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.

Peace be with You

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Scripture Text: John 20:19-31

Prayer of Illumination: Risen and Reigning Lord, unlock our hearts today as we seek to hear your Words for us and may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be ever acceptable in your sight, Lord, our Rock and Redeemer. Amen.

This second Sunday after Easter begins our Eastertide/ Pentecost season. I encourage you to be on the lookout for seasonal bookmarks and devotionals from our Eastertide/ Pentecost team this week as we delve deeper into God’s story with the theme focusing in on; God’s breath, our story. Eastertide spans the fifty days between Resurrection Sunday and celebration of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. These were the earliest days of the church when times were chaotic, decision needed to be made, and the apostles were trying to continuously remember what it meant to follow Christ.

In our text from John, we hear the story of Christ’s second resurrection appearance. You may remember in John’s gospel, Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved only saw an empty tomb, Mary was the only one to see the Risen Lord. Most of the disciples had gathered together in hiding, fearful for their lives, perhaps in the room where they had shared the Last Supper with Christ just a few days earlier. Their grief was fresh and raw and real. Here these words from John 20:19-31:

Imagine what it is like to try to believe the unbelievable. You have probably had the worst week imaginable as your beloved teacher and friend suffered a horrific death. You know that he spoke about coming back but you do not understand what He meant by such words and you are still confused; only now you are confused and alone. As an aside, I think Thomas gets an undeserved nickname from this text. I find Thomas’ questions relatable and valid, but that’s another sermon for another day.  Friends, the disciples are confused and anxious but today’s text is a story of hope and promise and not a story of reprimand.

It is a lesson about Jesus giving what is needed for belief even after the cross and the grace of His patience to do so. The first time Jesus walks through locked doors, his disciples are fearful of Jewish leaders.  Perhaps they remained fearful of Jewish leaders even after Jesus appeared to them as the second time the doors were also locked. Yet, twice in our scripture, Jesus walked through locked doors and offered peace…a peace only He can grant. He gave the gift of the Holy Spirit, so we would believe and not be alone. Jesus does not stop appearing and coming to us just because the doors are locked; He walks through them as many times as needed, is patient and shows the immeasurable extent of His love for us. The Risen Christ gives his fearful disciples the promised peace which passes understanding. Even if the disciples were isolated twice due to fear, Jesus finds ways to breach their barrier, enter in their isolated spaces, and say peace be with you.

 

So friends, here we are today. The followers of Jesus. Waiting in uncertainty. Just like the followers did two thousand years ago. Friends, I miss seeing you. I miss gathering for worship. All of this can be so overwhelming, sheltering in place, not knowing when the world will take a turn for the better. But friends, John’s gospel today, allows us, invites us, compels us to name our anxieties, and laments, as Thomas and the other disciples did, without shame or embarrassment. Because the truth of the text remains the same. Though the days seem longer and the world is filled with chaos—-I believe in every fiber of my being that God is with us through it all.

Whether you are facing fear because of the virus or bank account balances or staffing changes at work—God is with you. Whether you are at your wits end, doubting a day will ever come when life will yet again feel normal—-God is with you. Whether you personally are secluded at home, or leaving home daily for your essential job while you pray for no contamination among the people you encounter – God is with you.

Jesus will walk through our locked doors as many times as needed. This can be especially hard to believe when it seems our universe has crumbled around us and we are faced with physical and spiritual chaos and crisis. What compelled me most about this text as I studied this week was, the Risen Lord, knows exactly where we are and how we actually are. Yet as Jill Duffield states, “He does not condemn our struggles to believe in God’s power and God’s goodness when all we’d imagined or planned gets upended…Friends, God in Christ makes his way to us, wherever we are, to reassure us of the trustworthiness of God’s creative, living word. He allows us to see him, touch him, stare at him in awe filled wonder, and study him, recognizing our fragility and shock….as we huddle anxiously in secluded places, how have we seen and heard, touched and felt, experienced without question our Lord and God, Jesus Christ?” When God in Christ walks through our locked doors and sits with us, passing an unfathomable peace, how can we embody such peace?

