Wonderings and Reflections:
“Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart….”
On Friday, Beloved, I got a phone call from our daughter Meg who was teaching at SPASH. She was calling to see if I might be able to pick up our grandson Gus, if needed, since all schools in the District were in a “lockdown.” A threat had been received, so in lockdown mode nobody can come in or go out---for the safety of students and staff.
My heart began to race a bit, and of course, I became distracted by the thought that Meg, our granddaughter Annahleah, and all the lovely folks I know from the Beloved Community who are students and staff in the School District were in a position of possible danger.
And I know you can’t keep your loved ones completely safe. When I left teaching in 2008, we were already beginning to practice lockdowns and drills for if a shooter entered the school building. And I also know there are some folks who would rather I not talk about gun violence because it often leads to a conversation about gun legislation and we don’t all agree on that issue. And that’s okay; we do not need to agree on it in order to remain in community. We can disagree about what should or shouldn’t happen; we can disagree on what will or won’t help. But I would hope that we can find a way to agree on the Gospel: that Jesus came so that all might have life and have it abundantly, that God is the creator of life and calls us to be co-creators and co-sustainers of life in God’s realm.
So Friday, distracted by the threat at Stevens Point schools, I was haunted by the many interviews I have seen of residents who live in places where there have been one of the many school shootings, and those interviewed usually say: “I never thought it would happen here.”
Because most often, it’s not until it touches us that it becomes our problem to solve. And while we haven’t had a mass shooting at Stevens Point schools, or the schools in our area, and Friday’s threat was merely a hoax, thanks be to God, and we are probably saying to ourselves: “it won’t happen here,” that doesn’t mean it isn’t already touching us.
Beloved, I am so thankful for the soldiers and police officers, past and present, who have chosen to defend and protect---and by choosing that route, they know they may face AK-47s and weapons that can shoot multiple bullets before ever reloading. What a sacrifice they choose for others’ safety. God bless them. But here’s the thing, as a teacher, I never made that choice; I did not sign up for that. Our teachers today haven’t made that choice, nor have our students. This possibility of a shooting in a school building from a weapon that can wound and kill many people in mere minutes shouldn’t be possible. Simply having to go through a shooter drill, having to experience a lockdown, having to hear about students and teachers dealing with colleagues and friends murdered simply because they went to school----this alone is traumatizing. And these drills are not something we should have to practice. It isn’t something one just shakes off, and I pray to God, it doesn’t become our new “normal.”
On Friday, I was thinking of the other school shootings in just this past year where students and adults have died, and how a common response is “You are in our thoughts and prayers.” And that led me to today’s Gospel. Because I think Jesus is saying something to us today about “thoughts and prayers.”
Jesus tells us about our need to pray always and, as today’s translation puts it: not to lose heart. The Greek here can also be translated as not to have a loss of hope-----or a loss of courage (because of course courage and heart come from the same word). Another fun translation is not to be remiss or not to be slothful, idle or inactive.
So, what exactly do we promise when we say: You will be in our thoughts and prayers? Does it mean anything more than “I’ll think good thoughts and ask God to take care of you?” I think Jesus is telling us: Yes, Yes, it means more. Jesus tells us not to have a loss of courage…..not to be remiss or negligent….not to be idle and inactive. Instead, our prayer should help us to have the courage…..the courage to take the action or actions needed to not only heal the wounded, but to end the injustice.
Let’s look at this parable Jesus tells today. One way to “listen” to the Word is to ask: where is God in the story? Where am I…where is humanity in this story?
What if this judge---who doesn’t revere or obey God and who doesn’t have respect for others…..what if this judge is us---humanity? What if we are the ones who sit in judgment of others, the ones whose lives do not show reverence to God, the ones who do not have respect for others? Jesus goes even further and says this judge is “unjust” using the Greek word: adikias which means unjust, unrighteous, vicious, deceitful…..” Maybe the simplest way to think of unrighteousness and injustice is any way of being or acting which opposes or works against God’s plan for abundant living for all of Creation. And then, friends, then I think we can safely say that all too often humanity fits this description.
And if humanity is this unjust judge….what if that persistent widow is God. God who repeatedly and persistently comes and knocks on the judge’s heart saying: Get justice for me! Get justice for me.
Get justice and enact righteousness on the issues of gun violence and school shootings. God knocks persistently, asking us to grant justice against God’s opponents of poverty, homelessness, warfare, refugees and immigrants being kept in cages, racism, white supremacy, our climate crisis and the disappearance of entire animal species, incarceration for profit, bullying, and the genocide of indigenous peoples…..Beloved, the list is far too long. And God is knocking; God is calling out: Grant me justice against my opponent!”
Beloved, do not lose heart for as the Talmud states, "Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly now, love mercy now, walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
Jesus promises us that God hears our cries, day and night, and God works for justice with swiftness.
And today, Beloved, Jesus asks us, we who are God’s living agents of justice in the world today, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?
2 Kings 5:1-15; Luke 17:11-19
A foreign, slave girl helps her master and for her kindness---what does she receive? We don’t know. That’s all we are told about her. She sends Naaman in the right direction for healing.
And it’s Naaman’s connection to the King (who sends him to another King who isn’t the answer, but at least this King has a wise prophet healer in his land) that eventually affords Naaman the ability to be connected to the healer. The healer who is connected to God.
Of course, Naaman thought money could buy his healing, so he brought a lot of it. But, not as helpful as he had hoped. However, his connections were helpful. Naaman’s connection to the King led to the invitation to be seen by the healer in Samaria.
If Naaman had not been connected, what would have happened? If it was the young, foreign, slave girl with the disease--would she have been allowed to go to the healer? While it seems this healer would have seen her no matter what---Elisha doesn’t seem to be moved by power or by money, but seemingly by God’s vision of wholeness and wellness for all of Creation, Elisha probably would have met with and worked toward the healing of this young, foreign, slave girl. Even without the connection, without the money, without the power.
But that girl would never have gotten there. She is oppressed. She is owned. She is a slave, a possession. There are systemic obstacles in her way that do not afford her the privilege to meet with the healer.
This story of healing, of the path to wholeness---this story, to me, sounds much like our world. Where it often takes power, privilege, position and money to be able to access the means to wholeness and wellness.
It reminds me of our world today because there was a bit of a Facebook viral firestorm this week---all surrounding a short video of Ellen DeGeneres. Ellen attended the Packers-Cowboys game and was sitting in the same stadium box seats as George W. Bush. And they were laughing. So people started to say: Why is a liberal gay democrat sitting next to a conservative Republican President? The video on Facebook was a clip Ellen on her show explaining that Bush is her friend and that she has more than one friend with whom she disagrees. She thinks people can be friends even if they have different beliefs. And she said she takes her show-ending motto: Be kind pretty seriously. She believes being kind to one another is important—even despite our difference of beliefs. A very Kingdom living declaration---and thus I shared the video on Facebook.
And then the day after this video went viral, many folks who are in, or who are allies of, the LGBTQ community voiced their opposition to Ellen’s statements. They stated it was spoken from a position of privilege and wealth. More than a few folks I know quoted a Black American author who wrote about the oppression of Racism, James Baldwin, as a response to Ellen’s description of being friends with George Bush and to being friends with people of differing beliefs. Baldwin’s quote says: “We can disagree and still love each other, unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and my right to exist.”
And, Beloved, I gotta tell you that I love that quote….I do. I have posted it myself in the past. I don’t believe anyone has the right to oppress others and to deny another’s humanity and right to exist. But, now, I also don’t know what to do with that quote. One of my dearest friends posted that quote, and for the first time I thought: And then what? You’re right, Mr. Baldwin….if one’s disagreement is rooted in oppression and denial of a person’s humanity and right to exist---then that disagreement should be silenced. But, then what? Where does that leave us? What do we do with the person?
