I am the Resurrection

Today’s passage is another long one… most of what we consider chapter 11 of John’s gospel.

It is another description of a sign- a miracle that Jesus performs, bringing the presence and glory of God into full view.

We haven’t talked much about the way John structures the telling of these stories, but the story in chapter 9 – the healing of the man who was born blind that we looked at last week- that gives us a great example of the pattern he develops.

First, a sign.   Like the man’s healing. Then a dialogue – a conversation in which people talk or ask about what happened. And finally a discourse – which is basically a sermon… Jesus explains what has happened and why.

Here in chapter 11, John reverses the order.

This particular event is the last of the signs Jesus performs. And for the Jewish leaders, it is the last straw.  

In John’s telling, this event is the catalyst, setting in motion the events that will lead to Jesus’ crucifixion

So John wants us to pay attention to this sign… so that we might better understand what is coming. Thus the dialogue and discourse come first, as John carefully sets the scene.

Listen for the Word of God….

1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus… of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.

2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”

4 But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”

5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. 7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.”

8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?”

9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble,  because they see the light of this world. 10 But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.”

11 After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.”

12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.”

13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”

16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days.18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother.

20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”

23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”

25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him.

30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him.

31 The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there.

32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?”

They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”

35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”

37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it.

39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.”

Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”

40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.”

43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”

44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”  (NRSV)

 

It’s an all too familiar story, really, the story of waiting at the bedside of a dear one, hoping against hope…

The story of crying out in prayer – sometimes literally crying out – sometimes silently but desperately bargaining and begging… but definitely calling out to the Lord…

I would venture to say that we’ve all been there in one way or another, saying to the Lord,
The one I love is sick… The one you love is sick.
You can change that right now!
Please… change it right now…

I can only imagine that sense of urgency and hope
that desire to see Jesus walk through the door….
It would have been even more acute for Mary and Martha…

Because he literally COULD walk through their door.

They know him well, they know for real that Jesus loves them, in the same way that you and I know that our friends love us. And they know for a fact that Jesus loves their brother Lazarus.

They know all that Jesus has done and is capable of…

Don’t think for a minute they haven’t been following all that Jesus has been up to, hearing about all the signs and miracles and teachings, both near and far.

So Mary and Martha know and believe that he could heal Lazarus.
They believe that Jesus would want wholeness for Lazarus.
That’s why they sent for him.

And waited.

But Jesus doesn’t come rushing to Bethany.  Not right away.  

And the one they love
The one Jesus loves.
Loved.
He died.

The women would have done the work of preparation, mixing the spices and oils, binding his body so that as his body returned to dust, his bones would remain together.

And then he was placed in the tomb, a stone covering its opening.

I know… Our hearts want to jump right on ahead to those last couple of verses, don’t they? But we need to sit with this a bit.
Because Mary and Martha… they didn’t know what was coming.
Not for them, not for Lazarus
And certainly not for Jesus in just a few days’ time.

As far as they knew, the next time they would see Lazarus would be at the Day of Resurrection. This is when all the dead would rise as if from sleep, and families would be reunited, the living and those living again.

It was a common belief among the Jews of Jesus’ time that the coming of the Messiah would hasten the Day of Resurrection. This was one of many reasons they were on the lookout for the Son of God.  

And so… as we do to this day, Mary and Martha prepared and buried their loved ones, including Lazarus, looking forward to that day of reunion.  

But until then…  they would grieve.   

Just as surely as we know the pain of wishing, hoping and praying in the midst of suffering, we know the many forms grief takes.

Sometimes it looks like Martha…
taking care of the details, working our way through the day,
holding it together, at least on the outside.

Sometimes it looks more like Mary…
Perhaps more together internally than it appears from the outside. Needing to express the pain and sorrow physically through tears… tears that come unbidden and can seem unending.