In times of chaos and uncertainty, it can be all we can do to hold on to short truths. Christ is risen. Christ walks through locked doors and brings peace which passes understanding. Christ calls us to share that peace. And friends, Christ is with us, no matter our circumstances.

After her mother suffered a stroke and she felt as though her world was crumbling in around her, Minister Elizabeth Johnson reflects, “The whole thing threatens to go whirling into emotional and intellectual and spiritual chaos. But the breath of the Spirit, with each breath of my body, keeps insisting that God does not run out of Easters. That the living Christ keeps walking through locked doors and locked minds until everything else recedes into the background and I blurt out the confession, ‘My Lord! And my God!” Thomas was in such a place of chaos and God met him there.

Friends, God does not run out of Easters. And God in Christ, never stops walking through locked doors to be present with our confusion and anxiety, for God is always with us. Amen.

The Best Kind of Troublemaker

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We are nearing the end of our Lenten journey. As one friend on Facebook observed, this Lent in many ways may feel like “the lentist lent we have ever lented” Today turns the calendar to the beginning of the most holy week of our Christian faith. Once again we will hear the familiar stories of Christ. Stories of palms. Of crowds yelling hosanna. Stories of disciples procuring a donkey and a colt. Stories of a humble king, riding on donkey and colt, with eyes fixed on the cross. A story of crowds gathering, some waving branches, some curious onlookers asking, who is this?

Friends, we know the stories- we know the one riding in on the donkey and colt, the best kind of troublemaker- the one whom we worship and adore. Our worship may look and feel different this year. We may remain physically apart, yet the one entering into Jerusalem remains the same, and binds us all together in His immense love. In spite of our communal worship leaving the church building, we are still the church. We are still the people of God sent out into the world. We are the church still as we worship in our living rooms, outside on our patios, or around our dining room tables. Palm Sunday looks and feels different but the story and the words of scripture are unchanging.

So as we once again turn to the story of Palm Sunday, I invite us all to take a collective breath and close our eyes during this pause and reading. As I read I invite you to imagine yourself in the crowd. What do you see? What do we hear? What do we feel? Hear now these words from Matthew 21:1-11.

21 When they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus gave two disciples a task. He said to them, “Go into the village over there. As soon as you enter, you will find a donkey tied up and a colt with it. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, say that their master needs them.” He sent them off right away. Now this happened to fulfill what the prophet said, Say to Daughter Zion, “Look, your king is coming to you, humble and riding on a donkey, and on a colt the donkey’s offspring.” The disciples went and did just as Jesus had ordered them. They brought the donkey and the colt and laid their clothes on them. Then he sat on them.

Now a large crowd spread their clothes on the road. Others cut palm branches off the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds in front of him and behind him shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna in the highest!” 10 And when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up. “Who is this?” they asked. 11 The crowds answered, “It’s the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Jesus, is our Lord and Savior, and the best kind of troublemaker. His triumphal Entry was not a spontaneous event, it was very calculated and planned.  Jesus entered Jerusalem’s chaos knowing things would be stirred up and the cross was on the horizon. Jesus was not the passive recipient of impromptu adoration.  Though worship might have happened, it was not the point.

In their compelling book, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Last Days in Jerusalem, New Testament scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan argue that two processions entered Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday; Jesus’ was not the only Triumphal Entry.  You see, every year, the Roman governor of Judea would ride up to Jerusalem from his coastal residence in the west. Why? To be present in the city for Passover — the Jewish festival that swelled Jerusalem’s population from its usual 50,000 to at least 200,000. The governor would come in all of his imperial majesty to remind the Jewish pilgrims that Rome was in charge. They could commemorate an ancient victory against Egypt if they wanted to.  But real, present-day resistance (if anyone was daring to consider it) was futile. Jesus’ triumphal entry was holy resistance; Jesus is a Holy troublemaker, riding into Jerusalem’s chaos on a donkey.

Compared to Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, here is Borg and Crossan’s description of Pontius Pilate’s imperial procession, loud and showy. “A visual of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold.  Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. The swirling of dust. The eyes of the silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful.” It’s important to remember that according to Roman imperial belief, the emperor was not simply the ruler of Rome; he was the Son of God.