I think Ellen is right that we need to be kind to one another---treat people as we wish to be treated----even if we think they are abhorrent idiots. Because our kindness is about who we are, not who they are. That’s grace.
But, I hear my LGBTQ siblings who do not have the power and the position of Ellen, and who, like the young, foreign slave girl—who still have a lot of systemic obstacles in their way and are not afforded the invitation to healing. Who will have to fight and claw and find a way to break out of the oppression they are under in order to move toward healing---freedom---to be made whole. Frankly, the oppression they experience in their lives often doesn’t leave room enough to take the deep breath needed to offer grace to someone who is oppressing them. Because in this story, Ellen is Naaman. She may have once been more like the young girl, but she finds herself in a different position now. She has a place at the table (or perhaps we should say in the stadium box seats). She is connected. And that’s privilege.
And so while I agree with James Baldwin-----I still wanna know: And then what? When we refuse to associate with the oppressors---then what? Do we stay on the margins? Do we all keep to our own kind? What does love require of us? Does the victim always have to be the one to “make nice?”
And then we have the healing story in the Gospel. 10 dudes who are ostracized because of a contagious skin disease. It’s illegal for them to come into the community. In some times, they had to wear bells around their necks to warn folks they were walking nearby. It’s illegal to touch them. Talk about oppression.
They have no privilege, no power, no status, no connection to a King who leads them toward healing. What’s a leper going to do? Go directly to the source.
But, here’s the thing: in the Gospel the source is out and about, making himself available. Jesus isn’t in a clinic or a synagogue. Jesus is out walking---on the border----as Jesus does. Crossing borders. And so these outcasts can approach the Messiah, the Anointed One, and ask for mercy. No obstacles to wholeness here. Jesus is walking and working outside of the system. Breaking laws and touching lepers.
The Kingdom of God has come near.
Those who are oppressed---like our LGBTQ siblings whose right to be protected as human beings was actually up for debate in the Supreme Court this week---again, talk about oppression---those who are oppressed need this kind of Gospel scenario----no obstacles to wellness and wholeness. They need the weight of oppression to be removed from them. They need, and deserve, the sources of healing and freedom to be readily available.
Beloved, we all do. That’s the point. Not just those with connections or power or money. The ones acting as God’s agent in each story---Elisha and Jesus---they each were freely willing to heal, to touch, to restore. In the Gospel, by moving out and about and crossing borders, Jesus removes the systemic obstacles.
But that oppressed, enslaved, young foreign girl? She might know the answer (and bless her she shares that answer with her oppressor), but she wouldn’t have the same clear pathway as Naaman.
So Ellen is like Naaman with his wealth and connections, and she no longer has the same obstacles to seeking wholeness as the young, foreign, slave girl does.
But, come to think of it, Ellen is like the young, foreign slave girl too. She shares the answer with her oppressor. She affords him a grace he does not particularly deserve. After all, George W. Bush backed a constitutional amendment to forbid marriage between two people of the same gender. Bush has been one of Ellen’s oppressors.
I don’t know where he stands now on this issue. I don’t know what he thinks. But, here’s what I do believe: Relationships change things. Relationships can dismantle ignorance and prejudice. Relationships can remove the scales from our hearts and our eyes. I hope that’s what Ellen’s relationship with George Bush is doing. But I don’t know. Does Ellen have privilege? Oh yes. She does. Does that privilege afford her some space to take breaths that many of her LGBTQ siblings don’t have. Yes it does.
I don’t know what the answer is. I think it may be a balance of both. After all, Jesus not only turned over tables in righteous anger in order to overturn the system, he also sat down to dinner with the Pharisees. But I don’t think we can ask both of each person involved in the struggle. Some have the capacity to overturn tables, and only some have the capacity to take the deep breath to offer grace. But both things can lead to healing.
We are not living the Gospel in its fullness yet. There are still obstacles between the lepers and Jesus in our world and in our systems. Ours is more like the story from the Old Testament. Where knowing the right folks, having the right connections, and having silver in our pockets gives us confidence that we will get what we are seeking. But, let’s not forget the grace of that young, foreign, slave girl. Who pointed her oppressor in the right direction---a merciful act of kindness.
None of this is simple. I don’t have any answers. But let’s keep listening. And seeking. Following this life-giving, loving, and liberating God. And always, always, turn our eyes upon Jesus, knowing that healing is continuously offered by this God who loves us unceasingly and unreservedly. And let us remember: we are the living Body of Christ in this world, called and Anointed to bring healing to the Nations. This is who we are, Beloved.
Living the Way of love, the Way of Jesus, requires learning to see how God sees, to move as God moves, and to love as God loves. Our human nature does not always align with God’s nature, so living the Way of Love actually requires unlearning. And new understandings require us to let go of previous truths, previous ways of being, previous knowledge. And that is hard. So we usually avoid it.
Following Jesus as a disciple, then, is about taking up practices, particularly those of worship, study, giving and service, so we can relearn and realign ourselves with God’s other-centered way of being, instead of remaining in our human self-centered way of being.
Today’s readings bring to the forefront our struggle between how we see and how God sees, how we move and how God moves---and how they are often not the same thing.
Take today’s epistle, for example, from Paul’s first letter to Timothy. While the reading is about having a life of prayer---there is one line in it, that doesn’t really have much to do with prayer, that just stops me in my tracks: “Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all”
This Christian truth is often broken down to the billboard or the bumper sticker: Jesus died for our sins. But what on earth does that mean? Because we all know that Jesus’ death didn’t just take away sin, right? Evil wasn’t really conquered once and for all on that day. So, it can’t be a simple debt paid now we can move on kind of thing.
Since the 11th century, one understanding, or theory of this quote, is called the substitutionary atonement theory, or penal atonement theory. You may not know the name, but you know the theory: God was angry with humanity; we owed a debt to God for our sin, someone had to be punished for our wickedness, and no human could really pay that debt, so Jesus, as both human and the Son of God, paid it for us. Sound familiar?
It does to me: I sang it at camp and have sung it in bands and at Sunday services for the past 20 years: Lord I lift your name on high, Lord I love to sing your praises, I’m so glad you’re in my life, I’m so glad you came to save us. You came from heaven to earth to show the way, from the earth to the cross my debt to pay, from the cross to the grave, from the grave to the sky, Lord I lift your name on high.
Not only do I know the song, I know the accompanying gestures. I’ve song it in the car, in the choir, in the shower, at prayer, humming it under my breath as I walk along and go about my day. Not stopping to really think about what I was singing. And Beloved, 90% of this song is wonderful; it’s just that one line: My debt to pay. What does that mean? Who is the captor? To whom am I in debt? If Jesus paid it, then where’s the freedom?
And it’s not just more contemporary songs. How many of us grew up singing: Onward Christian Soldiers marching as to war with the cross of Jesus going on before….?
Maybe you’re thinking: Who cares…..you’re overthinking this, preacher. What does this have to do with me, my life, our life together? But, indulge me a little and let’s unpack this a bit. This understanding of a God who is angry with humanity so Jesus is punished to right our wrong and pay our debt, this theory requires us to understand God as transactional. That God requires a payment and consumerism is how God works, much like how humanity works: there is a price to be paid for every commodity, every good deed, every necessity. If you want this, then you must do, or pay, that. This is how our entire economy works, right? There’s no such thing as a free lunch. And we see this understanding echoed throughout the Old Testament because this is how humanity has worked for centuries, maybe forever. We are a transactional people. You want this then you have to pay that.
