A Call to Remember

Exodus 16:1-18 CEB

The whole Israelite community set out from Elim and came to the Sin desert, which is located between Elim and Sinai. They set out on the fifteenth day of the second month[a] after they had left the land of Egypt. The whole Israelite community complained against Moses and Aaron in the desert. The Israelites said to them, “Oh, how we wish that the Lord had just put us to death while we were still in the land of Egypt. There we could sit by the pots cooking meat and eat our fill of bread. Instead, you’ve brought us out into this desert to starve this whole assembly to death.”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “I’m going to make bread rain down from the sky for you. The people will go out each day and gather just enough for that day. In this way, I’ll test them to see whether or not they follow my Instruction. On the sixth day, when they measure out what they have collected, it will be twice as much as they collected on other days.” So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “This evening you will know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt. And in the morning you will see the Lord’s glorious presence, because your complaints against the Lord have been heard. Who are we? Why blame us?” Moses continued, “The Lord will give you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning because the Lord heard the complaints you made against him. Who are we? Your complaints aren’t against us but against the Lord.”

Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole Israelite community, ‘Come near to the Lord, because he’s heard your complaints.’” 10 As Aaron spoke to the whole Israelite community, they turned to look toward the desert, and just then the glorious presence of the Lord appeared in the cloud.

11 The Lord spoke to Moses, 12 “I’ve heard the complaints of the Israelites. Tell them, ‘At twilight you will eat meat. And in the morning you will have your fill of bread. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God.’”

13 In the evening a flock of quail flew down and covered the camp. And in the morning there was a layer of dew all around the camp. 14 When the layer of dew lifted, there on the desert surface were thin flakes, as thin as frost on the ground. 15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to each other, “What[b] is it?” They didn’t know what it was.

Moses said to them, “This is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat. 16 This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Collect as much of it as each of you can eat, one omer[c] per person. You may collect for the number of people in your household.’” 17 The Israelites did as Moses said, some collecting more, some less. 18 But when they measured it out by the omer, the ones who had collected more had nothing left over, and the ones who had collected less had no shortage. Everyone collected just as much as they could eat.

Matthew 22:15-22

15 Then the Pharisees met together to find a way to trap Jesus in his words. 16 They sent their disciples, along with the supporters of Herod, to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are genuine and that you teach God’s way as it really is. We know that you are not swayed by people’s opinions, because you don’t show favoritism. 17 So tell us what you think: Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

18 Knowing their evil motives, Jesus replied, “Why do you test me, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used to pay the tax.” And they brought him a denarion. 20 “Whose image and inscription is this?” he asked.

21 “Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then he said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” 22 When they heard this they were astonished, and they departed.

            The word “remember” marks many pages of scripture and the call to remember echoes from many pulpits and the walls of many churches. I was curious to see how many times a variation of the word occurs in scripture and here what I found (these statistics of course vary from translation to translation.) In the Old Testament the word remember occurs roughly one hundred and twenty-five times and occurs about thirty-four times in the New Testament. Both our text from Exodus and Matthew call us to remember.

            In our Exodus text, the Israelites though they had recently escaped the grips of Pharaoh and slavery in Egypt, succumb to bringing forth various litanies of complaints to Moses and Aaron. The crowd even goes so far as to saying, ‘we would have been better off staying with the oppressive Pharaoh in Egypt, at least we had food there. How could you bring us out to the wilderness to die?’ They were well past the point of becoming what you may call a combination of hungry and angry—they were hangry– and in need of a Snickers to reset them. But let’s not be too harsh on them. We know folks are not at their best when they are hungry, angry, or tired- and the Israelites were all three of these things.

             Sometimes we complain just to complain—I know I’ve been guilty of this, and I suspect at one point or another in our lives; we all have been there. It is easier to complain than to regroup and take steps forward. However, sometimes our fears come out of our mouths as complaints. I think this is what is going on with the Israelites. They are in the wilderness, hangry, worried about all the unknowns, and scared for their futures. Can you relate? When fear is driving complaining, people make non-healthy choices. It would have been ridiculous for Israelites to retrace their steps back to Egypt.  

            As a response to complaints, God calls them to remember. To remember God brought them out of Egypt, to remember that no matter what God is with them, in the glorious cloud.  To remember to trust that God will provide as resources are scarce. God provides them with daily quail and manna. God sees their fear and sends bread.

            Theologian Amy Erickson observes, “God acknowledges not only the Israelites’ need for assurance but also God’s desire to shape them as a different kind of people, a different kind of community. In the ritual practice of daily gathering of food that falls from the sky, they learn with their very bodies, to come to trust their God.” Through the daily collections of manna and quail, the people are reminded that they belong to God. The daily gifts of manna not only provide hope in fearful times, but also reminder that God is with them, inviting them to draw closer, trust more, teaching always enough manna for daily needs, always replenishing the supply.

            What has been your daily manna these days? What little nuggets of nourishment and reminders might God be placing in front of you to remind you that in all things—you belong to God? Cards or phone calls from loved ones? Glimpses of green leaves exploding with brilliant colors before our eyes? Warm cups of coffee or tea? These gifts are enough to keep us going another day, our daily bread. All of these “manna’s” remind us of God’s presence.

            This week brings us that incident from Matthew 22, wherein the Pharisees, along with supporters of Herod, try to trap Jesus by asking if it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor. They once again seek to trap Jesus in his words, but once again Jesus’ answer outsmarts them.

            They know, as does Jesus, that for Jesus to say no puts him in direct opposition to the government, and for him to say yes breaks the hearts of the poor who have no money to pay. He would also anger the Pharisees and the crowds. A conundrum indeed, worse than being at a family dinner table talking politics and religion. So in typical Jesus fashion, he provides a “both-and” answer: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” He not only to responds to a challenge with an even greater challenge, but takes a step further and insists that the relationship between faith and politics is too complex to reduce to platitudes. He looks at the coin given to him and basically takes a step further- Caesar’s face is on the coin so then give back to Caesar, however He also poses a harder question: What belongs to God? What do we owe to God? To be overly blunt- everything belongs to God- we are made in God’s image—but What (or Whose) image is really stamped upon us? This is what makes the difference.

           As I researched for sermon, I came across several questions that keep me up at night. Questions like, what does it mean to give God what belongs to God in these hard and divisive days?  How do we bear forth God’s image while our families, communities, and churches splinter over political and cultural differences that seem unbridgeable?  How do we live into the all-encompassing reign of God while a scorched-earth, ideology-driven, “the end justifies the means” divisiveness reigns within American Christendom? How are we able to interact and play nicely with our brothers and sisters we disagree with around the world?

            To reflect deeply on such thoughts and questions, Debi Thomas goes on to say, “When I read the Gospels, I don’t see a Jesus who cares more about the end than the means. If anything, he privileges the means: the one who calls himself the Way understands that the way we go about achieving our goals — the language we use or abuse, the stories we privilege or silence, the people we protect or oppress, the sins we confess or indulge, the truths we proclaim or deny — these make all the difference in the world. When I look to Jesus to think about how to practice my faith in the political realm, I see no path to glory that sidesteps humility, surrender, and sacrificial love. I see no permission to secure my prosperity at the expense of another person’s suffering, no evidence that truth telling is optional. I see no kingdom that favors the contemptuous over the brokenhearted and no church that thrives for long when it aligns itself with power.”

            In the “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God” remark God always surpasses Caesar. Always. We are called to bear the Imago Dei, the image of God. We won’t always get it right, but we are called to try as everything belongs to God.  One commentator observes, “We are beloved children, able partners in the ongoing work of creation, people who are living daily into our baptismal identity by giving God what is God’s: our lives, ourselves, our energy, our everything.” (Theodore Wardlaw)

            So friends, what are we called to remember this day—-what do we need to remember? We belong to God. And in God we find belonging.

            We belong not to the Caesars of our world, or to the names on our political ballots–we belong to God.

            We belong not to the partisan political claims we make in election seasons–we belong to God.

            We belong not to our possessions and things that keep us comfortable—we belong to God.

            We belong not to the list of demands of our vocations or our seemingly never ending and rapid changing to-do lists—we belong to God.

            We belong not to the charms of our secular world—we belong to God.

            We belong not to our insecurities, grades, or perceived social standings—we belong to God.

            In life and in death,

            In times we shed tears of sadness and tears of joy,

            In financial abundance or financial scarcity—-we belong to God. 

            We belong to a God who hears our joys and complaints—and provides life giving bread.

            A God who journeys through the wilderness alongside us, who sends us daily nudges of care, and supplies us with daily quail and manna, enough to nourish us and lift our spirits.

            May we remember every day, we belong to God. God’s image is stamped on our hearts and the call to live accordingly is a journey.

            May we work towards being bearers of God’s image, and conduct ourselves accordingly. Until we become living sacraments of God’s love, grace, and mercy—of God’s call to ‘go out into the world in peace, to have courage, to love justice, do acts of kindness, even for people we disagree with, and to walk humbly as God’s children.

            Friends, may it be so. Amen.

Precious Beyond Reckoning

Matthew 21:33-46

33 “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a fence around it, dug a winepress in it, and built a tower. Then he rented it to tenant farmers and took a trip. 34 When it was time for harvest, he sent his servants to the tenant farmers to collect his fruit. 35 But the tenant farmers grabbed his servants. They beat some of them, and some of them they killed. Some of them they stoned to death.

36 “Again he sent other servants, more than the first group. They treated them in the same way. 37 Finally he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.

38 “But when the tenant farmers saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come on, let’s kill him and we’ll have his inheritance.’ 39 They grabbed him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.

40 “When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenant farmers?”

41 They said, “He will totally destroy those wicked farmers and rent the vineyard to other tenant farmers who will give him the fruit when it’s ready.”

