor for life, what if we read this as just a simple story? My students would be horrified at my simplicity, but for us here this morning, I do believe that we can find a great deal of meaning and application in our Gospel passage!

Simply put, half of our bridesmaids are unprepared for the event that is to come. While they do have their lamps, they have no fuel. They do have what they need for the short term, but they do not have what they need for a longer period of time. And it is to this lack of preparation that causes them to miss the bridegroom and be left behind the door of the marriage celebration. And for this lack of preparation Jesus calls them foolish. I would not desire to be called foolish from the Son of Almighty God.

While this story is interesting and sad, and if we aren’t to look at my metaphorically, what does it mean? What am I supposed to do with it, you ask?

Well, I believe it holds significant meaning for us. Let’s take a look. Last week we celebrated All Saint’s Day. This is a celebration of all those who have come before us in Christian commitment to God, who lived their lives for God’s Kingdom. St. Julian, St. Benedict, St. Francis, St. Patrick, St. Andrew, St. Matthew, and my favorites: St. Josemaria Escriva and St. Teresa of Avila. So, what made these individuals transcend the average and become saints? They completed every action, every movement, every word, as if Christ were beside them. Did they fail? Of course! But they persisted and prepared their lives in such a way that Christ could sit with them at any moment and their minds and mouths would speak His name.

We see this behavior, this “being present” behavior in our wise bridesmaids this week. We see them prepare their work to be ready for anything. They ready their lamps including the oil for the “just in case” scenario, and for this preparation they are rewarded. In the same way our Saints that we celebrated last week lived their lives in the same way, preparing and ordering their lives for the work Christ called them to do. For us, we are called also to be ready. Matthew 24:36 tells us that no one knows the hour that Christ will come, not even the angels. I’m sure you will agree with me that I do not want to be caught behind the door like our foolish bridesmaids. So what do I do to prepare for the Bridegroom?

Love Christ. To love Him we must know Him. Read Scripture. Talk to Him. Listen for Him. Follow His guidance. Obey Him. When He moves in your heart to speak kindness to a neighbor or a stranger, do it. Give your tithe to Him and His Church. When you have done wrong and sinned, apologize and seek forgiveness. And try not to hurt Him again.

But what else? Love your neighbor. Speak words of comfort and peace to one another. Be gentle. When you have an inclination or desire to gossip, shut up. Or walk away. Instead of looking at the wrongs and sins of others, heap your own sins in the place of another’s and therefore see our your life as unworthy.

What else? Sanctify your work. Josemaria Escriva says to devote your work as a sacrifice to God. Each of us is to complete our work, and whatever that work is, we are to do it as an act of love towards Jesus. Do I always want to deal with high school students all day long? No way! Do I really want to grade that stack of essays that seems to grow like fungus? Absolutely not!

But everything we do is a direct reflection of how we love Jesus. Every word we say to another is an echo from our heart of how much we want Jesus. Will we fail? Yes. But we must keep trying. Jesus wants us to be wise. He wants us to be prepared. If we want to love Jesus and we want to be wise, no word of comfort and no act of preparation is too much for Jesus, is it?

Let us pray. Almighty God, You cause all things to come under your power. Enliven our hearts with a desire for you. Strengthen our hands to work for you. Guard our tongues that we may love others as you love them. Forgive us when we fail in our preparation. Draw us closer to you as we seek you in attitude, word, and work. In the name of Jesus your Son. Amen.

What is Ascetical Theology?

An old bible on a wooden table

Benedict of Nursia wrote that a monastic must have three intentional qualities of life in devotion to God: stabilitas , obedientia , and conversio morem. These behaviors — no, relationship-bearing vows — are what anchor a person to an ascetic life. One must be in a consistent church body home in which there is accountability and vulnerability. Douglas Burton-Christie said that “cultivating attachment to a place involves a personal response. It means entering into relationships of mutual commitment and responsibility, becoming part of a community.” One must also be under the obedience of, in Benedict’s understanding, an abbot; this submission allows the potential destruction of those human, sin-filled aspects of a man that causes separation from God. FP Harton said that “love issues in obedience, and obedience is the exercise of love.” St. Josemaria Escriva instructs, “If obedience does not give peace, you have pride.” Quite a convicting barb, St. Escriva! Finally, Benedict understood that one should be converted daily to the will of God and should put to death every shadow of our human existence that is not of God. “This realization of your own unworthiness will drive out of your heart all unreasonable interest in other people’s affairs and criticism of their actions, and will compel you to l look at yourself alone, as though there were no one in existence but God and yourself,” Walter Hilton, The Ladder of Perfection.