But here’s the problem, while we can understand God acting that way since it is how we act, it isn’t actually the God we see in Jesus. God’s economy is not our economy. Beloved, if God’s nature is transactional then God’s love is conditional. If God’s nature is transactional, then this isn’t about grace. It’s about payment. Someone has to pay. But thanks to God, not us: Jesus! If Jesus has paid the price, then we are off the hook.
And let’s spin the yarn out a little farther. When we swallow the idea of God being transactional, then the next step is that God doesn’t love everybody no matter what…..God loves people only if……only if…….and then we arrive at who is in and who is out; we begin to determine who God loves and who God hates. We begin to think that if we follow the rules, we are in with God. And we can point our fingers to those who don’t follow the rules. After all, this is no longer about grace---a gift of love and mercy given freely by God---but it is about a transaction. If I do this, then God will do that.
And are you hearing what this means? Having a transactional God means we think our actions can control God’s responses. It’s part of the reason our hearts and minds like this theory. It makes salvation clear-cut and controllable: We do this, this and this, and we are in God’s favor and God will do that and that and that. And then, if we think we have fulfilled our part of the bargain but we are not seeing God live up to God’s part…..what’s the point?
Beloved, this theory, which is still so prevalent in our society, has been so destructive. It has led to wars and oppressions, to hatred and violence. It has led to people thinking Christianity is hypocritical and a lie. And yet, it is still a theory that is often widely accepted by factions and denominations within Christianity. It’s one of the reasons there are very different understandings of what it means to be a Christian in our society.
But our two denominations, the ELCA Lutheran and the Episcopal church, we have moved away from this theory because of its destructive outcomes. Because it changes God’s love from unconditional to conditional. Because it leaves no room for grace. Because it means that God’s nature is one of angry feudal lord who demands a payment from his people who have done wrong. This is a God who is willing to subject the innocent to torture and death.
Franciscan Duns Scotus said: “Jesus didn’t come into the world to change God’s mind about us; God so loves the world. Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God.”
So, let’s not forget the other part of today’s verse: Jesus came as a mediator. A mediator is one who attempts to make two sides see the situation in the same way. Jesus came to help us see as God sees because in Jesus God’s nature is revealed. And yes, Jesus got angry at least once and overturned the tables. Jesus showed righteous anger because the poor and the disadvantaged were being manipulated and used by the system in order to make the rich richer. Because in Jesus we see God’s nature is love, compassion, mercy (not a angry Master who demands punishment and payment). We see that God doesn’t create divisions of who is in and who is out: God sits with the sinner at the dinner table; God touches the lepers and the dead; God speaks with the woman who has been slut-shamed and outcast. God doesn’t cast out; God invites in. In Jesus, we see God crossing boundaries, breaking down barriers, turning the exclusive into the inclusive and demanding a bigger table instead of a wall because God believes all are worthy of having enough food, water, shelter, healthcare and safety.
So what do I do with this line from Scripture that clearly says: Jesus gave himself as a ransom for all? I sit with it. I listen. I learn and unlearn. I see it again---but through the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Knowing that God so loves the world and God has called all of Creation very good, that this is a God of grace who is not transactional but who is transformational, I know it can’t be ransom as just “a debt to pay.” I know our freedom doesn’t come from a military battle that only creates winners and losers. So I dig deeper.
The word for ransom, antilutron, has many layers. This is a compound word, antilutron: Anti in Greek: meaning because or on account of + lutron: redeem, deliver, release, liberate.
Jesus lives and dies because we need to be redeemed, delivered, released. This isn’t about a debt; this is about a life sentence from which we need to be liberated. Liberated from the life of transaction into the life of transformational love, the life of sacrificial love we see in Jesus. And sacrifice, in the Temple of the Old Testament, wasn’t about payment for sin but, as theologian Marcus Borg explains, sacrifice was about making something sacred or holy by giving it as a gift to God. Sacrifice in the Old Testament was not a transaction, but an offering for transformation.
The Gospels of Matthew and Mark are the only other places in Scripture that also tell us Jesus gave his life as a ransom---but in these Gospel verses we are first told that Jesus came to serve and not be served. So before we jump to our natural way of hearing ransom as a debt to be paid---an appeasement of an angry God---let’s remember the words of Jesus. Jesus tells us he is a Way to walk, a Truth to know, a Life to live. Not a simple transaction, but living a life of serving one another. Jesus as the way and truth is an offering of a life---with all its struggles, pain, joy, living and death---an offering of our lives as a gift to God in order to be made holy. Jesus is not a transaction, but a model to follow so that we, as a disciple and not a consumer, can be released from our prisons of resentment and conflict, worry and fear, by seeing and living in a whole new way.
But here’s the kicker: if I come to understand the cross in this transformational way, I have to give some things up. Unlearning requires letting go. Even letting go of songs that I have loved. Even if that song is 90% great. Because the 10% shapes me. Our words matter. Our music heavily matters because it is so formative. And more importantly, our way of seeing matters. As the Beloved Community of Lutherans and Episcopalians, we believe it’s all about grace. About unconditional love. Luke tells us that in God’s realm it is the living as Jesus, not a simple transaction, that sets us all free.
How would it change the world if we, as disciples and not consumers, lived this truth and sang this song?
When I was little, I went to a department store of some kind with my grandparents. I know it was a department store because it had those racks of clothes that were a circle---remember those? Usually they were hung with shirts or dresses…..and since I was small for my age (hard to believe, I know), I used to love to go into the middle of those clothes racks. Not quite sure why. I think I liked the feeling that it was my own space. So, I know the store that I was in with my grandparents that day was a department store because I remember being in the middle of one of those clothes racks---hidden from view---and then coming out. And quickly realizing I was lost. My grandparents were nowhere in sight.
Suddenly the world in which I had been safe and happy just a moment ago became a world in which I was lost and afraid. The environment around me quickly turned unmanageable without the safety of my grandparents. I started to cry.
Luckily, someone came and helped me and then there was an announcement over the loudspeaker saying that whoever belonged to Jane should come to the customer service desk. And then…..then I saw my grandparents hurrying over. My grandmother wrapped me in those grandma arms and I knew I was safe. The world became manageable again. Nothing had really changed. I was in the same place. But now I was found. And my grandmother’s hug, followed by grandpa’s, told me how valuable and loved I was. Found.
And I am certain that we all have similar stories. And we chuckle at our silly, childish stories as we retell them. But do we recognize how profound these stories are? This moment has stuck with me for my entire life. I mean a thousand things probably happened to me in that year of my life---but it is this memory I carry. Because this moment, this story, shaped and formed me. This seeking and finding, this moment of joy when they saw me and wrapped me in their arms----it was one of several moments that has defined me----helped me to see myself as someone who is loved and valuable---someone who would not be allowed to stay lost. Can we even begin to understand the indelible mark this leaves?
And Beloved, that Cross we mark on those who are being baptized, when we say the words: “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and Marked as Christ’s own forever,” that cross means that we are found. That cross is like a branding, an imprint, an indelible mark that declares we are loved beyond measure, valuable beyond price, worthy of relentless seeking. Like the shepherd and the woman, God knows our value---even though we ourselves may doubt it or others doubt our worth. Let’s face it; most of us wouldn’t leave the 99 to find the one or get down on our hands and knees, sweep the house and search carefully, turn on all the lights to find one coin, a tenth of what we have. We have a term for that 1 sheep, that 1 coin: Collateral damage. We believe that the effort required to gain back the loss is not worth it. Like those Pharisees and scribes we complain and murmur about folks we have judged, become filled with resentment, become blind to the inherent value of other humans, and are content to ignore their lostness. But God knows our value and refuses to give up on us, refuses to allow us to remain lost. God is the relentless seeker who never stops looking. For each and every single created thing, every human who ever took breath.