42 Jesus said to them, “Haven’t you ever read in the scriptures, The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. The Lord has done this, and it’s amazing in our eyes?[a] 43 Therefore, I tell you that God’s kingdom will be taken away from you and will be given to a people who produce its fruit. 44 Whoever falls on this stone will be crushed. And the stone will crush the person it falls on.”

45 Now when the chief priests and the Pharisees heard the parable, they knew Jesus was talking about them. 46 They were trying to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, who thought he was a prophet.

            Today we are wrapping up the Season of Peace. A season when we are reminded, peace is active not passive, and peace is in doing and not waiting. As we’ve followed the daily devotionals over past four weeks we have examined the ways God calls us to peace within, peace in relationships, peace in community, and holistic peace. And, then today we come to this text that rings of everything that is opposite of peace, we have murder, stealing, greed. All of which go directly against God and God’s creation.

            There are many important points Jesus uses this parable to teach us but today I want to focus how Jesus uses this parable to remind us of two very important things.

            The first is God has immense love and provision for creation. Tenants of creation are invited to enjoy and love creation as well.  In marching band, we always had a saying, “leave it better than you found it,” meaning pick up your own mess, as well as make sure the space is left better than it was when you arrived there. In today’s text, God, the landowner in this parable gets his land in proper order, with all that the tenants could need for producing a fruitful, abundant harvest.  God has trust in them to care for what has been provided. Because what has been created is sufficient the landowner can step away and trust the actions of the tenants.  And all does go well until it comes time for the landowner to receive the part of the harvest that is due to him, and then the tenants don’t want to let it go.

            I once again appreciate Pastor Debie Thomas’ words on this text. She points out: “What the tenants in the story neglect to understand — or very deliberately choose to ignore — is that they are stewards rather than owners of the vineyard.  When the landowner asks for his rightful share of the harvest, the tenants take offense.  As if the vineyard belongs to them, and it is the landowner who is in the wrong for making a claim on the land at all.  Somewhere along the way, the tenants have forgotten their place.  Their vocation.  Their standing in relationship to both the land and the landowner.  To put it bluntly, they have forgotten that they own nothing — nothing at all.  Everything belongs to the landowner.  Theirs is not a vocation of ownership; it is a vocation of caring, tending, safeguarding, cultivating, and protecting — on behalf of another.”

            It’s worth noting here that Jesus does not describe the evildoers in the story as thieves or bandits.  They are not outsiders — they are the landowner’s trusted tenants.  He chose them, and granted them creative license to steward the vineyard for the benefit of all.  How much more tragic, then, when they abuse the landowner’s trust so cruelly. Debie Thomas compares this to how humans mess up when it comes to being stewards for the gift of creation, citing fires, raging hurricanes, and climate change.

            As a Christian, I do believe that the earth will be renewed and restored.  That somehow, God’s coming kingdom will bring healing to all — even to all of creation.

            But I don’t for one minute believe that we — the stewards — are somehow off the hook because the landowner will ultimately reclaim his vineyard.  Our vocation is lifelong, and our relationship to the landowner is eternal.  Unfortunately, reclaiming the vineyard will always meet with opposition from those who have a vested interest in keeping the vineyard broken.  So our calling isn’t even close to over.  When we hoard, exploit, abuse, or ignore the work of God’s hands, we wound and reject God’s heart.

            This week, Christians around the world celebrate the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, commemorating the life of a 12th century monk who cared deeply about creation.  On Sunday, at 4pm off the Old Town walking mall, we will “Bless the Animals,” recognizing God’s care for the creatures that live among us and the valued companionship these creatures often us. We will confess that we are not always the best tenets or stewards of creation. We may also pray for what the Book of Common Prayer calls, “this fragile earth, our island home.”  This year, perhaps more than ever before, I think many of us will flinch at that adjective.  Fragile. We are reminded of how fragile our Earth is as we watch the west coast engulfed in fire. A pastor friend from California laments reading this text in her context of fire which has destroyed Napa Valley’s grapes.  Friends, so much around us is fragile.  Our time is fragile. Our lives are fragile. People who surround us with community are fragile.  And the very Earth we live on is fragile.

            If nothing else this week, friends, perhaps we just sit with the possibility that we own nothing — not this planet, not our churches, not even our own lives.  All of it is God’s, and all of it is precious beyond reckoning.  But the fact that God trusts us to steward any of it?  Us?  That is pure miracle.

            Which brings us to Jesus’ second point: we can be our own worst enemy. We will talk ourselves out of the best things that are right before us. I can imagine that over the year as the tenants are tending the land, caring for the vineyard, they begin to talk amongst themselves bemoaning all the labor they are pouring into the success of the vineyard, getting themselves all worked up, deciding they will defend themselves and the harvest against anyone who might come and lay claim to the fruits for which they have labored so hard. And, so when the slaves are sent to receive what is rightfully the landowners, they beat, kill, and stone the slaves.  Not only the first set of slaves that come, but the second, and then they become even greedier and as the landowners son approaches they see the chance at receiving not only the harvest they have produced this year, but the sons inheritance, so they kill him.

            Jesus’ point is that the people (the chief priests, the Pharisees, us), God’s chosen tenants of creation, for whom God has prepared a beautiful, abundant, living creation, will destroy it, we will disrupt the peace provided when at all possible, to the point of killing the prophets whom God sends, and to the point of even killing God’s son, Jesus. We try desperately to make creation our own, to reject the stone that is offered us for our foundation.

            What do we do now? How do we ensure we are bearing the fruit? How might we live as faithful stewards?  Will we embrace those in need or shun them? Will we use our privilege to work for greater equity and justice for others or to secure our own future? Will we extend the peace of Christ to our neighbors in need, or quietly turn our backs on beloved children of God? Caring for the kingdom of heaven is not only being good tenants, the kind of tenants who tenaciously and faithfully tend to the call of being the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Caring for the Kingdom of heaven is being tireless in our resistance in others and in ourselves to leadership which works to undermine the Beatitudes. Tenants who exercise justice, to work for a world where the Beatitudes are not aspirational but actually possible.

            In the same way we do not own Christianity, we do not own the table of peace that is offered to us through Jesus Christ, we are not the landowners, we are not God. Thanks be to God! We are invited to partake in the harvest and join in the good works of God and even in our good works as stewards of God’s creation.

            These days are hard, many days feel like being shaken up in a snow globe with no way out. You’re be challenged by the world and you’re being challenged in worship. So let us not be stirred up and left without hope, let us look to the landowner, let us welcome the son, let us share in the fruit that is God’s creation so that all of God’s creation can flourish. I encourage you to take a moment, in the midst of all that is swirling around you to stand still. To plant your feet firmly on the ground, outside or near a window, at a place where you can take in more than just what is in your possession, and take in the world. Invite God to show you the expansiveness of God, invite God to remind you of the ways God is working in the world and how you can be part of that, tending to the creation which God has entrusted to you.

            God has immense love and provision for us.  Jesus is extending the path of peace to us, today and every day, an internal peace, peace for our relationships, peace for our community and a holistic, all-encompassing peace, all we need to do is come to the table of peace and receive from the harvest.  Amen.

2020: It is Okay to Take Naps

Friends, it has been since February 9!!!! That I last stood before a congregation and not a camera to preach!!! And I’m so excited to preach in person today that I thought I would try an experiment to make our sermon today a little more conversational than usual. I’ve set up a number for you to text during this sermon….and yes, a pastor may NEVER again encourage you to text during a sermon again! Kids are encouraged to share with their parents. J  I’d like us to consider and jot down the following questions to reflect on together and I encourage you to text me your thoughts. 540-225-2973. 1) one thing I learned about relationship with God during 2020. 2) What I learned about Sabbath keeping in 2020 and any thoughts on spiritual growth this year.

Prayer of Illumination: God of rest and naps, we come before you weary and in need of the rest you alone can offer. Remind us to be still. Remind us to rest in your presence. Lord, our rock and redeemer, amen.

Scripture: Exodus 20:8-11 Remember the Sabbath day and treat it as holy. Six days you may work and do all your tasks, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. Do not do any work on it—not you, your sons or daughters, your male or female servants, your animals, or the immigrant who is living with you. 11 Because the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything that is in them in six days, but rested on the seventh day. That is why the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. Word of God for the people of God, thanks be to God.

On Sunday, January 5th, 2020, those gathered for worship had the opportunity to draw star words, a word to reflect on throughout the year. Do you remember your word? Friends, when I drew “still”, I thought to myself, alright, well this year I’ll reflect on being still and observing Sabbath. Little did I know how much “stillness” would take place this year—but we will hold onto that thought as we think through the questions together, but first let’s think through what Sabbath is throughout Bible.

The Hebrew word for Sabbath, “Sha-bbat” literally means to cease or to desist. Sabbath, at its core means stop working…to slow down. God reminded Moses and the Israelites the importance of rest and renewal.

Our text also points out Sabbath rest goes all the way back to the very beginning of creation. God reminds Moses and Israel that for six days God worked and created but on the seventh day, God abstained from work and rested. Now, if God needed to rest, why should humankind think they are exempt? The intentional Sabbath rest is for all; male, female, slave, or free, and animals.  Sabbath is intended as a time to refresh and to be renewed by God and not to focus solely on productivity.  It turns focus away from how much we as human beings can do and produce and turns our focus towards our dependence on God. Even in the time of Exodus, Sabbath rest was counter cultural.  Sabbath is also a sign of the continuing covenant between God and humankind. It is part of the Mosaic Covenant, and a sign between God and God’s people after the giving of the Ten Commandments. 

Throughout various places in the Bible, Sabbath is mentioned, maintained, and set aside as holy.  In 2 Kings, Sabbath is marked by visits to the temple to hear prophets and teachers speak about God. In Nehemiah, Nehemiah locks Jerusalem’s city gates to stop trade and allow the Sabbath to be a time of rest and a time of worship.  The Sabbath day is holy day, a day set apart from other days.  Followers of God are reminded to observe the Sabbath because God is holy, and Sabbath is a special day set aside for God- a time to give thanks and worship God. Saturday was a holy day.  Sabbath, for Christians occurred on Saturday point until the point of Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday; Saturday still remains Sabbath for our Jewish brothers and sisters.