Enter Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, the true Son of God and the best kind of troublemaker. While there were two entries into Jerusalem that day, there was only one humble King. He is the one who comes to be with the people, not to oppress them. He comes on a donkey and colt, not an imperial stallion. He comes to fulfill ancient prophecies, not appease his ego. He comes to save us, maybe not in the way we think we need, but in the way we truly need to be saved. He comes into our midst, eyes focused on the cross, no matter where we are.

Jesus tends to draw crowds. He tends to stir things up. The Greek word seio, meaning “stirred up” is only found five times in all the New Testament. Three of the five times occur in the gospel of Matthew. All of the three occurrences are related to Jesus’ Passion and resurrection story. Jesus enters into our stirred up and chaotic world.

As Jesus entered the scene, crowds gathered and shouted, Hosanna! Or Save us! Things were stirred up. Some in the crowd, ask who is this person? While palms and cloaks are place on his path, Jesus’ ears rang with cries of Hosanna, cries of people asking to be saved. Cries of those who were sick and lonely. Cries of those who were in need.

What does this familiar story mean for us this day? This year we will wave our palms in our homes and not on the beautiful streets of Old Town Winchester. Yes, our celebrations will without a doubt be simpler, quieter, and certainly less demonstrative than gathering with our friends on Old Town Mall.  However, these quiet offerings of celebrations will not be stopped. The Son of Man enters into our living rooms no less lovingly than he rode into the streets of Jerusalem.  Friends, nothing can stop Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. All our anxieties, concerns, grief, cries, all the things that stir up our souls and cause us to tremble- none of those things, can ever, EVER, prevent Jesus from being with us in our midst. COVID-19 or not, Jesus enters fully into the stirred up city of Jerusalem.

Our losses are real, even as God in Christ meets us in them. They are still hard. As author and pastor, Jill Duffield writes, “As we grieve what is lost this year- the waving of palms, the swell of the organ, the handshakes and hugs- we can be assured Jesus meets us exactly where we are, no matter how we are. Jesus will not stop on the outskirts of Jerusalem or on the fringes of our lives. He enters fully into the city knowing what’s to come. He enters fully into our lives, knowing our doubts, failings, denials, betrayals, misunderstandings and disappointments. He comes humbly toward us, accepting whatever we offer, a palm branch or tattered coat, exuberant praise or mumbled hope, knowing that soon he will go to the cross for our sake.”

So friends, as we begin holy week differently than we may have anticipated, know that you are loved. Know that our Lord and Savior is with you no matter where you are. I’m going to close a little differently than I might have if we were meeting in person today. I’m going to close by asking you to reflect on two questions. These are some questions I read in the Presbyterian Outlook this week. I would encourage you to take some time after the service to chat about these questions with your families or friends.

  • What are your favorite Palm Sunday memories? Think about how you can incorporate the meaningful aspects of this Holy Sunday in your day today.
  • What do you have to offer Jesus this week? What metaphorical palm branch will you wave or coat will place down? How can you be the church this Holy Week wherever you are?

Friends, as you discuss these questions, remember and know nothing can prevent the best kind of troublemaker from entering into the stirred up places of your life and being present with you. Nothing can prevent Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. And all God’s children said, amen.

 

 

 

Sacred Sharing

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Prayer of Illumination: Good Shepherd, who supplies all with living water and bread of life, open our hearts and minds to hear your words for us this day. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be ever acceptable in your sight, Lord our Rock and Redeemer. Amen.

Scripture: Exodus 17:1-7, Matthew 14:13-21

Who among us has siblings? I have two, both I deeply love and both also deeply frustrate me at times. I know they both love me and are frustrated by me as well, sometimes simultaneously. And while I have been frequently quoted and remembered by my parents as the young middle child who often said, “one for me, one for sissy;” I’ve also been the sister who was overly excited when my sister started kindergarten because that meant having mom’s attention and My Little Pony toys all to myself. Over the years, both my siblings have taught me lessons in what it means to share. Share toys, share pets, share rooms and spaces, share responsibilities, share attention of parents and grandparents.