And we are all lost, let’s just be honest. Some of us are lost because we are possessed by our possessions. Some of us are lost because we disconnect and divide ourselves from our siblings and fellow beloved. Some of us are lost because greed is driving the bus. Or our resentments lead us astray. Some of us are lost because of the voices we listen to that are not God’s or because the idols we worship (power, fame, status, beauty, wealth, comfort and preferences) are actually not worthy of our worship. We are lost because we forget where home base is, who our home base is.
Remember playing those games---maybe some of you still do play them---like Kick the Can or Hide and Seek? When we used to play in my neighborhood, someone would yell: Ollie Ollie Oxen Free---Come out, Come out wherever you are! And then we would all know it was safe to come out into the open without losing the game. And we would all run in to Home Base.
Beloved, we are lost. God is seeking us. And Jesus is our Home Base. In Jesus is where we are safe; where we are home and whole. We gather as the Body of Christ so we can touch home base. We come in order to hold Jesus up in front of our eyes, through Word and Sacrament, to proclaim, witness and experience Jesus. Jesus, who is our mark, our target, the model of our truest nature. Jesus whose life, ministry and ways show us what our life, ministry and ways should like. Jesus who worships God and glorifies God by living the truth that God so loves the world. And what follows this truth is an outpouring of love, mercy, forgiveness, second chances, reconciliation, renewal, makeovers and re-dos. Return. Being found. Made whole. Shalom.
God calls us together for this Eucharistic meal not because God has some need or desire for us all to be in one space at the same time. God calls us to gather together each week because God knows we need it. We need this liturgy, these prayers, this music, this Sacrament, this Body of Christ. We need to re-member whose we are and who we are----holding ourselves up to Jesus. And then recognizing and claiming where and how we have become lost.
Without this recognition, we will continue going on our merry way, still believing we know what we are doing---saying to ourselves: I am not lost. I got this.
Remember that relay game where one person on the team puts their forehead down on the top of a bat and spins around and around the bat until someone yells stop and then you have to try to run to the other side of the room and tag the next person on your team? But of course, you are so dizzy from spinning that you fall all over yourself and the path between you and your teammate becomes a stumbling comedy. Well, the world has the same effect on us because the world is constantly leading us in different directions. The world spins us dizzy, and we become dazed and lost. We can’t walk in a straight line---we lose sight of home base.
But then, Beloved, if we listen, if we pause and take a deep breath and lean into the silence of prayer and Word, we will hear God calling out: Ollie Ollie Oxen Free! Come out come out wherever you are. It’s safe. In fact, you are already saved. So come home. Come home.
And as we come in, running with our hands outstretched, and touch and taste home base, we are liberated by love and then it’s our turn. Our turn to look up and out as the Body of Christ and call out: Ollie Ollie Oxen Free. Come out Come out wherever you are.
In her book One Coin Found, Emmy Kegler, a one-time Episcopalian but now an ELCA pastor, writes: “We too are lost and dusty coins. We have gone unnoticed, rusted from others’ indifference, misspent and misused, and our friends and leaders did not see our neglect. But God, in big and little ways, has picked up a woman’s broom and swept every corner of creation. God, in big and little ways, has tucked up her skirts and flattened herself on the floor, dug through dust bunnies and checked every dress pocket. God has found us, dustier and rustier and without any luster, and held us up to the light to say: No matter how you rolled away or what corner you were dropped in, you are mine.” (8)
Ollie Ollie Oxen free! Come out, come out wherever you are.
So one of the things I pondered during this Sabbatical time was all the ways Jesus has ruint me. Seriously. Ruint me. And, frankly Beloved, I think we all need to be ruint; liberated by Jesus in order to shine love and give life---just like Jesus.
“The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter's hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter's hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.” (Jeremiah 18)
All God’s beloved are in the potter’s hand. And when we wake to that Great Truth and Promise----we will be ruint. Transformed. Not because we are bad or not good enough, but because we are already more. We are made in the imago dei, and God desires us to live into the fullness of this reality, this Truth. We are made for so much more.
Once I began to experience the living Jesus (as opposed to the character I heard about and read about but who mostly stayed on the page and in the story), meeting the living Jesus and beginning a relationship with this One began my real transformation. I started to question the world around me with different eyes and a different heart---questioning what I had learned from society, culture, books, classrooms, teachers, parents, priests and friends---and holding those learnings up to the lens of Jesus—to the life of Jesus and the Way of Love. Seeing through the prism that is the Word.
The Word awakens us to the reality that there are many “little gods” we put before God and in place of God. First and foremost, there is greed; Greed in its many forms. The greed of wanting the most stuff, more stuff, and to keep all the stuff I already have, even if others don’t have enough. The greed of demanding that things are done my way and I am allowed, thank you very much, to live by my preferences---even though God calls us to community with a variety of preferences. The greed that is believing that because I work hard, or because I come from a good family, or because I am American, or because I am white, or because I am male, or because I am highly educated, or because I am straight or because I am…..(insert whatever lie you tell yourself here)….I deserve to have more than others. None of us are immune. Greed owns too much landscape in my heart just like anyone else.
Back when Murray was a social worker and I was a teacher, we lived paycheck to paycheck with four kids for many years, trying to pay off school and medical debt. Struggling to keep what we had and working to get more. And then you know what happened next? Ruint. Jesus did some of that re-shaping thing with the clay of our hearts. One year, when we were invited to consider how we would support Jesus’ work at our church, we decided to get serious about moving up that tithing scale instead of staying stagnant. And what really changed it for us is when we put our faith-giving at the top of our budget instead of the bottom. We decided to give to God first, instead of as a left-over. And, at first, we couldn’t give a lot more, but a little bit more. And we kept at it until we were able to give what we had been hoping. And I gotta tell you: Kingdom giving leads us into Kingdom living. Don’t get me wrong: Murray and I are not completely liberated from the stranglehold of greed, but giving first and leaning into generosity shoves that little greed demon farther and farther from the center of the heart’s throne.
Oh, Beloved, this is so very hard. Waking up can happen in a moment or it can take a lifetime. And then, Beloved, we also have to stay woke which is a 24/7 journey of repenting and returning, of re-centering and remembering. Because the truth is, staying asleep to the call of Jesus, or allowing it to be a really quiet whisper in the background instead of our main soundtrack, is so much easier, and more convenient, than waking up and turning up the volume. This is why we gather in community, in this place---because we need to swim in the waters of baptism regularly, we need to marinate in the Word, we need to forgive and be forgiven, we need to see Jesus in the friend and the stranger, the newcomer and the awkward, in the child and the elder, in the atheist and the believer. It is this life of practice and ritual, of being inconvenienced and not getting our way, of worshiping, learning and serving that moves us from our self-centered lives to the Way of Love, into the life of Jesus.
This is what becoming Beloved Community is all about: a gathering of people who are committed to awakening---to diving deep into Jesus so that we might know the Word and Be the Word and Spread the Word. Our purpose is empowering all to be able to do that one thing Jesus asks us to do: Follow Him. Follow Him. Take up the cross---lift up the brokenness of humanity upon our own selves---just as Jesus did---so that we can allow death to bring forth new life. Follow Jesus: Love all others, undeserving though they may be, but worthy are they all. And that includes us, Beloved. Don’t forget your self. Because God, the Creator, the Potter, has declared us all Worthy of this love. Faith means allowing ourselves to awaken and committing to staying woke by recognizing our lives are already in the hands of the Potter. God’s love, desire and steadfast commitment is the Grace that makes it all happen.