Sabbath rest is also a gift given by God. Unlike the oppressive Pharaoh who forced the Israelites slave away and toil every day in work, God gives the Israelites the task of building the tabernacle but also reminds the Israelites about the importance of and mandate of Sabbath rest. Even in the days of Exodus, Israelites needed rest from the world as a place of endless productivity, ambition, and anxiety.

There are also many examples of Jesus in the New Testament speaking out against the legalistic nature of Pharisees enforcing Sabbath for all the wrong reasons. The Pharisees were too caught up in the law and their own righteousness in keeping Sabbath, they missed the point of focusing on God’s great work.  If keeping Sabbath becomes work then it is not true Sabbath. Jesus attends worship at synagogues on the Sabbath, but Jesus also heals on the Sabbath.  In Luke, before healing a man with a shriveled hand, Jesus says, “I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save a life or to destroy it?” Sabbath is God’s gift for God’s people but God in Christ is Lord of the Sabbath. Jesus shows us even though the Sabbath is a day to rest, be renewed, and worship; Sabbath is not an excuse to ignore the needs of those around us.  We should continue to share the love of Christ with them.

What does Sabbath mean in the trying and busy days of 2020? According to the National Gallup’s survey of work and education, the average American work week is about forty-seven hours.  Approximately half the participants of the survey said they work more than the traditional forty hours a week and four in ten people work at least fifty hours a week chasing after the American dream (and this was also pre-Covid BEFORE the lines of home and work became more blurred.)

Sometimes our lives just feel frantic and we become like hamsters running persistently on a hamster wheel, unable to get off the wheel.  We become bombarded with busyness, with technology, with a world filled with noise. Our to-do lists can become our only sense of identities. We can focus too much on what we “do” and not enough on who we are called to be in Christ.  We can also focus too much on ourselves, our own goals, and to-do lists and in our busyness forget all about God, who created and sustains us in spite of our busyness. One positive that came from the weirdness of 2020, has been recognizing just how much we need God. As I’ve talked to many people, the great pause button of 2020, has at the very least allowed more time to be still and to be in a closer and more regular relationship with God. 

In many ways, the life giving rest of the Sabbath is still counter cultural in our society. In the preface of his book, “Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now,” Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann presents Sabbath as both resistance and an alternative.  He writes: “In our own contemporary context of the rat race of anxiety, the celebration of Sabbath is an act of both resistance and alternative. It is resistance because it is a visible insistence that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods. But Sabbath is not only resistance. It is an alternative to the demanding, chattering, and pervasive presence of outside noise. The alternative (of Sabbath) is the awareness and practice of the claim that we are situated on the receiving end of the gifts of God.” Sabbath calls us to resist glorifying busyness and ourselves and as an alternative “glorify God and enjoy God forever.”

Sabbath challenges us and calls us to resist relying solely on ourselves and our accomplishments and turns us back to God. It reminds us we are not holy, but God is holy. One way we have Sabbath in a busy world is to be intentional about worshiping God and even this has looked and felt different this year. Earlier this year, we missed communal gatherings as worship took place around breakfast tables, living rooms, or outside on our porches. We’ve all had to adapt our worship. For me, worship became more along the lines of taking a long walk with my dog on Sundays and spending time in prayer…but friends, I have missed you! Regardless of how worship may be altered from what we are all use to, God is with us in our worship. God is with us now in our parking lot…encouraging us to take a deep collective breathe and be still. To look for and listen for ways God is already at work in our midst and encouraging us to get in on what God is already doing in our neighborhoods.

Busyness and noises of the world can be overwhelming, especially when we want to be productive, and we want to be known.  But in the midst of our busyness and in the midst of our work and activities, God often tries whispering to us to be still. In our culture, it is hard to be still, it is hard to listen. One think I’ve been doing to sustain sanity during 2020 has been chatting with pastor friends every Thursday. A few Thursdays ago, we did an exercise that I’d like us all to try. Invite you to close your eyes and imagine a place you feel most at peace. Once you are there, imagine God is in that space with you. What do you talk about? What do you do? I know for me, I feel most at peace sitting on the beach at sunrise so my image is sitting on the beach’s lifeguard stand watching sunrise and chatting with God. What concerns or joys do you chat about with God? What does it feel like to just be your unique self in God’s presence? Go to this place, daily, several times a day and rest in God’s presence for a few minutes. Observing Sabbath and going to this place reminds us that we are not only what it says on our resumes, or the grades we receive in school; Sabbath reminds us we are known, called, claimed, and loved by God. God, who calls us into relationship with Him also calls us into embracing a Sabbath.

But friends, I would like to share some of your thoughts now. 1) one thing I learned about relationship with God during 2020. 2) What I learned about Sabbath keeping in 2020 and any thoughts on spiritual growth this year. (Read responses)

As we continue this odd time of being church, let’s remember that God is always with us. No matter where we are, calling for us to sit and rest. Remember even in the craziness of 2020, to, “Be still and know the Lord is our God.” Amen.

We Need to Talk

Matthew 18:15-20 CEB

15 “If your brother or sister sins against you, go and correct them when you are alone together. If they listen to you, then you’ve won over your brother or sister. 16 But if they won’t listen, take with you one or two others so that every word may be established by the mouth of two or three witnesses.[a] 17 But if they still won’t pay attention, report it to the church. If they won’t pay attention even to the church, treat them as you would a Gentile and tax collector. 18 I assure you that whatever you fasten on earth will be fastened in heaven. And whatever you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven. 19 Again I assure you that if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, then my Father who is in heaven will do it for you. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them.”

          I had just walked through the door of my college apartment that I shared with three other friends and as I dropped my backpack filled with heavy English major books, I was greeted by my roommate with the four words that induce anxiety spills everywhere, “we need to talk”, she stated with a look of discontent. Her tone and body language screamed that I had done something to hurt her. Since we were such good friends, my shoulders tensed up and my heart jumped in my chest as we sat down. It turns out that what I had viewed as an off-handed comment really hurt her feelings. Her words were hard for me to hear—but I knew reconciliation needed to happen to repair a broken relationship.

            With these four words, tone along with facial expressions also play an important role, as I tested with my quarantine buddy, my husband Josh. There’s a difference between we need to talk with a smile on face and we need to talk with a blank expression and slightly harsher tone. How does your body and mind respond when you hear the words, ‘we need to talk?’ Perhaps you enter the conversation with an extra sense of anxiety and are leery of your word choices. Perhaps you respond by tensing up, shutting down, or with heightened sense of worry or apprehension. Perhaps you think, ‘ugh—what did I do wrong now?’ What person’s words and tone usually convey in that sentence is, “something is broken between us and we need to sort it out.” A relationship is in need of tending and repair and reconciliation needs to take place.

            So as followers of Christ, how are we charged to address conflict? Not just as individuals but in our unique Christian community of First Presbyterian Church in Winchester in this odd year of 2020? Today’s scripture looks closely at such questions.

            I don’t know many people who enjoy conflict. I do know a lot of people who would much rather avoid conflict, sweep it under a rug, disengage and long to put their heads in the sand. Even people I know who face conflict quickly and head-on refer to this technique as ripping off the band aid, which if you’ve ever ripped off a band aid, still isn’t pleasant experience. When we become stuck in conflict, it is like we are stuck in a canoe with two paddlers trying to paddle in different directions, we aren’t going anywhere. This a reality that Jesus is speaking into in today’s text from Matthew. Jesus is realistic when it comes to two hard truths; one, people sin and two, communities and yes, even churches are made up of these sinning people. Jesus starts with the baseline assumption that conflict within the beloved community is normal and natural.

            Despite not enjoying conflict, it is unavoidable, and Christian communities are not immune to brokenness. Friends, I have been in Christian communities who were horrendously inept at facing the crucial, ‘we need to talk’ situations. In these places, we were spectacular at gossiping about the conflict or at shoving it under the rug. Or wonderful at passive-aggressive actions which only intensify the problem. Friends, my guess is these types of brokenness are prevalent in numerous churches. The question therefore for the church is not whether we will wound each other by our words and actions but how we need to proceed when we do wound each other.

            Thankfully, we worship a God who provides a blue print in Matthew’s text of how to react in such situations and the principles of mutual love and respect that should undergird such, ‘we need to talk,’ moments.

            As hard as it was when my roommate confronted me, I knew I needed to listen, to make space for listening for where I messed up and to be open to how I offended in order to begin to repair the relationship.  Friends, good active listening is hard. Four times in just the first three verses of today’s text, Jesus makes reference to listening or refusing to listen. The repetition suggests that the call to hear one another, to truly listen closely to another’s truth, is a vital component of a community grounded in the ways of Jesus.

            I greatly appreciate how pastor and blogger Debi Thomas reads our text from Matthew. She sums up the several principles laid out and that are needed to follow Christ’s words and keep beloved community in today’s passage.

            The first principal is choose depth. “If another member of church sins against you, go and engage them in honest conversation.” When we experience conflict, we need to go deep and name it. We should not put on a smile and act like everything is okay when conflict is festering like a wound in our midst. We should strive for authenticity and not allow the severed relationship be lost and work towards genuine healing and not just fake harmony. However, often times, we like to think of ourselves as the reconciler but the door goes both ways. We should also ask ourselves if we are willing to listen to those we have offended. Can we stop shielding ourselves behind our ‘good intentions’ and think about the impact of our actions on others? Do we long for and care about reconciliation, justice, repentance, and restoration as much as Christ?

            The second is preserve dignity. “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” In this call for kindness and discretion, Jesus stresses the importance of protecting dignity of the other as well as keeping conversation just between the two of you. He doesn’t say use the conflict as a chance to spread gossip or to drag them through the mud. He doesn’t say use the conflict as ammunition to try to divide the wider community. The goal of the conversation should be to do whatever possible to affirm and uphold the humanity of the person you are confronting.