Perhaps you have had other people in your life teach you how to share: roommates, friends, colleagues, spouses. Often times it can be hard to think about ways to share our gifts, spaces, and resources because we live in a culture which tells us we don’t have enough. A culture of scarcity. Please forgive me if this is too soon, but if we need reminders that we live in a culture of scarcity, all we need to do is try to find toilet paper at Walmart.

“Is the Lord really with us or not?” In our Old Testament text, Moses is leading people so tired of change that they are sick of life. The people are tired of feeling scarcity pains even though the Lord has provided and continues to provide manna. Even after all the Israelites had seen and experienced after escaping Egypt, they furiously shake their hands at Moses yelling, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us in desert?!”  Surely, since they experienced all of God’s mercy and grace up until this point, they should be able to sit back and trust that God would provide, right?

Yet they still ask “is the Lord really with us or not?” A valid question. A question, I think that if we are honest with ourselves, we still ask at times in 2020. Moses must be feeling a sense of anguish as the people he leads complain and want to stone him. Yet Moses relinquishes his anguish and his doubts to God in trust; trusting and hoping the people will follow. The Lord does not turn away from the needs of the people, the Lord meets them where they are and supplies water in abundance. God responds with compassion. Water gushes from the rock with renewing life. The journey in the wilderness of change continues with new hope.  God’s abundant gifts are poured out like a cascading water for the people. Doubts are abandoned…at least for that moment. Even when people complain, God meets them with an abundance of water.

Both our Old Testament and New Testament texts contain examples of God’s abundance. Abundance of grace and mercy, abundance of compassion and love. Even as Jesus seeks isolation to mourn the loss of John the Baptist, he shows deep compassion to the crowds who have followed him. He does not tell them to go away, instead he tells his disciples, “you give them something to eat.” You share resources with your neighbors. You, help me do something to take care of these people because they are not just a problem to be dealt with, they are people worthy of love. Our New Testament text is the perfect example and case study of when everyone shares, there is enough. In fact, there are left-overs. There is an abundance. Sacred sharing is taking place.

God’s abundance is shown when we share gifts with our neighbors and when we view all people as gifted by God. Last week, I had the privilege of traveling to NEXT Church’s national gathering. NEXT Church is a national movement of the PC (USA) that encourages church leaders to think creatively and outside of the box for new ways to engage worshipers and neighbors in changing times. Two of the keynoters, D’Amon Harges and Mike Mather from Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, Indiana told powerful stories of the power about sacred sharing and ministry partnerships. Mike, who is the pastor of Broadway and D’Amon who is the “roving listener” by title, spoke about what happened when they stopped viewing their neighbors as people who needed something from them and started viewing their neighbors as individuals who were gifted by God and had resources to share just as they did.

The entirety of D’Amon’s work as “roving listener,” is wandering around the neighborhood near the church and spending time developing relationships with neighbors. This practice strengthens all partners. For example, Broadway had an afterschool tutoring program to teach children English in the church’s neighborhood. D’Amon noticed children had stopped coming.  As D’Amon talked to neighbors, he learned that the children were still meeting, but meeting in the house Maria, an immigrant who spoke fluent Spanish and English, was an excellent teacher, AND gave the children community through inviting their families to meals every week. Maria also offered her students’ younger siblings a place to play after school. Through the process of knowing their neighbors and listening and being open to where God was already at work in their neighborhood, Broadway was able to form partnership with Maria in their community.  Broadway stopped their tutoring program and partnered with and got on board with what Maria was already doing in neighborhood. The neighborhood children benefited and the church benefited from knowing neighbors. Is the Lord, really with us, or not? Yes, the Lord meets us in our neighbors.

Presbyterian churches were encouraged to read the book Neighborhood Church: Transforming your congregation into a Powerhouse for Mission. One quote from the book captures exactly what D’Amon and Mike were encouraging through listening as well as sacred sharing of gifts and space. Authors Krin Van Tatenhove and Rob Mueller write, “Everyone has something they can give. Learning to receive as well as give is essential to preserving the dignity of all partners. Maintain an abundance mentality recognizing resources that are already present.”