But, Beloved, don’t get your unicorn and lollipop stickers out just yet because knowing, loving and following Jesus, changes us. And sometimes that puts distance between us and those who knew us before. Or those who don’t know us at all, but based on our last Facebook post, hope to never meet us. Because the truth is: Jesus followers can’t walk that “Consumerism, all-for-profit, wall-out-the-foreigner, the-planet-earth-is-here-for-my-benefit, every-man-for-himself” path that society continually beckons us to walk. Jesus followers cannot serve Money and Power, or convenience and preferences, as our Master. God is our God. And God’s goal is our goal: Tikkun Olam: the healing and restoration of Creation. Jesus warns us Beloved. Hear the Word: Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14)
Pretty darn clearly, Jesus is saying: Me first. Follow Me First. Take up the cross of redemption for all of humanity, and come, follow me.
You know, in the Commandments we are told not to take the Lord’s name in vain. Growing up I learned that this meant I wasn’t supposed to say certain things like: God da*** you or Go to Hell, and then there’s the other list of words that we were never to say, but I shall not repeat them at this time. Because I actually think that’s NOT what the commandment is about at all. I think we take the Lord’s name in vain when we call ourselves Christian and decide to go about living our life as we think best anyway---even when it looks nothing like Jesus.
St. John of the Cross said something that has been at the heart of my formation as a priest and pastor: He describes community as rocks in a bag, shaken together, in order to rub one another smooth. But during my sabbatical, it occurred to me that there’s something missing from this image: the water. Like those stones from the sea, we need water as we tumble and are reshaped, reformed, resurrected and made anew. So, come, follow Jesus. Let the waters of baptism drown you, let the water in the wine renew you, let the waters of fellowship replenish you. That’s what I love about this community, and this place where all of this happens. As beautiful as all those centuries-old church buildings in England that I saw this summer were ---there was something missing. Most of them are no longer first and foremost a place where people gather to take the bread, to hear the word, to pray in community. Oh, they all still have worship gatherings in some form. But, primarily, they are museums. Places people go and pay for a ticket to see beauty, and the vastness, and the overwhelming artistic genius, but they also go to see how it “used to be.”
But, Beloved, what made me long for this day is that here I am in the midst of not how it used to be, but how it is, and how we are becoming. Becoming Beloved. Being the Beloved. Awakening to Love and gently nudging others out of the nightmare the world so often can be. Inviting all to come and see, come and follow. There’s another story to hear, another way to walk, another life to live, another way to be. Beloved, it’s good to be home.
Beloved, today Peter has his mind blown…..Pow!
God says: I am doing a new thing….and folks, God ain’t jokin….
You see, Peter had been taught by religious leaders that some things to eat are holy and some are not;
That some places and activities are sacred and some are not;
Peter had been taught to only associate with certain people---believing that some people have God’s favor and some do not.
And then the truth of God’s plan and dream break into Peter’s life and this truth about how God really desires us to live, well, this Truth is radically different from what Peter has been taught---what Peter has held as his beliefs---and this new understanding of God’s truth and love turns Peter’s world on its head. (Pow!)
So Peter responds: Who am I that I should hinder God?
To “hinder” means to prevent, to slow down, to put up a barrier…
Beloved, we cannot stop God. No one can. Nothing can. Easter proclaims that there is no power stronger or more enduring than God’s love. None. Not death. Not hate. Not violence. Not fear. Ultimately, love wins. And Beloved, when the church is truly the church……..then Presently, love wins.
But, let’s get real: we all know that we CAN prevent love; we can slow down love; we can put up barriers to love; we CAN hinder love. If we were in Peter’s situation, we might find ourselves saying: Wait! What? The Holy Spirit pours down on THOSE people? The Holy Spirit is in THAT place? The Holy Spirit is participating where exactly? Over there? Nah….can’t be…..
Again, sound familiar? Let me show you a short video…..
Beloved, as the church we are those couples in that commercial and God is calling us to be bold….to put ourselves into the midst of the stranger, what we might term as the “other”……God doesn’t call us to simply welcome the stranger…..God calls us to go out.
In fact, the Greek word for church “ek klesia” means the gathering, but it also means the ones called to go out. We are both the gathered and the sent…..sent to go out because the Holy Spirit is being poured out all over the place…….yes, poured out on over THOSE people and in THAT place….and we are called to go and participate in that work, with those people, and to go to the places the Holy Spirit is working and moving out in the neighborhood and in our world.
And let’s be honest with ourselves, many of us have a problem with the term the “other.” Because we believe that in Christ there is no us and them, there is only us. And this is true; I have often preached it, but it is more nuanced than this. This weekend, John Herder, MaryJo Laube and I had the pleasure of attending Synod Assembly, and we heard a fantastic speaker, Pastor Sunitha Mortha, an ELCA pastor who is from India, and she shared a wisdom from the theologian Miroslav Volf that I want to share with you today:
In the Body of Christ, what is removed is the HOSTILITY toward difference…..not the difference itself.
We have differences as the Body of Christ; we have differences as the human race. God doesn’t desire to erase those differences; God created those differences. What God desires, what God calls us to do, is to remove the hostility toward the difference….hostility that is often grounded in fear. Fear because our truth is that we don’t really want to believe the “other” is created in the imago dei---that same image of God in which we are created.
Because if we believe that God created all of humanity and God loves all of humanity….if we believe that God loves all of Creation and desires its vitality…….. what implications do these beliefs have on how we live? How we exercise our spending power? What does it mean for the systems and legislation we support? What implications does this have for how we treat the immigrant, the refugee, the one of different faith, the female, the mentally unhealthy, the black, the brown, the indigenous?
Beloved, who are we that we should hinder God?
And when the Holy Spirit knocks us on our head as she did to Peter in today’s reading-----then the wideness of God’s mercy blows a hole into our worldview.
And this is exactly what we need to happen…..we need our understandings to be blown open so that we can become vulnerable enough to receive God’s love, but also so that we can become vulnerable enough to share God’s love.
But for that to happen, like Peter we have some work to do. First, we must unlearn some things we have learned. Even as the Church, maybe especially as the Church. The Church hasn’t always gotten it right, and I am pretty sure we will continue to get it wrong from time to time. But, like Peter, can we be open to a new thing? Can we hold our learning with a bit of lightness so that there is room for the Holy Spirit to continue to work….on us? And for us? And through us?
Secondly, like Peter, we are called to deep listening. We are to deeply listen to those who don’t see and know the world as we do. And we are to listen without the assumption that our way is the best way or the only way or the right way. It is a way. But there are others: Other ways with richness and goodness and beauty. Beloved, listening to the other is listening to the Body of Christ. A part of the Body that may look differently or sound differently or believe differently than us. Rather than listening with judgment, can we move from curiousity? Like Mary, can we sit at their feet and learn?
For then we will hear and see, like Peter and anyone else in Scripture who is paying attention, that God works on the margins; God works on the edges. God comes to the least expected and into the midst of the most unexpected places---shining grace, mercy, jaw-dropping love and life-giving restoration.
Nick and Allison, this is the journey, this is the life, that Tatumn and Jersey are joining today. Not because before today they weren’t God’s children but because today, as their parents, you are saying YES to God’s claim on them and on you. This is a journey of learning and unlearning, learning and re-learning, a journey of deep listening, recalculating, returning and turning. A journey in which we learn to expect the unexpected because God’s grace is always at the center and is the ground on which we stand.
And from this grace-filled center, as we continue to allow our minds and hearts to be blown wide open by God’s audacious love, we hear God calling us to new people, new places, new situations and new understandings; God calling us into the only mission that matters: At-One-Ment. Unity with God and Unity with all people for that is how Creation flourishes. This is how Creation becomes sustainable. Oneness. Through Love. Love that is the working toward the vitality of all created things and all people.