            The third is guard the truth and lean into the body. If the person is not willing to listen, Jesus suggests taking one or two others with you to confront the person. Not to gang up on the wrongdoer but to make sure both sides are heard. If we are feeling hurt, it can be easy to exaggerate what really happened. When we hurt another, it can be easy to deflect, minimize what actually happened in order to build our defense. Jesus tells one more time that if the person still isn’t willing to listen, tell the church…as the entire health of the body might be a stake.

            The fourth is to lament the brokenness. If attempts to reconcile are met with failure, it is okay to grieve, to mourn, and to be broken hearted, for we have undergone a loss to community.

            And the last and perhaps most important is to practice hospitality. “If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and tax collector.” At first read, this statement may seem harsh but consider this…the text does not say shun or cast them aside. Imagine how Jesus treats tax collectors and Gentiles. He eats with Zacchaeus, speaks to the Samaritan woman at the well, and heals the Roman centurion’s servant. Christ meets those deemed as outsiders with love, care, hope, healing, and compassion. We are also called to love this former offenders authentically. To extend compassion. To hold open the possibility of reconciliation and restoration. To never write people off because of conflict.

            Matthew’s text lays out steps to be taken when working towards establishing this beloved community. It would be difficult to read this text during these odd times of 2020 and not take comfort in Christ’s promise to abide in the midst of believers. The promise of when two…and I believe this could be you and God….or more are gathered….Christ abides with you. This is what is desired. Community. Interconnectedness. A beloved community to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God and one another.

            Friends, what are you willing to risk for the sake of having community? Theologian David Lose observes, “Authentic community is hard to come by. It’s work. But it’s worth it. Because when you find it, it’s like discovering a little bit of heaven on earth; that is, it’s like experiencing the reality of God’s communal fellowship and existence in your midst. And, as Jesus promises, when you gather in this way — with honesty and integrity, even when it’s hard amazing things can happen because Jesus is with you, right there, in your very midst, forming and being formed by your communal sharing.”

            How powerfully such a text speaks to this moment we find ourselves in. In times we may feel so divided, so deeply entrenched in our own perspectives. As Debie Thomas says, “we can barely even hear each other anymore…..what would it be like to live into the high calling of beloved community, here, now, in this profoundly troubled moment of conflict and division? What would it be like for all the world to know that we are Christians- not by our rightness, but by our love?”  So friends, I invite us all to ask ourselves, am I prepared to talk? Am I ready to listen? Amen.

Unexpected Joy!

Sarah Laughed

The following situations all have an under-lying factor holding them all together:

Hearing an infant’s deep belly giggles. Having the privilege to teach children and seeing kids connect to God while watching church. Drive-by birthday parties and baby showers. New four-legged family members. Playing in rain puddles with kids. Slowing down and having long talks with family. Having someone send a text or call for a phone conversation out of the blue, just asking how everything is going. Watching rainbows after storms or sunrises and sunsets. Seeing a pod of dolphins jump up in ocean. Watching creativity happen out of necessity and people coming together to help neighbors and raise money for those affected by COVID.

Today our scripture text challenges us to be on the lookout for the gift of unexpected joy. The deep, abiding joy of God that lifts our spirits and propels us with strength in these odd days we find ourselves in. Joy that lives down in our hearts to stay, even when we can’t always see it; this joy that is not necessarily based on circumstances. The situations I just mentioned came from several of my Facebook friends when I asked them the same question I want to pose to y’all now: How have you experienced unexpected joy over the past several months? I invite you to ponder this question as we turn to today’s scripture reading.

Scripture: Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7 Common English Bible

18 The Lord appeared to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre while he sat at the entrance of his tent in the day’s heat. He looked up and suddenly saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from his tent entrance to greet them and bowed deeply. He said, “Sirs, if you would be so kind, don’t just pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought so you may wash your feet and refresh yourselves under the tree. Let me offer you a little bread so you will feel stronger, and after that you may leave your servant and go on your way—since you have visited your servant.”

They responded, “Fine. Do just as you have said.”

So Abraham hurried to Sarah at his tent and said, “Hurry! Knead three measures of the finest flour and make some baked goods!” Abraham ran to the cattle, took a healthy young calf, and gave it to a young servant, who prepared it quickly. Then Abraham took butter, milk, and the calf that had been prepared, put the food in front of them, and stood under the tree near them as they ate.

They said to him, “Where’s your wife Sarah?”

And he said, “Right here in the tent.”

10 Then one of the men said, “I will definitely return to you about this time next year. Then your wife Sarah will have a son!”

Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him. 11 Now Abraham and Sarah were both very old. Sarah was no longer menstruating. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself, thinking, I’m no longer able to have children and my husband’s old.

13 The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Me give birth? At my age?’ 14 Is anything too difficult for the Lord? When I return to you about this time next year, Sarah will have a son.”

15 Sarah lied and said, “I didn’t laugh,” because she was frightened.

But he said, “No, you laughed.

21 The Lord was attentive to Sarah just as he had said, and the Lord carried out just what he had promised her. She became pregnant and gave birth to a son for Abraham when he was old, at the very time God had told him. Abraham named his son—the one Sarah bore him—Isaac.[a] Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old just as God had commanded him. Abraham was 100 years old when his son Isaac was born. Sarah said, “God has given me laughter. Everyone who hears about it will laugh with me.”[b] She said, “Who could have told Abraham that Sarah would nurse sons? But now I’ve given birth to a son when he was old!”

“Your descendants shall be as numerous as the stairs,” Abraham was told. Yet decades had passed and no children had come their way.  And, to rub salt in the wound, God had already changed both of their names in ironic ways, and names mean everything in Ancient Near Eastern culture. The husband had been called Abram, which means father.  He was now called Abraham, which means father of many.  The wife had been called Sarai, which means princess.  She was now called Sarah, which means mother.

In today’s text, Sarah overhears what is to come. She will at long last give birth to a child. When she hears such news, she laughs. Now, I imagine this particular laugh to be a more laughter of disbelief. An: ‘oh really?’ laugh, if you would. As if to remind God of context: ‘oh really?? God? Do you not remember how old I am? Is this some kind of a joke?’ In all fairness to Sarah, though, can you blame her? She had become accustomed to the idea of never having children of her own. She had become use to promises just beyond her grasp. And how many 90 year olds do you hear about having children?

Yet the Lord responds to Sarah’s laughter of ‘oh really, God?’ by posing a question. “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?” The Hebrew word, pala, used in this translation as difficult, can also be translated, wonderful, extraordinary, marvelous, or impossible. And a couple having children when mother is in 90’s would be all of the above—marvelous, impossible, and extraordinary. What wonderful news the Lord shares with Sarah. An unraveling of disbelief is promised, along with an heir, the promised child of Abraham and Sarah, the one they’ve waited so long for.

Theologian Walter Brueggemann describes this unraveling. He observes:

“Once again, this story shows what a scandal and difficulty faith is. Faith is not a reasonable act which fits into normal scheme of life and perception. The promise of the gospel is not conventional piece of wisdom that is easily accommodated to everything else. Embrace of this radical gospel requires shattering and discontinuity. Abraham and Sarah have by this time become accustomed to their barrenness. They are resigned to their closed future. They have accepted that hopelessness is ‘normal.’ The gospel promise does not meet them in receptive hopefulness but in resistant hopelessness…. Beyond the etymological explanations which link Isaac to ‘laugh,’ beyond doubtful embarrassment, Sarah laughs because, ‘God has made laughter for me.’ By God’s powerful word, God has broken the grip of death, hopelessness, and barrenness. The joyous laughter is the end of sorrow and weeping. Laughter is a biblical way of receiving a newness which cannot be explained. The newness is sheer gift-underived, unwarranted. Barrenness has now become ludicrous. It can now be laughed at because there is ‘full joy.’”

Sarah laughed because just when she thought her life had become unraveled to the point of no return, God knit her back together in a way that she could never have foreseen. The long awaited promised child would be born!

Fast forward approximately nine months later and I imagine Sarah’s laughter takes a completely different tone. While Sarah first ‘oh really God?’ laughter was in disbelief, now I imagine she belly laughs joyfully watching her son do just about anything. Isaac’s name is also significant as it means, “laughter.” Sarah is over the moon. I imagine she laughs when Isaac first smiled and took used his tiny fingers to reach for her hand for the first time.  “God has brought laughter for me, everyone who hears will laugh with me.” She says. Laughter and joy can spread like fire.

So what might this promise of unexpected joy mean for us today? Friends, it can be so easy to look around and see all that is wrong and broken around us. So where might God be surprising us today during these odd days? While it can be challenging to experience unexpected joy during times such as these, it is important to try. Even the little things matters.  Laughter, love, and joy are all constructive and connecting. All things that multiply when shared. These days when hope might be hard to find, when we are overwhelmed by the degree to which our world is so different from God’s intention for creation, where might we be surprised? Where and how can we create space for laughter, love, and joy? Is anything too wonderful for God?

Laughter is our natural response when we find ourselves with unexpected joy and surprise. The saying that laughter is the best medicine holds a lot of truth. Laughing releases endorphins, increases blood flow and oxygen and reduces blood pressure, it relaxes the body and reduces pain and tension. Laughter and joy are God given antidotes to the heaviness of the world.

Sarah’s laughter is the laughter that is laughed when someone who has experienced trauma finds joy again.

Sarah’s laughter is the laughter that is laughed when two friends are finally able to have a safe and distanced visit after months of quarantine.

Sarah’s laughter is the laughter of baptism which reminds us we are loved and claimed by God over and over again.

Sarah’s laughter is the laughter that is laughed when churches come together in creative ways during the season of COVID. When church members gather to write letters to one another, or to collect school supplies and donations for the Laurel Center. When we look beyond our walls and out into ways we can help our community through the struggle of this year.