Anglican spirituality is a distinct expression of our passion for God in terms of how we enter God’s presence and reside within His mercy. It grew from the New Testament church and from the reflections of St. Augustine. There are three ways that Anglicans typically worship: through the partaking of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ through the weekly Eucharist, through the order of the Daily Office, and through personal prayers. These behaviors infuse our lives with the Creator and offer an opportunity for constant and consistent communion, both literally and metaphorically. Martin Thornton stated that there are six characteristics of Anglicanism: consistency in balancing piety with learning, insistence on the unity of the whole church, unique humanism in which extremism is avoided, a grounding of theology in both Holy Scripture and the BCP, a desire for habitual recollection of God’s love, and a longing for spiritual direction. These characteristics seek to offer boundaries for our daily life and give us cause for our work, study, and prayer.

How, then, do we live as a monastic and under Benedict’s Rule if we are not physically in a monastery? The answer: We may even still commit our life to the ascetic movement seeking always to live in community, obedience, and Divine conversation. Regarding the first of Benedict’s rule of work, FP Harton said in The Elements of the Spiritual Life, “Adoration passes over into life and makes every action, no matter how secular or commonplace, an act of worship, directed, not only to the practical end in view, but primarily to the service of God.” Within work there is a yearning to return to God in prayer. However, it is just in those moments that we are able to see God in the work and the yearning is satisfied. Additionally, Martin Thornton said, “Christian perfection may be found in divine contemplation but it may also be achieved in the faithful performance of the ordinary duties of everyday life, the truth which Brother Lawrence was later to make so familiar and which Hilton expresses in the warning to people not to tend God’s head and neglect his feet.”

Regarding Benedict’s second rule of study, Padre Pio said, “In books we see God, in prayer we find him.” We experience the resonance of God in study; we see evidence of His work within the lives and actions of others, and we recognize that proof of Him. Harton said, “Love is always accompanied by knowledge.” With knowledge comes understanding and awareness; love grows in the awareness because our hungry soul is nourished. Escriva said in The Way, “It’s good for you to put such determination into your study, as long as you put the same determination into acquiring interior life.” In this Escriva instructs us to have balance. It is easy for us to focus on the tangibility of studies against the intangible and, at times, frustrating interior life during its dark nights. Further, Escriva offers, “Study. Obedience. Non multa, sed multum — not many things, but well.”

Regarding the final rule from Benedict of prayer, in “The Dance of the 13 Veils” Fr. John-Julian stated, “It is only when one makes a relentless and unswervingly concrete commitment to prayer that it becomes possible for God even to begin to act significantly in that life.” Also, Walter Hilton reflected in Ladder, “Devote all your energies to prayer, so that your soul may come to a real perception of God; that is, that you may come to know the wisdom of God, the infinite might of Our Lord Jesus Christ, His great goodness in Himself and towards His creatures.” Make no mistake, prayer and the interior life are anything but simple, but there is a simplicity and purity in breathing for prayer. Archbishop Michael Ramsey said, “Your prayer then will be a rhythmic movement of all your powers, moving into the divine presence in contemplation and moving into the needs of the people in intercession. In contemplation you will reach the peace and stillness of God’s eternity, in intercession you will reach into the rough and tumble of the world of time and change.” Finally, Thomas Merton offered, “Prayer then means yearning for the simple presence of God, for a personal understanding of His word, for knowledge of His will, and for capacity to hear and obey him. It is thus something much more than uttering petitions for good things external to our own deepest concerns.”

For Anglican Asceticism, it seems that Walter Hilton joined these two topics well in The Ladder of Perfection: “So whatever form of prayer, meditation, or activity leads you to the highest and deepest experience of Him, will be the means by which you may best seek and find Him.” As Anglicans we are to seek Him in community through our corporate prayers and our requests to the community of saints on our behalf. We are to understand and acknowledge “our misdoings; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable” and to recognize that when we approach the Table of the Mass we are not “trusting in our own righteousness [… and] we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under [His] table.” We are also to “go forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.” As Ascetics we long to live and breathe in the Holy One; as Anglicans we choose intentionality in our worship and liturgy which brings us to God’s throne of grace.

Choose an individual or time period which you feel is important in the development of Ascetics/Christian Spirituality.

Within the medieval years of the 1300s, the church was “sated with worldliness and honeycombed with corruption” and “the Catholic Church [was] watching for a spiritual awakening.”