Shared space is sacred. Sacred sharing builds up the community and the community of faith. Sharing spaces at tables, homes; sharing gifts to build up all. Sharing resources so no one goes without. As the famous African proverb goes, “If you want to walk fast, walk alone. But if you want to walk far, walk together.” Is the Lord really with us or not? God, our Rock is everywhere.

I saw God’s gifts and love in action as I watched a women let an elderly man on oxygen go before her in the line at Walmart. I see God’s gifts and love in action as I read an article about a woman sharing toilet paper and groceries with a 92-year-old man who was just out doing his weekly shopping trip. As people work together to make sure the most vulnerable of our neighbors, hungry children and the elderly are cared for. Times like these remind us we are all in this together. We all have gifts to share. We all can point towards God’s abundant love and comfort. Sacred sharing takes both partners being willing to do the hard work of listening, and of holding space together. Poet Micky ScottBey Jones’ poem, “Invitation to Brave Space” takes this notion of sacred sharing a step further. The poem reads:

“Together we will create brave space

Because there is no such thing as “safe space”

We exist in the real world

We all carry scars and we have all caused wounds.

In this space

We seek to turn down the volume of the outside world,

We amplify voices that fight to be heard elsewhere,

We call each other to more truth and love

We have the right to start somewhere and continue to grow.

We have the responsibility to examine what we think we know.

We will not be perfect.

This space will not be perfect.

It will not always be what we wish it to be

But

It will be our brave space together,

And

We will work on it side by side.”

What gifts do you have to share? What space can you share? Encourage you to share your responses with those around you or feel free to post your response in comment section. Is the Lord really with us or not? As we share, God’s love spreads. Friends, as we continue to view others through the lens of the cross throughout this holy season of Lent, let us do so with the love and compassion that Christ had for the crowd of people gathered to be taught and healed, even as Christ mourned the loss of John the Baptist.

Let us be challenged like the Israelites to see the signs that God is indeed with us and search for God’s abundance all around us. Let us accept the challenge to see everyone, even those we may disagree with, as beloved and gifted children of God. Everyone we encounter in the world has something to bring to the table. Everyone listening has gifts and spaces to share. Even if it appears small, like a loaf of bread, through God, all are multiplied and abundant. Shared gifts and shared spaces are sacred. Walking together is a sacred walk. Will you share what God has given? Amen.

What I See Through Lens of Cross: Holy Dust

Ashes to Ashes

Scripture: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

(Poem by Ann Weems) Merciful God, those of us who walk along this road do so reluctantly.

Lent is not our favorite time of year. We’d rather be more active-planning and scurrying around. All of this is too contemplative to suit us. Besides we don’t often know what to do with piousness and prayer, and stillness.

Perhaps we’re afraid to have time to think, for thoughts come unbidden. Perhaps we are afraid to face our future, knowing our past. Give us courage, Oh God to hear your word and to read our living into it. Give us the trust to know we’re forgiven, and give us the faith to take up our lives and walk. Amen.

Friends, here we are again tonight walking solemnly into another Lenten season. Again we come together on a holy Wednesday evening, striving to have contemplative hearts and spirits in a world that refuses to be quiet. Lent invites all of us to hit the pause button, to refocus on hearts on God as we prayerfully examine our priorities, actions, thoughts, and expectations. As the listeners of Joel had a call to “return to the Lord with all our hearts,” we too, have the same call. Ash Wednesday calls us to remember the fragility of life and to “tear our hearts” with the many things going on in our world that break the heart of God. It invites us to communal and individual repentance.  This holy evening invites us to remember the gift of life and how short our lives are.

“Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return,” are perhaps the most solemn words pastors speak. No one likes to think about death. No one likes to remember we are frail, mortal human beings and that death will come one day. Death evokes in many a fear which makes us uncomfortable.  Not an Ash Wednesday goes by without a resurfacing of images from Parkland school shooting in Florida, as a women grieved with ashes on her forehead.  Yet, Ash Wednesday invites us to live in tension of fear and hope of promise resurrection.