Sarah’s laughter is the laughter that is laughed when we discover that nothing is too wonderful for the Lord.

May we all be surprised by laughter, joy, and love, and may we carry that gift of surprise into our community. May the gift of God’s joy and laughter sustain us for the days ahead and the work to which we are called. May we trust in the promises of a faithful God who continues to work in surprise and delight! May we be seekers of deep, belly laughs. And may God’s love swell up inside us and bubble over as laughter which can be shared with others. So laugh, my friends.  Laugh in such a way described in of one of my favorite songs from Mary Poppins, I love to Laugh: “loud, and strong, and clear.” May it be so, amen.

 

 

Public Grief That Inspires Action

unraveled-8-25

Sanctified Art Image by Lauren Wright Pittman @sanctifiedart

Prayer of Illumination: God of unending surprises, this life is a tapestry of moments woven together, and we long to be weavers of love. Today we gather and pray that you unravel our bias. Unravel our assumptions. Unravel whatever it is that keeps us from you. And as we do, clear space in our hearts for your Word. We are listening, we are praying, amen.

Friends, before we begin, I’m wondering if you have ever heard of the name Rizpah? Her name means “hot stone,” and though her words of outrage are not even in our Biblical cannon, her actions speak loud and clear. But I’m willing to bet that unless you are a pro at obscure Biblical trivia, you are not too familiar with Rizpah’s story. The lectionary doesn’t delve in Rizpah’s background and odds are you most certainly did not hear of Rizpah growing up in children’s Sunday school.  I confess and forewarn you the story of Rizpah is a hard one to stomach and perhaps after hearing the text, you may have some idea as to why most pastors don’t line up to preach Rizpah’s story of grief and gut-wrenching heartache.

I’ll confess that I was tempted several times to skip her story in “Unraveled” series and move to something less horrific. But Rizpah compelled me to share her story, to acknowledge her actions, to be challenged by her. So friends today, I challenge you to hear Rizpah’s story. I challenge us all to sit with Rizpah’s honest despair and unapologetic public grief.

But perhaps we are getting too far ahead of ourselves. Because this story is one of the lesser knowns in the Biblical text, here’s a bit of background which might be helpful before we come to our scripture reading for this morning. A nation is in utter chaos. Divided in two. Leaders are rising, falling, and chasing after power no matter what it cost the people and killing the innocent. Destruction, devastation, vengeance, and assassinations run rampant. A king has come to power, a man after God’s own heart, but still a man and honestly, a hot mess of scandal. He has engaged in corrupt political power moves, adultery, incest, and murder. He inherited a messy kingdom. The former king Saul’s mistakes and lack of keeping promises has come back to haunt the land.  Rains cease, crops die, people suffer, and famine comes.

Scripture: 2 Samuel 3:7, 21:1-14 Common English Bible

Now Saul had a secondary wife named Rizpah, Aiah’s daughter. Ishbosheth[b] said to Abner, “Why have you had sex with my father’s secondary wife?”

21 There was a famine for three years in a row during David’s rule. David asked the Lord about this, and the Lord said, “It is caused by Saul and his household, who are guilty of bloodshed because he killed the people of Gibeon.” 2 So the king called for the Gibeonites and spoke to them.

(Now the Gibeonites weren’t Israelites but were survivors of the Amorites. The Israelites had sworn a solemn pledge to spare them, but Saul tried to eliminate them in his enthusiasm for the people of Israel and Judah.)

3 David said to the Gibeonites, “What can I do for you? How can I fix matters so you can benefit from the Lord’s inheritance?”

4 The Gibeonites said to him, “We don’t want any silver or gold from Saul or his family, and it isn’t our right to have anyone in Israel killed.”

“What do you want?”[a] David asked. “I’ll do it for you.”

5 “Okay then,” they said to the king. “That man who opposed and oppressed[b] us, who planned to destroy us, keeping us from having a place to live anywhere in Israel— 6 hand over seven of his sons to us, and we will hang them before the Lord at Gibeon[c] on the Lord’s mountain.”

“I will hand them over,” the king said.

7 But the king spared Mephibosheth, Jonathan’s son and Saul’s grandson, because of the Lord’s solemn pledge that was between them—between David and Saul’s son Jonathan. 8 So the king took the two sons of Aiah’s daughter Rizpah, Armoni and Mephibosheth, whom she had birthed for Saul; and the five sons of Saul’s daughter Merab,[d] whom she birthed for Adriel, Barzillai’s son, who was from Meholah, 9 and he handed them over to the Gibeonites. They hanged them on the mountain before the Lord. The seven of them died at the same time. They were executed in the first days of the harvest, at the beginning of the barley harvest.

10 Aiah’s daughter Rizpah took funeral clothing and spread it out by herself on a rock. She stayed there from the beginning of the harvest until the rains poured down on the bodies from the sky, and she wouldn’t let any birds of prey land on the bodies during the day or let wild animals come at nighttime. 11 When David was told what Aiah’s daughter Rizpah, Saul’s secondary wife, had done, 12 he went and retrieved the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan from the citizens of Jabesh-gilead, who had stolen the bones from the public square in Beth-shan, where the Philistines had hanged them on the day the Philistines killed Saul at Gilboa. 13 David brought the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan from there and collected the bones of the men who had been hanged by the Gibeonites. 14 The bones of Saul and his son Jonathan were then buried in Zela, in Benjaminite territory, in the tomb of Saul’s father Kish. Once everything the king had commanded was done, God responded to prayers for the land.

Public Grief that Inspires Action. Friends, we can grieve many things. I think the story of Rizpah is a very public display of inconsolable grief, not only for the loss of life, but for the injustices of the world. Friends, what injustices do you grieve today? How might Rizpah’s story speak to us this day? I invite us to explore such questions.

One injustice which really irks me is when voices are silenced by society which deems their voices as unimportant. Women in Biblical times did not have say. Friends, my guess is it is not a mere coincidence that Rizpah’s words are lost from text. She is living in a corrupt system where women are forced to respond willingly to a man’s political power move on the chess board, with no voice, no power, no right.  She is mentioned early on in 2 Samuel, only because she was raped by Abner, Saul’s nephew.  Rizpah is one of Saul’s lower-status wives or concubine. This meant her children were not eligible to become rulers. They were only “sort of” royalty and treated as such. Maybe in David’s mind, it made sense to give up Rizpah’s son for this very reason.

But how could handing over seven men to be violently killed end a famine in God’s eyes? These seven men were victims of being in the wrong bloodline and were handed over just to appease a broken political promise. Bodies impaled and left to rot. Injustice. Rizpah, however, is compelled to act. She climbs up the mountain, and protects her boys.

Theologian Dr. Wilda C. Gafney puts it this way, “Rizpah watches the corpses of her sons (and the others) stiffen, soften, swell, and sink into stench of the decay. Apparently she is denied permission to bury her dead. Denial of proper funerary rites was a common means of cursing and punishing an enemy and their people in and beyond death in the ancient Near East. Rizpah fights the winged, clawed, toothed scavengers night and day. She is there as many as six months; sleeping, eating, toileting, protecting, and bearing witness to injustice.”

Not only does Rizpah protect her two children, but she protects and fights for all of the boy’s lifeless bodies. She steps in as their surrogate mother. She doesn’t sit by and say, that’s not MY child, or that’s not MY community; no Rizpah looks at the beaten and broken bodies and remembers the humanity of the boys. Rizpah places the honor and protection of those lives taken too soon and too unjustly before her own safety. She shows persistent strength. However, being extremely vulnerable, not only to the elements, but opening the sacred piece of your soul where deep grieving takes place and making a tent in mourning cloths, grieving in a very public setting, was risky for Rizpah. But the injustice done to those boys’ bodies unraveled her in way that she couldn’t just sit at home and mourn.  Imagine if Rizpah would have grieved quietly in solitude, would the famine have EVER ended? Her actions demand justice despite her being tired, hungry, lonely, and despite the kingdom already moving on.

At the 2018 Evolving Faith Conference, writer Austin Channing Brown preached perhaps one of the more beautifully challenging sermons I’ve heard. Austin speaks from a place of pain from witnessing so many injustices in world. She says, “I imagine Rizpah may have had an abundance of energy when she first climbed that mountain. But now she’s tired and lonely. And her body hurts and her hearts hurts and the Kingdom has moved on. I don’t know how she did it. But here’s what I think. I think she looked at those bodies and remembered their humanity. I think she remembered the way they used to play at her feet. I think she remembered their first words. And the first time they learned to clap their hands. You see, Rizpah refuses to be taken in by the message of dehumanization. Everyone else looked around at those decomposing bodies are were disgusted. But Rizpah refused to let religious notions of piety become the catalyst for her own inhumanity.”

So for about six months, Rizpah stood her ground. Long after the community forgot, long after everyone moved on to the next thing, Rizpah guarded the broken bodies. Day after day, I imagine the people watched her, and you can bet the people talked. Maybe they were sympathetic at first but over time, perhaps they became more and more cruel. “That Rizpah has lost it,” they whisper. King David did eventually have his understanding of the causes and cure for famine unraveled. Rizpah’s public grief finally unraveled to justice and a proper burial for her boys. It was then, and only then, that God ended the famine and restored the land.

The injustice of Rizpah’s story continues to haunt me. Rizpah’s story is a call to open our eyes and to notice. To notice injustice, to notice suffering of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Her story is a call to not walk past the injustices of the world and the modern day Rizpah’s crying out and demanding a change. Rather to notice them, to sit with them, to listen, and to be moved to action by the Rizpah’s of our world. A call to come alongside and work together as followers of Christ to move towards the day when justice will roll down like cascading waters to move towards a day when all Rizpah’s are given voice and know they are welcomed at God’s table.