Sometimes it helps to grieve in community… Surrounded by and surrounding others…hearing from those who have walked the journey before, drawing strength from those hurting along with us…

Certainly, we can understand how each of the sisters would have come to Jesus, saying
“If only… ”
“If only you had come.”
“It didn’t have to be this way”

Angry, sad, disappointed.
Matter of fact
Resolute
Shattered and weeping.

What must have happened in Martha’s heart as she and Jesus spoke?

At first… Perhaps she heard from him the same mostly empty comfort others had offered… Lazarus would rise.  

Of course he would.
Eventually. Yes.
As would she… and all those they’d already mourned in their lives.

Perhaps she even rolled her eyes a bit at this rabbi she still loved, even though he was 4 days late.

And then perhaps she looked a little deeper into his eyes, seeing something she’d missed before as he answered again.

No… it doesn’t have to be this way.
That is why I am here.
I am the resurrection. And the life.

This was a promise.
Not for someday. Some for distant unknown future.

This was a promise for today.
If she but believed.

And she did believe, didn’t she?
Didn’t she send word for him, knowing that he could heal her brother?
Didn’t she just tell him that he could have prevented this death?
This tearing apart of her heart, of Mary’s heart?
Didn’t she just…

She did.
She believed.
She said it aloud

“Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

And in the saying, she believed it more fully, more deeply.

And she believed enough for Mary.
Mary who was shattered.  Bereft.  Unable to stop crying.
Mary, who was surrounded by mourners.
Mary, whose tears called forth tears from Jesus…

As if carried on a wave of those tears, Jesus knew it was time.
They went to the tomb.
They removed the stone.

And the shepherd who knows his sheep by name, called to the dead man
Lazarus…   Come Out!

How a dead man could hear?  I don’t know.
I mean… this is a miracle…

But I know this: the sheep know their master’s voice.
And they go in and come out at his bidding.

Lazarus heard his name
Lazarus came out.
Lazarus was alive.  

Death was and is real.
All too real.

Death is real for the couple looking at the sonogram as the doctor tells them that their long-awaited baby’s heart is no longer beating.

Death is real for the 95-year-old who dies in his favorite comfy chair watching Wheel of Fortune…

Death is real for the soldier who watches as the humvee in front of him rolls over an explosive that they never saw, sending shrapnel flying in all directions.

Death is real for the high school freshman gunned down at school on a random Wednesday afternoon.

Death was real for Lazarus.
Death is real for us.  

But Death was not and death is not final.

Because the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. And From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

Because The Word Made Flesh is also the Resurrection.  And the LIFE
Lazarus came out to show us that life is real.

Life beyond what we imagine
Life beyond what we could earn
Life that is available to us as we abide,
As we remain and rest in relationship with God.

And that life, when we unbind it, is powerful.
Powerful enough to bring change to the world
Powerful enough to heal
To forgive
To weep with those who weep
To rejoice with those who rejoice

This is LIFE that is powerful enough to tear down systems and structures that perpetuate injustice

Life that is ready to be unbound and released to bear witness to the love and glory of God.

Life that is grace and reveals grace upon grace

This is life that will be lost and regained, unbound and released again.
Because yes… yes… the resurrection of Lazarus is a preview…
a sneak peak o
f what is to come in the days to come.

The tomb won’t be able to hold Jesus any more than it could hold Lazarus once Jesus showed up. In Jesus, who is the resurrection and the life, death has met its match.

Now, as we gather this morning, I have to confess:
Too much of the time it does not feel like death has been defeated.

Like Mary and Martha, we cry out in pain and ask our agonizing questions — about all of life’s woes… job loss, wayward children, financial crises, chronic illness, gun violence, war and terrorism — all of the ways that death’s shadow is cast across our lives.

And yet, even as we cry out of the depths, we live and wait in hope.
And that hope is what enables us to see that the only way is through…
Through the days of waiting and wondering
Through the the valley of the shadow…
Through the grief

You know, Ash Wednesday is one of my favorite worship services of the year.  But it’s also really hard.  In no small part because I have come to love each of you.   