There is beautiful liturgy of Ash Wednesday that calls us to response in fear, but also in hope. In fear, but also in hope we enter into this holy and reflective season of Lent, not knowing where it will take us, but having confidence that God will be with us each and every step of the way. As we follow Christ’s footsteps towards the cross, we remember the power of God’s love.

In fear, but also in hope we rend our hearts and not our clothing, resting in a God who is slow to anger and quick to forgive. In fear, but also in hope we return to God. A God who turns a face towards Jerusalem and toward the cross. A God who fabricated us from dust and is with us as we return to dust. A God who sits with us and holds our hand as we each inevitably walk through the shadows of the valley of death.  A God who promises resurrection and hope, who makes all things new, just as flowers and plants begin to sprout up from ashes of devastating wildfires in Australia.

In fear, but also in hope we look toward one another through the lens of the cross, as the cross builds bridges of reconciliation with people who on the surface are unlike us. As we strive to work on our hearts, as we strive to see our siblings through the lens of the cross, do we see each person created as a beloved child of God? Do we see a life created by God that while fleeting, deeply matters in God’s world? Do we take steps towards valuing life in such a way that we never hesitate to show God’s love to all we encounter?

Friends, let us challenge ourselves this Lenten season to see the lives of others through the lens of the cross. To see each person’s brief time on this Earth as valuable and worthwhile. To gift up acts of mercy and compassion. To not look at another person as an object or means to an end, but as a beloved child of God. To keep looking for- and being part of what God is doing here on Earth among and through us.

Every year, as part of my Ash Wednesday devotions and preparation for Lent, I’ve read Blessing the Dust, a poem by author Jan Richardson. I invite you to hear her words now as we reflect on the fragility of life and the importance of each life.

Blessing the Dust for Ash Wednesday (poem by Jan Richardson)

All those days
you felt like dust,
like dirt,
as if all you had to do
was turn your face
toward the wind
and be scattered
to the four corners

or swept away
by the smallest breath
as insubstantial—

did you not know
what the Holy One
can do with dust?

This is the day
we freely say
we are scorched.

This is the hour
we are marked
by what has made it
through the burning.

This is the moment
we ask for the blessing
that lives within
the ancient ashes,
that makes its home
inside the soil of
this sacred earth.

So let us be marked
not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
not for shame.
Let us be marked
not for false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are

but for claiming
what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
is made
and the stars that blaze
in our bones
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
we bear.

Friends in life and in death, we are beloved, and we belong to God. Amen and amen.

 

Be the Light of Christ

the-light-of-christ

Before we come to our text this morning, allow me set the stage and give some background. In Isaiah’s text, the Israelites have likely only recently returned from Babylonian exile. Isaiah fiercely speaks against false worship, which is self- serving, and urges people towards true worship. Worship that doesn’t stop but bleeds over into the lifestyles of the people. Like our text from Micah last week, Isaiah delves into what God values and how God really wants followers to act in order to let their light shine. Hear words from Isaiah 58:1-12. We will be focusing on Matthew’s text which continues this theme and is situated immediately following the beatitudes and part of sermon on mount. Hear words from Matthew 5:13-16.

Imagine a world without salt and light. Imagine a world with no sun, light source or no salted chocolate covered pretzels. Both are important. In our text, Christ names and announces what listeners of sermon on mount and what people gathered here today already are.  You are salt. You are light. He names and claims the crowd and us. Jesus gives the crowd and us our true identity and purpose. Jesus doesn’t say we are “supposed to be” salt and light or “encouraged to be” salt and light Jesus doesn’t say if you strive and work hard and finally become salt and light God will love you more. No, he says- you are salt, you are light…and remember the sorts of folks Jesus addressed Sermon on the Mount to…the poor, the frightened, the hungry, the outcasts, the sick, the misfits. Yet Jesus says you are worthwhile and seen. You are heard and I am commissioning and sending you to be the salt and light that you already are in the world, a world that desperately needs salt and light. You are claimed. You are embraced. Friends, God made us to spice things up- not to overpower the dish, but to enliven it, to enhance and highlight flavors, to preserve. And God made you to shine in a way only you can. You are called to live out gifts now go and do.