A few other injustices that irk me are loss of innocent lives and systematic racism that plagues society. Rizpah represents every women who lost her children too young because of civil and social injustice. Women like Mamie Till-Mobley who placed her fourteen year old, African American son in an open casket to show the world the racial violence of his murder. Or the countless other mothers who bury their babies too young because injustice or war. All that remains is for Rizpah is to preserve the dignity of their memory and live on to bear witness and call to account the rulers of the world. In her sermon on Rizpah, Austin Channing Brown states, “Your anger points to what is wrong and what could be made right. Your anger is not destructive, it is instructive.” She goes on to say, “I call you Rizpah, for you who have the courage to be angry and the love required to pursue justice. To step into lost causes, to speak truth to power. I call you Rizpah.”

In her blog, “Church for the Starving Artists,” Jan Edmiston recently observed, “prayerful marching in the streets will not make things right. Book groups will not make things right. But the hope is that someone will be moved, someone will wake up, and someone will realize that it’s our responsibility as followers to Jesus to do more than wish the ugliness in our world away.”

Christians are not called to an easy path, where we are to go through life un-touched by problems, and with the luxury to not choose a side when injustice is prevalent or act solely with performative actions which at best offer Band-Aids for injustice. Instead, we are called to, “do justice….now…to love mercy….now….to walk humbly with God….now.” This is what God requires of us when we encounter Rizpahs mourning loss of life and mourning loss of justice. And friends, God weeps alongside the Rizpahs of our world….the question is will we?  May it be so. Amen.

 

 

 

Seeking Understanding When Everything Falls Apart

Job

Artwork by Lisle Gyynn Garrity of @Sanctified Arts Inc

Prayer of Illumination: God of unending surprises, this life is a tapestry of moments woven together, and we long to be weavers of love. Today we gather and pray that you unravel our bias. Unravel our assumptions. Unravel whatever it is that keeps us from you. And as we do, clear space in our hearts for your Word. We are listening, we are praying, amen.

Scripture Text: Job 28:12-28 (Common English Bible)

But wisdom, where can it be found;
where is the place of understanding?
13 Humankind doesn’t know its value;
it isn’t found in the land of the living.
14 The Deep[a] says, “It’s not with me”;
the Sea[b] says, “Not alongside me!”
15 It can’t be bought with gold;
its price can’t be measured in silver,
16     can’t be weighed against gold from Ophir,
with precious onyx or lapis lazuli.
17 Neither gold nor glass can compare with it;
she can’t be acquired with gold jewelry.
18 Coral and jasper shouldn’t be mentioned;
the price of wisdom is more than rubies.
19 Cushite topaz won’t compare with her;
she can’t be set alongside pure gold.
20 But wisdom, where does she come from?
Where is the place of understanding?
21 She’s hidden from the eyes of all the living,
concealed from birds of the sky.
22 Destruction[c] and Death have said,
“We’ve heard a report of her.”
23 God understands her way;
he knows her place;
24     for he looks to the ends of the earth
and surveys everything beneath the heavens.
25 In order to weigh the wind,
to prepare a measure for waters,
26     when he made a decree for the rain,
a path for thunderbolts,
27     then he observed it, spoke of it,
established it, searched it out,
28     and said to humankind: “Look,
the fear of the Lord is wisdom;
turning from evil is understanding.”

        Have you ever felt like the earth was unraveling right underneath your feet? Perhaps you feel that unraveling today. Our scripture text this morning is from the book of Job which is a complicated piece of wisdom literature that shows us we can be honest with God about how we are feeling. Just in case you aren’t familiar with Job’s story, Job is a good guy. The text goes so far as to tell us that Job is “blameless and turns from evil”. Job loves God and cares for his neighbors. He makes sure those in his household know they are appreciated and loved. Yet, the book of Job is filled with a distinct type of unraveling, pain, and chaos. Friends, Job is a hard book which raises more questions than provides solid answers.

            You see, at the beginning of the text, Job has everything a person could want; land, wealth, a healthy and large family, and his own physical well-being. We read very early in Job that a satanic character attributes Job’s loyalty to God as pure circumstance, noting if all Job had were to be taken away, Job would curse God and turn away from God. The text shows us that God says go ahead, that God knew Job would still not curse God. In just the first few chapters Job losses his property, livestock, and his children. Shortly after Job is afflicted with intensely painful sores from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head and left abandoned by friends—and this all happens within the first three chapters! His own wife, who also is grieving their joint losses, challenges him to curse God and die—-yet Job states, “should I receive God’s goodness and not curses?” Job remains a blameless man throughout, and even though he eventually curses the day he was born, he never curses God. But Job does suffer immensely.

            We can all relate to idea of just when you think things can’t get any worse, things end up getting ten or more times worse. We may ask; why so much loss? Why so much injustice? Why so much grief? If Job is a good person, why do bad things happen to him, why do bad things happen to us? Now friends, it would be irresponsibly foolish to pretend to have all the answers to the hard, valid, and complex text of Job. Or even to begin to satisfy the why bad things happen to good people question with one sermon. These questions are so complicated to even presume to address in one sermon is unwise. Because friends, we don’t have all the answers to the hard questions. I can only speak to text and how I’ve seen God amidst the unraveling of our world, when it feels as though everything has fallen apart. We work so hard to keep the carefully constructed building blocks of our lives safe, to make sure everything is decent and orderly—only to have an unexpected wind knock them down and have everything fall apart.

            So perhaps the question before us today is what does it look like to embrace the mystery of God even in the midst of suffering? One unexpected joy from this year has been becoming introduced to the work of Duke University professor, theologian, and author, Kate Bowler. Kate currently works to rebuke the simple platitudes that everything happens for a reason and the notion that good people deserve good things and bad people deserve suffering. Instead, she offers ways she’s encountered God in midst of suffering. At age thirty-five Kate had a great job, loving husband, and new baby. All of her life was turned upside down and unraveled when Kate was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer at thirty-five.

            In her book, “Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved,” Kate’s story is laid out in Job-like fashion. She speaks about how we all encounter Job-like trials in life and are pushed to ask the hard questions of our faith. Kate observes, “There’s something about our pain and our unanswered prayers and our disappointments that upends our understanding of who God is, but it can break open something new.” We can learn to experience God in profoundly new ways.

            In a recent episode of her podcast, “Everything Happens,” Kate recalls the intensity of realizing God was fully present in hospital as she received treatments. “I think the great surprise for me was that God is there no matter what, I don’t have to conjure up God. It’s not one that requires effort, even, or correct belief, always, or the right kind of prayer. When I was in the hospital, God was somehow there. And in the worst moments of my life, for some reason there is more than enough. And that’s just the Holy Spirit. That’s the only prosperity gospel I’m super into — it’s the one in which, for some reason, God chooses to fill in the cracks. And sometimes we get that experience, and sometimes we don’t, but we know it when it is happening.” Kate talks about how a lamenting soul can become a hopeful soul with stubborn hope.

            Job has a type of stubborn hope that refuses to curse God, despite the crumbling circumstances around him. Even when Job seek wisdom and God says to Job, “where were you when I created the heavens?” Friends, it is so incredibly hard to have stubborn hope, hope in the darkness. To cry out to God in the ashes of lament, to work through hard issues of faith; to be okay with not always having the answers. But through our stubborn hope we can learn new things and experience God’s presence in new ways.

            I love the idea of encouraging folks to engage scripture through a variety of different forms, through music, words, poetry, and art. Sanctified Art partner, Lisle Gyynn Garrity created a visual piece of artwork which was inspired by today’s scripture text.  As she thought about our scripture text and how it inspired and encouraged her artwork to evolve, she writes: “I imagined being stuck in the deep, as if anchored underwater, looking up at surface. I imagined the textures and symbols emerging to portray Job’s search for meaning, his grasping to find a way out. But as the painting came together it was all wrong…..I almost scraped it all together but added more layers and depths….A window emerged in the middle of the painting…while I started with lament, I ended with awe. ‘To fear God is wisdom,’ Job 28:28 states. Yirah, the Hebrew word translated as fear, literally translates to awesome…..True wisdom lies in breathless reverence for God’s mystery….for God’s presence that is beyond what we can control, or reason, or make too small.”

            Friends, as I mentioned earlier in the sermon, I can only really speak to the text and how others and myself have related to suffering. I know life is unfair. I know humanity is broken and injustice lives in our midst.  But I know God is with us in suffering. I agree wholeheartedly with Lutheran pastor, Nadia Bolz- Weber in looking at the hard complex question of does God allow suffering.  She states, “This is our God. Not a distant judge nor a sadist, but a God who weeps. A God who suffers, not only for us, but with us. Nowhere is the presence of God amidst suffering more salient than on the cross. Therefore what can I do but confess that this is not a God who causes suffering. This is a God who bears suffering. I need to believe that God does not initiate suffering; God transforms it.”

            Friends, as one of my pastor friends stated, “2020 has looked and felt a lot similar to a Job-like year.” Many things have fallen apart. We seem to be living in the mucky trenches of lament. We lament for injustices. We lament for plans that ended up being put aside. We lament and miss one another. We lament the state of the way things are.

            Maybe you have not had the chance to collectively lament, to name the things that feel like they are unraveling. So friends, I invite us to sit in this space now. To sit in our own ash piles and name our laments. I invite you to scream them, cry them out, or hold them in unspoken silence. I encourage you to write them down on paper, crumble them up, or rip them up. Scream, cry, and voice your lament to God. Give your laments to our God who cares for us, who hears them, who is with us through them. Because, friends, we worship a God big enough for our sufferings and laments. A God who can sit with us and hold a sacred place with us in our laments. Amen.

Unraveled By Uncertainty

jesus

Matthew 14:22-33

Prayer: God of unending surprises, this life is a tapestry of moments woven together, and we long to be weavers of love. Today we gather and pray that you would unravel our bias. Unravel our assumptions. Unravel whatever it is, that keeps us from you. And as we do, clear space in our hearts for your Word. We are listening. We are praying. Amen.