Today, Swain family, we promise to accompany you all----in mutuality. We won’t always get it right. We will probably even disappoint you from time to time. But, we promise to stay at the table with you---to remain committed to you, to Tatumn and Jersey, and to one another. We promise to gather in worship, study and service that will break our hearts and minds open so that we can hear God’s dream and we can see where and how God is already at work. We promise to remain open to learning and unlearning, to deep listening, to expecting to find God on the edges, at the margin, in the most unexpected faces and places.
As Henri Nouwen wrote: To pray…..to listen to the voice of the One who calls us “Beloved” is to learn that that voice excludes no one.”
Beloved, the Holy Spirit is being poured out all over the place. What do you say? Let’s get drenched.
Once the chocolate bunnies are eaten, and the eggs have all been found, and the Easter grass from the baskets is finally no longer dangling in the most absurd of places…….what happens next?
The claim today is that Jesus lives. Really? After the church takes the time to make certain we tell the story of Jesus’ death not once, but twice, in this past week---now we are supposed to believe that Jesus lives? Really?
And, okay, let’s say I fall for that. That I am willing to set aside all logic and reason and enter the mystery and buy the story that Jesus rises from the dead, that life comes from death………and now what? What’s the point? How does believing resurrection make any difference in my life, in your life, in this world?
Well, friends, I hate to tell you this, but I don’t think believing in resurrection is just about getting into heaven. The God of Holy Scripture, the one who forgives the criminals on the cross, who forgives the ones who nail Jesus’ hands to the tree, the God who runs out to meet us after we have disowned him, who leaves 99 to find the wandering and lost one, the God who restores our sight and who heals us so we can walk again after we have crippled ourselves through self-centered choices and greedy decisions, this God of Holy Scripture does not seem very intent on creating a party list to decide who is in and who is out. Instead, this God seems insistent on inviting every last one of us to the banquet---even the one who takes his thirty pieces of silver and betrays with a kiss.
What does it mean then? Why make certain we hear of Jesus’ death if we are only going to be asked to believe that Jesus lives? How do we know Jesus lives? Why would any sane and reasonable person be willing to believe in, to practice, resurrection?
Beloved, God gives us Jesus, this parable of a human life that is meant to help us understand our own lives, so that we can believe that the deaths we face everyday do not have the final word. God gives us resurrection so that we can trust that the tombs of greed, of war, of hatred, the graves of bigotry, of poverty and of indifference DO NOT GET TO HAVE THE ULTIMATE AUTHORITY IN OUR LIVES. The stones can be rolled away from these death traps.
Because Jesus lives.
When we refuse to move from fear and anger, Jesus lives.
When we create, vote for, and sustain systems that insure everyone has food, shelter, healthcare, and clean water, systems and laws that recognize every person is equally worthy of having enough: Jesus lives.
When we choose to put an end to violence and vengeance as the cross teaches us, instead of responding with humanity’s sense of justice and move instead from God’s justice of mercy and forgiveness, Jesus lives.
When we recognize that this fragile earth, our island home, isn’t here to serve us but we are here to serve, to tend to and protect her and all the treasures of this Creation, Jesus lives.
When we demand that black lives matter, yes all lives matter, but we know that some lives are privileged and others are not and Jesus has shown us that we are to cross the boundaries and be mindful of and seek to strengthen the status of those who are de-priviliged and weakened and held as less valuable by societal structures, laws, and prison systems, so when we demand that black lives matter, Jesus lives.
When we go to the border and meet the refugee and immigrant with food and water, shelter and healthcare because as we look across the barbed wire we do not see a threat to our own prosperity, but we see a sibling who is created in the same likeness in which we are created, the image of God, when we build a longer table rather than erecting a higher wall, then Jesus lives.
This isn’t political; this isn’t about being republican or democrat, this isn’t about being American or patriotic. This is Gospel. This is about our primary citizenship as members of God’s Kingdom.
So when we stop hoarding, out of fear that somehow we are not going to have enough or we are not going to have as much (preferably more) as our neighbor, and we quit allowing our possessions to possess us, and we look up from our screens and see beloved siblings instead of simply seeing someone else who has something I want or think I need or someone else who got better than me or someone else who has an advantage or comfort that I don’t have, when we look up and out and recognize that we are one thread in this beautiful tapestry of Creation and we actually need all these other threads---even the wonky, crooked, funky-colored ones, then Jesus lives.
When we remove ourselves from the center and put God back on the throne of our hearts and at the center of our lives, Jesus lives. Because then we see differently, hear differently, understand differently. We are atoned---brought back into alignment with God and with one another---made whole and well, even if our bodies and minds still have cracks and dis-ease and dis-comfort. And Jesus lives.
Beloved, we are the Living Body of Christ in the world. Christ has no other hands and feet but ours. We are the beating heart of the One who redeems, the one who saves, the One who lives. Beloved, practice resurrection. Show the world that Jesus lives.a
Today we hear some Pharisees warn Jesus: Careful, Jesus, you better take off because Herod is looking to catch you and kill you. And Jesus tells them: Well, you go and tell that Fox I’ve got work to do: healing, casting out evil, making folks whole and well, I will not be distracted. I’m gonna keep doing me.
According to Jesus, Herod, the person with the power, the one who has authority, who rules through the laws, Herod is a Fox. And Jesus refers to himself as a hen. This is not a slip of the tongue, but a deliberate message to the ones listening and to us today. For the hen, after all, is a chicken—the prey of the fox, the one foxes eat for breakfast. And, interestingly enough, in that patriarchal culture, Jesus identifies himself with a female image because God is neither male nor female—a Truth we still struggle with today since so very much of our language for God is not gender-neutral, but male dominated.
Jesus presents himself in this female image---the one who is meant to be seen as weak and vulnerable in the picture---and declares that it is this “vulnerable and weak” way of being that he trusts with his entire life. Jesus makes clear that his role is to gather the even more vulnerable ones under his wing---to place them there for protection, for healing, for refuge….to insure they have a future with the Fox lurking around every corner.
And Jesus laments: O Jerusalem, Jerusalem…..you will not see me….. Jesus laments that God’s beloved people do not see him for who he is, that God’s beloved refuse to be gathered in, that God’s beloved allow themselves to be the people of the Fox instead of the people of the One who Saves.
Beloved: we need to hear this Gospel today. The Fox is prowling all around us. This past week, the Fox declared himself in a Great manifesto with the claim that the Internet contains all the great truths, and the truths this Fox believes, the truth this Fox acted upon this past Friday in New Zealand are the lies of “an Internet subculture of extreme anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, white supremacist ideology” (the Washington Post, 3/15/2019). And because of listening to this rhetoric of hate, separation, and division, Brenton Harrison Tarrant decided that nobody was doing enough to stop immigrants, to stop what he called “the genocide of white people,” so he decided to take violent action, and now 49 people have been gunned down while praying in their mosques. Our muslim siblings have been killed, and many have been wounded, and all of them have been terrorized.
And we woke up on Friday morning and heard the news, and we lamented and shook our heads and asked: What are we to do? When will it end?
Beloved, let us hear and see Jesus today. Jesus has been going around healing, praying with folks, bringing in the outcast, sharing meals with all kinds of disreputable folks, building relationships and putting himself and God’s truth and love out there. And when they told him the Fox was prowling, Jesus says: I am going to keep doing what I do. I’m gonna be me. I am not going to run or hide or become afraid to do what I do. I’m going to heal, I’m gonna pray with folks, I’m gonna bring in the outcast and eat meals with anyone who will come to the table. I’m gonna build relationships and put God’s truth and love out there. Because this is how we silence the Fox. This is how we gather all God’s people under the wings of the One who saves.