God and Trinity

Two chapters from Alister McGrath’s Christian Theology: An Introduction focuses on the doctrines of God and of the Trinity.

The first concern addressed is the doctrine of God. McGrath offers the minor theory that God might not be male and quickly moves forward. He identifies the “personhood” of God through such philosophers as Tertullian, Spinoza, and Buber. These offered what God’s love towards man looked like while retaining His omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence (199-203). McGrath discusses the emotions of God, namely the possibility for God to suffer. Continue reading “God and Trinity”

Marriage and Divorce

Part 1: Culture

We live in a culture that wants permanency, expects stability, desires equality. We also live in a culture that appreciates newness, anticipates change, values improvement. When we apply these aspects of life in general to the specific topic of marriage, the water can become muddied and difficult to navigate. In a culture that values upgrades — cell phones, cars, houses — it seems to be a rare occurrence to find couples who have been married for 15, 20, 50 years. It seems we live in a disposable society, and marriage is being entered into as an event and situation that can be deleted as easily as an unwanted email can be deleted from our inbox.

A while back, I was staying with my folks for a week, and as I do not have television at my home, we spent an evening glued to the tv watching crime dramas and the like. We watched an episode of Chicago Fire, and a sub-plot involved two couples divorcing, and the woman from one couple and the man from the other couple getting together. The day after her divorce was final, she and the man spent 48 hours in bed together. When the man got together with a buddy, the buddy high fived the man for his “getting out there” and, well, responding how men do…  I questioned what that interaction is illustrating about societal values: no sense of “loss” after divorce and “hooking up” is something to be cheered and encouraged.

It seems to me that there is a belief or an assumption that anything that does not bring us happiness or satisfaction or something more than our next door neighbor is getting is worth throwing away. And what is included in that list is marriage. I read an article in the local paper this last weekend that spoke of the difference between marriage and holy matrimony. The basic idea is that “marriage” is a contract and is grounded in The Declaration of Independence: “all men are created equal” and are to have unalienable rights to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness,” and if that one party does not hold up their end of the bargain, that contract can be broken; conversely, holy matrimony is a covenant between two people and God the Father and shall be respected and honored and not be broken.

While I would like to definitively state what our culture values in terms of marriage, I cannot. A marriage like my parents, 46 years, is sadly the exception and not the norm. I am not sure what our culture values right now in terms of marriage, and based on what we see from those in the limelight (Hollywood and those in politics specifically), I’m not sure we have the role models to illustrate what those values are and how those values are demonstrated.

Part 2: Biblical Expectations

How does the Bible view divorce and remarriage?  The books of Matthew and Mark approach this issue differently.

How I view divorce in Biblical terms is found in Matthew 5 and Matthew 19: one may divorce as infidelity as cause. I also add abuse (sexual, physical, mental) as cause as well, though I am unsure if the Bible specifically states this. Feinberg and Feinberg notes that porneia refers to many types of “sexual impurity” (page 598), and to that definition I agree.

We are given the image of the husband as the head of the family as Christ is the head of the church in Ephesians 5. In that passage it is also made clear that the wife is to submit to the husband and hold him with respect and reverence with the assumption that she be accountable to her husband as she would be accountable to Christ.

This passage makes the assumption that those persons are believers. I also hold the passage in 2 Corinthians 6 that we are not to be yoked to unbelievers. Though this passage could infer any type of union which involves a stated or understood contract– marriage or business — it is important to reference this Biblical instruction here. If a marriage is begun with the man and woman not having a foundation of God, there will likely be additional problems to address throughout the life of the marriage.

 

 

What I Heard from the Pulpit

Had I been given both of my grandmothers’ first names, I would have been Nellie Margie.  Thanks Mom and Dad for looking ahead into my future and bestowing your mothers’  middle names to me so that I am Janie Layne.

When I was growing up, my friends wanted to be “Beth” or “Liz” instead of “Elizabeth.”  But not me.  I loved my name.  I understood that it was a piece of my heritage, and I never dreamed to be called anything differently.  In my mind — and my heart — to change my name would be to deny my grandmothers.  And I wouldn’t dare entertain that idea.

However, I would have also loved my name had I been born a boy.  I would have received both of my grandfathers’ names.  Stephen Forest.  Ah!  What a bold, strong, honest name! Continue reading “What I Heard from the Pulpit”

Simon Chan

In his text Spiritual Theology  Simon Chan addresses these topics: nature of spiritual theology, doctrine of God, nature of sin, and elements in salvation.