As I took countless prayer walks and tried to discern what to preach on during this unique, discombobulating summer of 2020, I came across Sanctified Arts’ “Unraveled” series. I don’t know about you, but during this time of unrest and discombobulation, I have felt more than a bit unraveled. But what does it mean to be unraveled; to be disheveled? What happens when we feel as though our world is falling apart? Unraveled can mean many things. To become undone. To break and become shaky at the core of our souls. To investigate something complicated or puzzling. Friends, I can relate and attest to the hard spiritual work of investigating and encountering some complicated and puzzling stories. As the creators of the series from Sanctified Art say, “These are stories where God meets us in the spiraling, unraveling our plans—God meets us—creating us into something new.”  Because the good news is whatever becomes unraveled can, with help, become new and mended once again.

In Matthew’s gospel, today’s text take places immediately following Christ and the disciples receiving the devastating news of John the Baptist’s death. Christ’s sadness and need to withdraw is met with a mourning crowd. A crowd hungry for love and nourishment. A crowd met with a miraculous feeding of the 5,000 and level of compassion from a grieving Messiah that is unprecedented. Yet, after the feeding of 5,000, even Jesus needs some time in prayer by himself, and goes off to do so. When the waves grew, battering the boat the disciples were on, Jesus re-enters.

I believe in every fiber of my being that the Holy Spirit speaks to us through scripture. You may heard this story preached multiple times and I’ve preached this story several times myself. There have been times I’ve read this text and been too hard on Peter, myself, and others. I’ve read the story as, ‘okay, let’s work on our faith,’ as if to say that maybe if Peter only had more faith, he would have made it to Christ.

But this time, reading the text, I thought, let’s not be too hard on Peter.  I ask myself if I were in Peter’s sandals, would I have gotten out of the boat in the first place. I wonder if I would even step into the unknown as waves and wind battered the boat. Would you? This time, it was Peter’s uncertainty in the text and more how Christ meets Peter in his uncertainty that leapt off the page at me. It is interesting how I read text through post- COVID-19 lens and how differently we all may read texts through a lens of the uncertainty, unrest and unraveling of 2020. There are two questions I want to push us to ask today’s text. The first is “How is God working in the midst of the unraveling?”

Peter becomes unraveled by his uncertainty. Peter takes a step into the waves and begins to sink. His confidence unravels right there in the wind and waves. Fortunately for him and for us, Jesus is there, the boat is there, and his friends are there. When we are sinking in doubt and uncertainty, let us remember God’s outstretched hand. Sometimes, we need God to unravel us, to shake up our faith, to open our eyes and knit us back together and point us towards a new path.

But it is not just Peter who is unraveled by uncertainty in today’s text. It is also the cautious ones in the boat watching Peter step out. The one who walked for a time on water, the same one who is afraid and sinks and calls for help, and the ones who saw it all and confessed that Jesus is the son of God.  They are all actually equal in their relationship to God because…all of these and all of us have one thing in common: we are all those whom Jesus draws near saying, ‘it is I, do not be afraid.’

As pastor and author, Nadia Bolz-Weber observes, “The glamorous part of this story is that Peter walked on water. Which let’s all admit, that is pretty cool. And maybe Peter almost had enough faith to make his way to Jesus.  But what happens on either side of his short little water walk?  Jesus comes toward HIM.  In the storm Jesus is walking toward the boat, when Peter sinks, Jesus is reaching toward Peter. Christ is there to be with Peter through his uncertain walk and sinking. But Jesus doesn’t stop there, He also gets in the boat with them…that’s about as with them as he can be. Yet we seem to always focus on Peter walking toward Jesus when the whole story is about how much Jesus walks toward them and us…how Christ reaches toward them and then even gets in the boat with them.”

So what does this text say to us this morning, in the midst of all the unraveling in our world? This leads us to the second question: What might we glean from this story of unraveling? I have a confession. I don’t do well with uncertainty. If I’m being overly generous, I’d give myself a D when it comes to dealing with uncertainty. Whether I’m uncertain about something small like who may pick me up from the airport in China, while I was studying overseas during seminary. Or something bigger, like where I should go to school or move, I’m not always great at it.

I have a sense, I’m not alone in this, especially now…as so many uncertainties glaringly make themselves known and are in our face day after day. Whether it is not knowing if our jobs will still be in place, or not knowing whether a long looked forward to vacation will happen or not. Or not knowing what may be safe for us or unsafe. Or like being uncertain how to pray at times over these last couple weeks. When our prayers are more “ugh” and sighs than comprehensive words. (But that’s another sermon for another day.) Or the uncertainty that pulls my hearts strings daily, not knowing when we can safely gather again. Yet, I have had enough uncertainty in my life to know that NOTHING is certain. These storms of uncertainty can churn our faith up as easily as hurricanes churn up tormenting waves that thrash boats around on the sea. Uncertainty is hard, even when Christ meets us there.

As Peter becomes unraveled with uncertainty, Christ meets him there, just as Christ meets us in uncertain times today. Once Peter is back in the boat, Peter and the other disciples’ fear and uncertainty unravels into worshipful praise.  As theologian Walter Brueggermann writes, “Peter walks, becomes frightened by the wind, begins to sink, and cries out to Jesus, as is rescued. This familiar sequence of actions need to be understood in light of the obedient act that put Peter on the water in the first place. It is not a story of the skeptic who habitually doubts, but the story of a faithful follower who becomes overwhelmed by the circumstances surrounding him, who begins to lose his nerve when he discovers the odds stacked against him, but who from Jesus finds a steady, delivering hand.” Church, can you relate?

Friends, I would encourage you to think about the following question today and to share your thoughts with those in your household or a friend. Can you think of a time Christ recently walked toward you with an outstretched hand during these days of uncertainty? You know, for me, I feel Christ’s outstretched hand when I see members of our congregation responding to recent events with love and compassion. I see it in the way folks come together to take care of each other and to take care of neighbors, even though small actions of offering water. I’ve felt it as I’ve read through the Psalms during these times, because the Bible living word through power of Holy Spirit.

One thing, I’ve gleaned from Peter’s uncertainty this week is that Christ is with us whether we can fully sense his presence or not. Christ reaches for us during our uncertainties. Friends, Christ is with us. Now. And always. Let us work to heed his words, “Do not be afraid, it is me!” and reach up as his hand stretches down to us. Amen.

Awestruck

6d1495a3fd64294688090910b1979306 (1)

Scripture Readings: Acts 1: 6-14, John 17:1-11

In these twilight zone days we find ourselves living in, one of the things I’ve held onto has been finding things that strike me with awe each day. So today, I invite you to think for a moment about—what fills you with a sense of awe? You know, for me, I remember being a young girl and loving to watch bubbles. I found it fascinating how our breath, could make such wonderment and fun. I’d look up at the sky as the bubbles were carried away by the wind higher and higher. I’d wonder where the bubbles were going.

Looking at a sunrise also fills me with a sense of awe. The predictable cycle of sun up, sun down, especially during these days reminds me that each new day is just that—a new day, a new day the Lord has made and a new chance to rejoice and be glad…even in the smallest of ways.

Both our scripture lessons for today provide a sense of awe and have qualities of wonderment. In today’s passage from John, we hear Jesus praying.  Towards the end of his prayer, Christ begins to pray for all his followers. He prays for us. He prays lovingly for his friends. I wonder if the disciples overheard Jesus. I can’t help but wonder how powerful and awe-inspiring it would be to overhear such a prayer. Especially from the very one who taught others to pray, who healed the sick, and who binded up the broken hearted. How does it feel when you know others are praying for you? How does it feel to know Christ prays for us? Awe-inspiring? Humbling?

The story of Christ’s ascension also strikes up a sense of awe. One specific re-telling of the story which perhaps overstates the mystical nature of Christ’s ascension is a folklore story passed down from the early Christian Desert Fathers. The story has been changed and adapted throughout the centuries.  This folklore-like story speaks quite imaginatively to how Jesus’ ascension draws us nearer to God. The desert father’s story goes something like this:

“After Jesus died, he appeared several times to his friends. This, of course, usually happened when a group of them got together to talk about him – retelling his jokes and remembering what Jesus taught them. On this particular day, a really large crowd of his friends had gathered, and what do you know, Jesus showed up, too. He began to teach them, saying, “Pray for enemies! Turn the other cheek! Go the extra mile! And of course, love one another. Every single one, every single day—this is how people will come to know me”

When Jesus had said all this, a voice from the heaven boomed, “ASCEND!” And so, he did. He spread out his arms, looked up to heaven with a knowing smile, and slowly began to rise.

The disciples watched, stunned, and suddenly, Mary, realizing what was happening, gave a shout, backed up to get a running start, and LEAPT up to grab Jesus’s ankle. “I’m coming too!” she cried. John, seeing what was happening, jumped up and grabbed Jesus’ OTHER ankle.

Jesus, slightly concerned, stopped and looked down at them and then back up to heaven and asked: “God, what do I do?” And God said, “ASCEND!” And so, all together, holding on to one another, lifting each other up, they all began to rise.

Now the other disciples, saw Mary and John rising with Jesus, and they, of course, they wanted to go, too. Suddenly all of Jesus’ friends are jumping and grabbing onto Mary and John’s ankles. Mary, John, and Jesus reached out to pull them up until there was a small pyramid of people forming in the sky. A little alarmed, Jesus asked again, “What do I do, God?” Again the voice from heaven cried, “ASCEND!” And all together, holding on to one another, lifting each other up, they all began to rise.

Then people from all over, people who had seen Jesus’ miracles or heard him preach—–people who had seen the friends of Jesus feed the hungry and show kindness, they began to jump up, and reached out to grab onto the lower most disciples’ feet. And slowly, all together, holding on to one another, lifting each other up, they all began to rise.