Beloved, Brenton Harrison Tarrant is not some incomprehensible anomaly. Brenton was born like the rest of us---a baby who is a sponge for learning. And somehow, in Brenton’s life, he learned that white people deserve to be privileged, they deserve to be the ones who hold the power, they are the ones who deserve to have all the stuff. And Brenton also learned that those who are not white: the immigrant, the Muslim, the brown, the black, the Asian--- these ones are a threat to Brenton and to all white people, simply by being, by breathing. Brenton concluded that if we are not going to be smart enough to separate ourselves from these non-white people, then Brenton’s work was to wipe them out from society.
Beloved, if Jesus is our Yes, then we must provide the Brentons of this world a different vision and understanding. We must, like Jesus, live our truth that all God’s people, all the Created, are equally valuable and worthy of having enough. And we must do it loudly, and in every public square and arena. The volume needs to be turned up, and the volume must come from sources other than “good Christians” simply reciting it in our prayers, or declaring our Creeds, or renewing our Baptismal vows. We must live this truth with our words and our actions. We must live it with our laws, with our institutions and our systems. We are being called to take a long, hard look at what has always been and to recognize where and how we privilege those who are white. Our systems, our laws, our economic system, our housing situation---all of it bends in favor of those who are white and those who have economic advantages. We are being called to consider how that sense of “white privilege” lives within us.
Even though we have been taught and we take pride in America being a “melting pot,” there are numerous signs around us that many people in our country are afraid of the truth that America is, and indeed has always been, multicultural with different hues and different languages, different beliefs, and different customs. Last year, the shooter at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh also lamented what he called the “white genocide.” And this xenophobia---fear of the ones different from us---this xenophobia is literally killing us. And it is not just a national problem; this is a global problem as was sadly made clear this past week.
Beloved, if Jesus is our Lord and our Yes, then we also must be ready to say NO to anything that doesn’t look like Jesus. Anything that declares some are less valuable, that some are to be separated from us, anything that smacks of Nationalism or White supremacy and American exceptionalism. Even when that way or that law or that system works for us. And that’s the hard part; that’s how the Fox gets us---by making it easy for us to turn a blind eye and to harden our hearts toward the injustice. When it doesn’t touch us, in fact when it benefits us, it is so much easier to follow the Fox.
Because Brenton’s hate wasn’t shaped solely from extremism. Brenton’s beliefs and truth upon which he acted were born in the everyday soil of the rhetoric around him. The rhetoric and the laws and the systems all around him reinforced and fed him the fear upon which he acted. And let’s not fool ourselves, we are not immune to this rhetoric, these laws and systems; we create them and vote for them and speak them ourselves. In fact, sometimes this divisive rhetoric claims itself to be Christian; it declares it is love which gives them the authority to condemn. Oh, Beloved, the Fox is a sneaky creature. Jesus knew who the Fox was and recognized the fear-mongering rhetoric and systems when he heard and saw them. And we must too.
Last Ash Wednesday, several leaders from many Christian backgrounds, wrote their own manifesto of a type. It is titled: Reclaiming Jesus, and you can find it at ReclaimingJesus.org. This letter is a call to all of us to recognize that if Jesus is Lord, then Jesus is the one who has top authority over our lives: over our choices, our words, our actions, and our behaviors. Jesus is the Yes that leads us to know what we must reject---Our Yes defines our No.
The very first article in this letter, this manifesto, states: “We believe each human being is made in God’s image and likeness….Therefore, we reject the resurgence of white nationalism and racism in our nation on many fronts….” Our belief determines our actions; our Yes makes clear our No.
Beloved, in the Old Testament reading today, God told Abram an impossible, unbelievable, almost crazy thing; and Abram believed God. His belief, which he then acted upon because that is what a belief is: a Truth lived out: Abram’s belief led him to be in right relationship with God. The word used is tzadakah (righteousness); tzadakah in Hebrew is always connected with executing justice.
Today God is asking us to believe something that may seem equally impossible, unbelievable and almost crazy. God is asking us to believe that there is another way to live in this world: that we do not have to succumb to the Fox’s way, that we need not be afraid, that all God’s people are equally deserving of having enough, of living next door, of being welcomed wherever we find ourselves to be. God asks us to believe, and Jesus, the One who saves, models our way forward: Live our truest identity by refusing to be scared away from living God’s way of love. Be the ones who gather the vulnerable under God’s wings. Live your yes through actions and words of healing, building relationships, sharing meals and declaring the outcast as worthy, valuable and beloved. Do not be afraid; God is our shield. Jesus gathers us in. Beloved, go and tell that Fox: Listen, I’ve got work to do; I’m gonna do me. And then, Beloved, let our “me” look just like Jesus.
Here’s what I love about this reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: It’s not really about marriage. Oh, it certainly has something to say to those who are getting married, but Paul wrote this letter to a church. This letter is about all our relationships---in particular, community relationships. And here’s the thing: marriage is meant to represent the love we are to have in all our relationships, and within our community.
Wait! What! That’s crazy! I mean, it’s hard enough to live out this love God is prescribing with my spouse (who is a particularly wonderful person)….and now God wants me, wants us, to live out this patient, kind, not envious or boastful, not rude or arrogant love---this not insisting on its own way, sacrificial, not resentful, but hopeful, enduring love with all people? All kinds of people? Shut the front door! What in the world is God thinking of…..?
Well, God is thinking of the world, of course, all of Creation. We are what God is thinking of---how the world might be turned right side up again. Through Love.
And yes, Beloved, this kind of love between all people and in all relationships is exactly what God wants. Of course, this love will look a bit differently with different folks and in different relationships. But at the center of all our interactions, connections and associations—family, friends, strangers, neighbors, enemies----at the center of each God calls us to have and share this Jesus kind of love St Paul describes in today’s letter.
Lord, have mercy, is this even possible? In the past I would have said: Probably not. Maybe only in the next life…..but friends, let me share a love story with you…….a most incredible thing happened this past Tuesday….right here at the Beloved Community….
Two years ago I met Rob Barndollar. He was coming to the Warming Shelter that was held in Intercession’s old building. Rob stood out to me because from the beginning, he was incredibly friendly, and grateful, always asking how he could help, how he could be of service. The first time I met him he had brought some Polito’s pizza to the shelter; he was working at Polito’s at the time, and he was offering it to those of us who had come to share Saturday breakfast.
Rob showed up pretty much every Saturday that he could that summer. Our relationship started to grow. That fall he and his girlfriend moved into the Knights Inn; they didn’t want to spend another winter outside. Rob continued to come to breakfasts at the Franciscans and he showed up when BobbieJoy and I were volunteering there.
Rob wasn’t a saint, but any means, but it was easy to see treating others well was at the core of who he was---he was constantly trying to give back. Last April, we worked with Rob and others to get him a vehicle and a driver’s license so that he could work regularly. That was the plan. Rob kept telling me about a book he was writing about God’s plan for him, for us, for people to live together differently. Rob was full of hope and possibility.
Then, this past May, Rob was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Rob could have become bitter and angry, but he didn’t. He realized how many blessings had come his way; he realized how God loved him. Due to the generosity of the folks here, we were able to help him get him into his own room, and our own Jb helped him to get hospice care. We partnered with his other friends, particularly those of Evergreen Community Initiatives, to try and make sure Rob was able to enjoy and have some comfort his last days. Again, Rob wasn’t always perfect, and he certainly did not want to go gentle into that good night. But he was at peace; he knew his creator; he was certain God was with him.
Thursday, January 24th, Rob died. He and I had talked about having his memorial service, his celebration of life, here at the Beloved Community. Not because you all knew him, but because you all cared for him through the ways we were able to help him. The service was this past Tuesday. On that frigidly cold night, 60+ plus people came out to celebrate Rob’s life and love. As one guest who had not had the pleasure of meeting Rob asked BobbieJoy: “you mean all these people came out in this weather for one homeless guy?”