Chan states that spiritual theology is quite different from spirituality: “spirituality is the lived reality, whereas spiritual theology is the systematic reflection and formalization of that reality” (16). Spirituality could be a cause someone believes in; spiritual theology desires growth using the Bible and experience as anchors (18). Spirituality must be comprehensive, cohesive, and evocable to be a significant system (22-24). Chan discusses the ecclesiologies within various liturgically diverse traditions recognizing inherent benefits and insufficiencies (30-39). Continue reading “Simon Chan”

Amos

We recall Joshua asking the people, “Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living” (24:15).

We recall God destroying two peoples with fire from the heavens: “Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven” (Gen. 19:24). Continue reading “Amos”

What I Heard from the Pulpit…

Don’t get tripped up on the piddly things that you lose sight of the deeper issues.

In Sunday’s sermon, Fr. John referenced the Gospel text in which the Canaanite woman went to Jesus and asked for help for her demon-possessed daughter.  The disciples got angry, however, and urged Jesus to get rid of her:  she was a Canaanite and she was female…a double whammy.   Continue reading “What I Heard from the Pulpit…”

Julian of Norwich

Addressing the introduction to Julian’s Showings is a challenging task, indeed. Edmund Colledge and James Walsh have densely packed their research of the text noting the differences between the Short Text and the Long Text, Julian’s theology and exegesis of her showings, her keen development of the rhetorical style, the role of contemplation, and the dichotomy that inherently exists in God’s movement within fallen man. Continue reading “Julian of Norwich”

Lamentations

Nestled amongst the major prophets of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel lies the small but powerful book of Lamentations. While the prophets offer the dooming judgment of Almighty God upon Israel and Judah, trapped within the chaos and devastation of their own making, Lamentations allows a glimpse of the raw, exposed emotions of Jerusalem and their cry to The Almighty. This book is a nation — an entire race of people — in agony and despair recognizing its responsibility and ownership in its current depravity and rejection by God. Continue reading “Lamentations”

Tend Your Flock

Reading Archbishop Michael Ramsey’s work The Christian Priest Today again as I am a secondary English teacher in a private Christian school, our text jumps and pops with relevance, direction, and encouragement!

What speaks to me most significantly is Ramsey’s direction to, “Tend the flock in your charge” (pg 69). As a leader Ramsey understands that we will be faced with many opportunities for growth, challenge, and strife that will include generational, political, social, and financial differences. Ramsey challenges us to behave with balance and temperance (pg 50) as we will need to see all aspects of whom we are leading and where we envision our “end point” (if there IS one) will be. Continue reading “Tend Your Flock”

Jeremiah

The Book of Jeremiah makes its mark upon the canon by speaking of the iniquity of the people in clear and devastating terms, the anguish and fury of God, and the subsequent ripple effect that iniquity causes throughout the land and the ages.

The book opens with a series of lamentations from the people to God. These repeatedly elaborate upon the suffering of the people. Yet it is in verse 2:19 that the reader glimpses the heart of God and His desire to separate Himself from His people because of their sin and His heartache at their denial of Him: “Your wickedness will punish you, and your apostasies will convict you.” It is as a direct result of their sin that they are punished lest anyone claim otherwise; this shows God’s desire for clarity as well as complete burden of blame upon the people. Continue reading “Jeremiah”

Discernment

In spite of the physical shortcomings, the emotional health, the socio-economic status, the age, the depth of spiritual maturity, and even the wavering strength of the individual, God will have His way. There is no reason or what we might consider as a barrier to Him who will see completion of His design. He is relentless and patient. He knew angry Jonah, stuttering Moses, laughing Sarah, and young Samuel. He knew Mary. He knew them even when they were knit in their mothers’ wombs. His fierce intention to complete His work and His awareness of who He chose to complete that work is a testament to His perfect plan. Continue reading “Discernment”

Margery Kempe

Described as “a ‘wet blanket in any company which was innocently enjoying itself,’ ” such is Margery Kempe according to a source included in Anthony Bale’s introduction to her Book. Bale offers an objective — if not twinged with tongue-in-cheek — observation of Kempe’s colorful life. Continue reading “Margery Kempe”

Proverbs

The book of Proverbs is distinct from other texts in the canon in that it offers to bridge the gap between the laws from God and the motivational behavior of the people. To put this writing into context of the Old Testament so far (succinctly): the Pentateuch seeks to establish creation, God’s relationship with man, and His laws and consequences of breaking said laws. Proverbs enters the canon as a behavioral-based text for those seeking to follow and delight in God, specifically the benefits of adhering to God’s commands. Continue reading “Proverbs”