But a little girl way at the bottom shouted, “Stop, wait! I want to bring my dog!” And Jesus, WAY up at the top yells back down, “Try to hurry – I’m not 100% sure how this works!” So the little girl, still scanning the horizon, reached out and grabbed a tree and the branch held on tight. Everyone kept rising and the tree began to rise too, and it looked like the tree would be uprooted, but the tree curled its toes and held on tight to the earth. And the earth started to rise, too, but it reached out to the sea, and the sea grabbed hold with its waves and HELD ON tight and no one let go and slowly, all together, holding on to one another, lifting each other up, the whole world was drawn closer to God.”

            The work of Jesus is to draw us closer to one another and to God.

            While this is an imaginative folklore telling of the story, one thing holds true…through the ascension of Christ, we are all drawn closer to God.

            The story of Christ’s ascension inspires awe but also action. Even the last words the disciples heard from Jesus’ lips are awe-inspiring….but his words also require action. Jesus says to them “you will be my witnesses”….you will help draw people towards me.

Sometimes with awe comes a sense of confusion, of asking silently or out loud, “Did that really just happen?” We always sort of make fun of the disciples for staring at the sky long after the soles of Jesus’ feet disappear amidst the clouds. But perhaps they were waiting for that gift of the Spirit — after all if they saw him go into heaven, then the Spirit would immediately fill them and they would feel ready to take up the mantle and carry on, right?  And if they didn’t feel any different that day, then no wonder they stood staring at the sky, squinting against the sun as their necks began to ache.

Once again it took some more men in white robes — the very messengers we usually call angels — to call their eyes back to earth. These messengers reminded the disciples where they had come from, and what they were meant to do. Remember who you are. Remember how you met Jesus first. Remember what he did, taught, and now what he has called you to do. Don’t just stand here looking for him to meet your expectations. Your job now is to go out and bear witness. Before making a master plan, they went to the upper room and spent time in prayer.

I wonder what it felt like to return to that upper room, having no idea how long they would need to stay there.  Actually….maybe we have some idea what it feels like now, more than we ever have before!

But to know that at some point, they would be sent out to be witnesses, not just to the people they already knew, but also to their historic enemies, and also to people far and wide whom they had never even heard of, let alone met? How does one prepare to be a witness? Jesus’ friends give us the pattern. They paused and prayed. They waited on the Holy Spirit. They told the stories of Jesus’ life.  They were alert to whatever God had to show them, even behind closed doors.

Remember, they knew firsthand that closed doors were no barrier for the risen Christ, and so doors would not be a barrier for the Holy Spirit. Even locked in the upper room, they could see, hear, and experience God with them. They wanted to be ready.

Their desire to answer Christ’s call meant that they were able to spend however long—whether it was days or weeks–, preparing in prayer and recalling the story. They wanted to be effective witnesses when the time was right — to tell the story so that people would understand its truth, to live lives changed by their experience of the risen Christ so that people would see Christ’s power. So they prayed. They waited and listened. They looked for God right where they were. They read the scriptures. They encouraged each other. They stayed alert to the movement of the Spirit.

Perhaps we too can use this time to prepare to be the witnesses Christ calls us to be. The world has changed, people are looking for hope, for truth, for grace….more than ever, we could use some evidence of resurrection. I’m reminded of the VBS song I learned a long, long, time ago. The song says, “the church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is the people.” When the time is right, will people see us living resurrection life? Will they hear our story of love as more powerful than death and be convinced? Will the truth of God’s amazing grace be seen and heard in Christ’s Body, so that the whole world understands the kingdom of God is at hand? As Rachel Held Evans says, “I best quit standing here staring at the bottoms of your feet, Jesus, and instead get to work—feeding, fellowshipping, healing, teaching, loving, hosting, sharing, breaking bread and pouring wine.” One day at a time.

Friends, if we want to be ready, the Spirit can show us the way. Come, Holy Spirit, amen.

Knowing the Way

I am the way

John 14:1-14 (CEB)

14 “Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God. Trust also in me. My Father’s house has room to spare. If that weren’t the case, would I have told you that I’m going to prepare a place for you? When I go to prepare a place for you, I will return and take you to be with me so that where I am you will be too. You know the way to the place I’m going.”

Thomas asked, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

Jesus answered, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you have really known me, you will also know the Father. From now on you know him and have seen him.”

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father; that will be enough for us.”

Jesus replied, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been with you all this time? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words I have spoken to you I don’t speak on my own. The Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Trust me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or at least believe on account of the works themselves. 12 I assure you that whoever believes in me will do the works that I do. They will do even greater works than these because I am going to the Father. 13 I will do whatever you ask for in my name, so that the Father can be glorified in the Son. 14 When you ask me for anything in my name, I will do it.

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            When your heart is troubled, where or to whom do you turn? You know, for me, I call my Mom. If I have questions about recipes or how long it takes to defrost chicken, I call my Mom. In seminary, during the many times I was lost navigating Pittsburgh’s busy and uniquely confusing streets, I’d call my Mom. When I am having a horrible, no good, very bad day, I call my Mom. And when I bump up against the darker roads of life that cause my heart to cry, and my heart to be deeply troubled, I call my Mom. I call her because we have a close relationship. I call my Mom because I trust her with my troubled heart, and know she has a listening place for me. Conversations with her often provide comfort and assurance. So when your heart is troubled, who offers pieces of significant comfort?

            In our text today, the disciple’s hearts are very troubled. The setting for our scripture text is grim, sad, and confusing. Immediately before our text, Jesus shares a last meal with his disciples, washes their dust caked feet, and talks about how the disciples, who have followed him, for the most part of three years, could no longer follow where he would be going next. The disciples are in a place where they certainly have more questions than answers and are sitting in the tension of not knowing what might come next. Much like today, there are lots of unknowns.

            Yet, despite all of what he is about to go through, Jesus still offers them a comfort only he can. I appreciate how Pastor Eugene Peterson translates verse one in his Message translation.  It reads, “Don’t let this throw you,” as though Jesus sees his friend’s anxieties rising and is helping them take a deep breathe. Jesus does not leave the disciples without some final important lessons in this final discourse. And his response and reassurance to the disciples still rings true for us today: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God. I am the way, the truth, and the life. I have a place for you and there’s always room for you.  You know me, therefore you know the Way.”  Like a mother scooting over to make room next to her on the couch for a scared child, saying scooch in, cuddle close and rocking the child telling them to trust her, it will be okay, Christ comforts his friends and us. “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”

            These are words of comfort that the world needs right now. Perhaps you have heard portions of this scripture passage at memorial and celebration of life services. I know I’ve read this text by many bedsides, holding the hands of friends before they pass on. These words provide a level of comfort and assurance. We can bring our troubled hearts to this text and to Christ. But Christ doesn’t stop there.  Thomas, who is often wrongly deemed as Doubting, though truthfully, I think Inquisitive Thomas is more appropriate; for he reminds us to pour out our questions. Thomas asks a very realistic question, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going…how can we know the way?”

            Perhaps I can sympathize with Thomas’ question, because I too, want to make sure I’m going the right way. I want to make sure I have a valid road map and strong GPS signal to help along the way. Once again, I’m reminded of a road in Pittsburgh that serves as entry way to city after Fort Pitt tunnel. The road can be confusing the first time entering the city. And even if you know the way, you can easily get distracted with city views or there could be multiple cars blocking the lanes you need to get over into very quickly and you can end up on the wrong path.

            We ask questions and are free to ask them, because we want to make sure we are going the right way….that we are staying close to Christ. Friends, if we think about it, we know there are sometimes other things or people we put our trust in, other little gods we construct for ourselves, who are not the way, truth, or life: These gods are impostors even if they look beautiful, speak kindly, or make the most alluring promises. These gods pretend to make the world less scary and tamer. Christian writer, Debie Thomas describes just a few gods we may be tempted to view as the way. She writes:

            “The god who bargains, transacts, and seals the deal: if I do A, then god does B. If I behave, then I’ll be loved. If I mess up, I’ll make god angry. If I work hard, I’ll earn forgiveness. A god who has a place for me, if I uphold my end of the deal.

            The god whose omnipotence guarantees safety: the god who spares children, eliminates viruses, conquers depression, ends anxiety, and eliminates terror, who makes the way easy and safe.

            The god who makes faith easy. Who provides answers to all my burning questions, erases all doubts, plants clear and visible signs that we can’t miss because they hit us directly on the head. A god who comes when called and leaves when dismissed.”

            Have you ever been tempted to follow any of these gods? It can be tempting to believe these other little gods we create for ourselves are the way, but friends, like Phillip and Thomas, like Peter, James, and John, like Mary, Martha, and the others, we know the true Way. Early Christians were called “Followers of the Way” and there is no God hidden behind the back of Jesus Christ. In our heart of hearts and with the help of the Holy Spirit, we know the way, we know Jesus. As theologian Robert Jenson observes, “God is not known by us because we can be smarter or figure out God. In a Word made flesh, God is made known in the self-giving, self-emptying love that is God’s son.” So friends, what does it mean for us that Jesus is the way?

            The way of Christ is the way of forgiving our enemies and welcoming the outcasts. The way of Christ is scooting over and making room at God’s table for our fellow oddballs, for people who are loved and valued by God even if they look different from us or have a different political view. The way isn’t always easy, and can be demanding and precarious. Following the way takes time and guidance by the Holy Spirit’s nudges.  We are following the Way when we take meals and groceries to our vulnerable neighbors, when we seek to care for the less of these. God finds us and helps us along the way and with every unknowing we embrace, God finds us one more time.

            You have a place with me, Jesus tells his friends. God is not exclusive, God is roomy and welcoming. As the beautiful children song so faithfully reminds us, God’s got the Whole World in His hands. Friends, you have a place with God. You have a place, we are invited to live out our story as God’s story, empowered by and with the help and guidance of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, do not let your hearts be troubled. Though we may feel alone or anxious, the Way is open before us. And we know Jesus, the Way will bring us home. Amen.