It was so amazing. I wish you could have seen it. Gathered here in this holy space were two non-denominational pastors, a Franciscan Roman Catholic priest, and me. There were Episcopalians, Lutherans, non-denominational folks, Roman Catholic folks. There were homeless folks, addicts and alcoholics. Some who have known material wealth, and some who have known none at all. We all came. With different expectations, beliefs, and levels of comfort. We came; we shared stories; we ate a meal (Polito’s Pizza, of course), we prayed, and we sang. Our voices came together to sing Amazing Grace, and beloved, it was: amazing, and grace. Because, this Beloved, this was heaven. All stripes and sorts of humanity for a brief moment realizing we belong to one another. Realizing what this is all really about. And Beloved, this all happened because of Love; Love for Rob---and Love for God---Love made heaven manifest here in this place.
Oh Beloved, two years ago I was probably thinking that Rob needed me, needed us. But Beloved, I needed Rob. My heart has been changed; I see differently now….and there’s no going back….
Poet, artist and Methodist minister Jan Richardson wrote:
“Loving is never just about opening our heart. It is about being willing to have our heart become larger as we make room for people and stories and experiences we never imagined holding. It is about being willing to have our heart become deeper as we move beyond the surface layers of our assumptions, prejudices, and habits in order to truly see and receive what — and who — is before us. It is about being willing to have our heart continually shattered and remade as we take in not only the brokenness of the world but also the beauty of it, the astounding wonder that will not allow us to remain the same.”
Beloved, let me leave you with a simple prayer I pray at the end of my Morning Prayers each day….a prayer that has opened my heart for those things God longs for me, but those things I too often want to avoid or deny or shut out. It goes like this:
Lord, infuse me with your grace that I may flow from your love.
Beloved, may God’s grace break our hearts open so that we can be agents of God’s love.
“When we feel certain that the human soul is no longer at work in the world, it’s time to make sure that ours is visible to someone, somewhere.” ---Parker Palmer
Beloved, we are living in an age when some of our siblings in the world are fleeing their homes and homelands in order to find a better life---a life where violence is not persistently nipping at their heels, a life where their children can flourish, a life where hunger and thirst are not constant companions. This may be hard for us to truly wrap our heads around, for most of us, if not all of us, have not experienced such desperation, such fear. I, myself, have lived on welfare, have had times of great financial struggle, but never have I felt that I needed to walk thousands of miles, leaving all I know behind, simply to seek a safer life for my children and myself. This reality I do not know.
And Beloved, we live in an age when these neighbors of ours, as they take these desperate and risky steps toward a more abundant life, they are met with tear gas, with their children being taken from them and kept in cages. They are met with threats and racist depictions of who they are.
I know I am not alone in my heartbreak and anger about the harm being done to our siblings. These ones who are most vulnerable. But what really breaks my heart is the lack of movement within our nation to stop this from happening; what devastates me is how many brothers and sisters of mine, of ours, are okay with this taking place. And I don’t think these siblings of ours are villains. I think, that just like us and like all humans are capable of doing, they are simply believing a narrative that benefits them. We all want to believe narratives that do not challenge or disrupt our comfort, our status, our assumptions and expectations. These narratives that allow us to remain inward-centered, protecting self at all costs.
The narrative being told in this age is that these beloved ones who are fleeing their homeland are people we should fear. We are told to be afraid of this portion of our family because:
1. They are illegal
2. They are most likely going to hurt us or others
3. They are going to take something that is rightfully ours
Beloved, we can choose to believe this narrative. We can choose to rationalize and justify actions that deny our neighbors healing, that deny them assistance and help. We can let fear rule our hearts.
But, Beloved, this is not God’s narrative. The Psalmist today reminds us that “All the paths of the LORD are love and faithfulness.” Not just love and faithfulness from God to us, or love and faithfulness of us to God. But love and faithfulness of God to all people, and love and faithfulness of neighbor to neighbor. For loving our neighbor is how we love God. The Way of Love.
This current age’s narrative of building walls, denying our neighbor, letting fear determine how we live with those who are not like us---this narrative is not our narrative. And we cannot succumb to it.
Because we are God’s people, and God’s narrative tells us that people, Beloved, people are never illegal. And even in this current age, the truth is that our migrant neighbors are not even taking illegal action. Seeking asylum is legal---here and throughout the world. While it may be unwanted by some or it may be threatening to some, it is a legal right of humanity. Even in this current age.
And Beloved, God’s narrative tells us to be not afraid. We are not to shun our neighbor out of fear, but we are called to love our neighbor. In Scripture, specifically in the Parable of the Good Samaritan in the Gospel of Luke, we learn that our neighbor is whoever is in need. And, we are shown that how we love our neighbor is to show mercy and compassion, to take the risk of crossing boundaries and borders in order to assist our neighbor. This is the way of love. This is our narrative.
God’s narrative is about an abundant life, not scarcity. An abundant life that rises from acts of generosity, of sharing and not hoarding, of distributing justly what God has provided instead of allowing ourselves to be possessed by what we think of as our possessions. As Americans, we may be worried about not having enough resources---that we don’t have enough jobs or our economy cannot sustain so many folks in need.
But the Gospel truth of helping our neighbors instead of denying them only seems foolish or financially impossible when we isolate ourselves. As Americans we may or may not have all the resources needed to deal with the health, safety, shelter and employment needs of our neighbors at the border, but as global siblings we most certainly do.
Here’s the thing, Beloved: as a follower of the Way of Love, our true identity as the people of God, there’s simply no room to be okay with what is happening in this age at our nation’s border. Maybe the answer is not as simple as “just let everyone in,” but our response, according to God’s narrative, should be an act of mercy, of compassion, of healing, of uniting and not dividing. Acts that say: we see you; we know you; we are bound to you; your wholeness is my wholeness. For together, we are the Beloved. “Whatever you do to the least of these,” Jesus tells us, “you do to me.” Love God; love neighbor.
So first and foremost, let us---as Christians---let us know our own narrative, God’s narrative, so deeply and so profoundly that we are not duped by another narrative, the narrative of this age. Let us not be captured by fear or sideswiped into self-centered protection at all costs---leaving our brothers and sisters bleeding and crying at the side of the road. Let us look for where God is at work and then join in that redemptive and healing work. Let us stand up and raise our heads, because our redemption is drawing near. Justice and righteousness are signs of God’s Kingdom---a new age dawning.
At this start of a new church year, today’s readings on this first Sunday of Advent speak of an apocalypse---that’s right---again with the apocalypse. There will be “signs in the sun, the moon and the stars and our earth…” (and friends, let’s not forget who created and who is in control of the sun, moon, and stars…). The “powers of heaven will be shaken….” “The days are surely coming…” Jeremiah prophesies. The end to one age and the beginning of another; the world is about to turn, echoes the Mother Mary who is preparing to give birth to Love in the world. A revolution.
Social Justice advocate and follower of the Way Dorothy Day once wrote: “The greatest challenge of the day is how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us.”
Beloved, the world is about to turn, from one age to the next. Turning with the revolution of one heart at a time. Each heart marinated in the narrative of God’s love, each heart trusting in the call of Jesus to Come. Follow. Come and see. Come and break bread; take and eat. This is God’s love for you. This is God’s love for our neighbors. Know who you are. Know whose you are. Come, beloved, and “cast away the works of darkness; put on the armor of light.” The Kingdom of God is near.
Jane Johnson is the pastor and priest of the Beloved Community of Intercession Episcopal and Redeemer Lutheran.