Has anyone ever experienced a complete absence of light? One incredible aspect of living in Winchester is we have several caverns within driving distances. Last summer, I had the opportunity to tour the breathtaking Shenandoah Caverns. While the cavern formations were beautiful, the piece of the tour I most vividly remember was when our guide gave our group the opportunity to experience an environment completing lacking light. I remember lifting my hands to my face and not even being able to make out the outlines of my fingers. The guide waited several minutes to let us take in the darkness but then lit a small match. I remember even this small match sent beacons of light throughout the cavern and illuminated the faces of people on tour.  Even in small quantities salt and light can make a difference. Just a little salt is needed to enhance a dish and bring out other flavors in dish. Even the small match can fill a dark cavern with light.  Even a small candle is visible from over a mile away. My favorite service of the year has always been the candlelight service on Christmas Eve.  Because as we pass the light from Christ candle from one to another the sanctuary is a glow with the light of Christ.

Since our Epiphany theme is “Be the Light of Christ,” we will shift to focus more on being light of world. There’s a powerful illustration from one of my favorite movies that seems to capture the power of just one light and even how just one light can make a big difference and spread outward.  In the clip, the hobbit Pippin sneaks up to light a signal torch. Once the torch is lit, the light signals various torch keepers from other villages to light their beacons and the light spreads. You may have noticed as the light spreads from beacon to beacon, Gandalf profoundly says in a way only Gandalf can, “Hope is kindled.” Sharing even a little bit of light makes a difference.

You are the salt of the earth, but don’t ever lose your saltiness. You are the light of the world, so don’t hide your light.  Friends, in the darkness of the world it can be easy for us to want to withdraw from society and dampen or not fully embrace the light that Christ sees in us. It can be easy to “hide our lights under a bushel,” but Jesus reminds us that because we are God’s people, we have received God’s light and something that is meant to be shared. Light that comes from within is never, ever meant for ourselves alone. While the light of Christ can’t help but warm us, it is always meant to be shared. Always meant for the world.

Where have you seen God’s light in others lately? My three years at Pittsburgh Theological seminary would have been darker without my friend Minh. Despite encountering horrible hardships very early in her life, Minh’s faith showed great light to others. Minh grew up in Vietnam and was 11 years old when the war when Saigon fell. She experienced more horror early in life than most people experience throughout their lives. Her father and two of siblings were all shot and killed in front of her in her family’s backyard. She was in Saigon as it fell and tried to escape with her younger brother but was caught and become a prison of war. She endured horrible hardships as she escaped the country. But her light is the strongest Christian light I know. Even despite all the tragedies in her life she did not allow her faith in Christ to be overcome by darkness but with God’s help she became a light for others. While in seminary, she encouraged all our classmates through prayer, support, and wonderful homemade Vietnamese food. So we all referred to her as “Auntie” Minh because she was like our mom away from home, even when she had her own academic struggles through seminary. She never hid her light and felt called to share her story with others in hopes to let others know that even though she lived through trauma, and struggled with her faith, God was always with her and is with them too. So she worked with author Michelle Layer Rahal to write her story, Straining Forward, to encourage others.

So what actions might we all take to be the light of Christ? There may be a kid at your school who everyone else talks about behind their back and who is frequently bullied.  Who sits alone at the lunch table and is always excluded. Even if you shine a little bit of light and sit with them at lunch, you are standing out. You are setting an example.  When you welcome the stranger, you are the light of Christ. Maybe our lights shine when we stand up against violence, when we work to unify our neighbors in times of darkness.  Maybe our lights shine when we try to bring people together and not find more grounds for which to divide people.

What is the darkness today that our light needs to dispel? Apathy? Privilege? Divisiveness? Jesus makes concrete the work of love, compassion, healing, and justice. It’s not enough to simply believe our identities of salt and light. That’s a powerful starting place but we are called to take even a small step forward. To be salt, to be light, to be followers of Jesus, is to take seriously what our identity signifies. To not hide our light. To not choose blandness over boldness. To not keep our love for Jesus a hushed and embarrassed secret. But to do our part to make sure hope is kindled. Amen.