I know that in life and death we belong to God.  I believe that with all my heart.
But as I place that ashes on your foreheads and repeat those words:
 that we are dust and to dust we will return,
the truth of our mortality…
well… it’s hard..

Because I know chances are good that some of us won’t be here next time Ash Wed rolls around. I suspect that between now and then we will gather for a funeral.

And I don’t like that…

I was talking about this truth with another pastor friend this week.  And it dawned on me that I would not be able to make it through imposition of ashes were it not for what comes next in our worship.  If it were not for the other items on the table next to the ashes.

I don’t think I could make it without having the table set for communion.
Without the opportunity to proclaim not only Jesus’ death, but his resurrection
Without a time in which we claim together the promise of his return and cry out Come Lord Jesus!

In the eating of the bread of life and the drinking of the cup of salvation, we are nourished with the truth that humanity matters deeply to God

We remember that we are the ones Jesus loves,
the ones he weeps over,
the ones he comforts,
the ones he came to save.

Like Martha and Mary, we have learned that God rarely – if ever –  acts exactly when, where, or how we think God should act. But we continue to learn that God will act in God’s good time. And we can believe that death will not have the final word. The day of resurrection will come.

And like Lazarus, we are beloved, known by name.
We have come to know the shepherd’s voice, we can hear and respond to the call of life,
We can and must emerge from the tomb ready to bear witness to the vividness and power of resurrection and so that we might all live with unbound hearts.

We remember together that the world, life, it really doesn’t have to be this way.

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Yes, please…

…which is the filtered version of “Oh, hell yes!”

… which is the opposite of what I said just 4 months ago.

Back in October, as Halloween approached, conversations turned toward costumes. The PresbApopkaterians would again be hosting a booth at the city’s “Hometown Halloween” celebration in the park. It’s a great way to be a visible presence to 1000 or so families every year.

Last year, I ran out of time and scribbled “Error 404: Costume Not Found” on a t-shirt. It was clever and nerdy, but not worthy of a reprise.

Knowing my affinity for a certain Amazon from the DC Comics Universe, lots of folks asked I’d be figuring out a Wonder Woman costume.

I opted instead to honor another fandom by being the TARDIS. True Doctor Who fans know that even a onesie is sexy when it’s the TARDIS. And it’s come in handy on cold January nights

Then one of my RevGal colleagues (and all-around amazing human) Marci posted about her experience being Wonder Woman at her church’s Trunk or Treat event. Her honesty allowed me to be fully honest with myself.

I wasn’t being practical when I opted for a onesie. I was afraid.

Afraid of what others might say about me, and worse yet… to me… if I were to dress as Wonder Woman.

I could hear remarks about how I am too old, and too big for something so revealing.

That I have too many wobbly bits around the middle and thighs and too much floppy action in my arms.

It’s the same fear that has haunted me since elementary school, when I was teased for trying to look like a girl when everyone was used to seeing me in tomboy clothes and sports equipment. And it wasn’t just the kids at school, Family and adult friends would pile on, unaware of how much it hurt.

To this day, I have to fight through 40 years worth of insecurities to try on a dress for special occasions. And once bought, to get it out of the closet and wear it in public.

Reading Marci’s words left me a little pissed. Here I was with the opportunity to embody the strength and confidence gained by pushing this old body far enough and fast enough to finish 2 half-marathons. And I whiffed it.

So… when my friend Mel once again invited me to come to New Orleans for Mardis Gras, and upped the ante by telling me about the nerdiest parade of the season. And then said I could walk with the All Wonder Woman sub-Krewe.

There was but one answer: Yes, please.

Actually it was, “oh hell yes!”

I paid my dues and made my throws and booked my tickets… and took a deep breath when I found my costume online.

Complete your order? Yes, please!

I gotta say, my brain and heart are holding in tension all the joy and fear and excitement and vulnerability of walking around with bare shoulders, a fitted top and a short flappy skirt.

At a time when so many of our shared stories as women are connected to abuse and pain, I love that we can also say “me, too!” with a smile

…when she says, “I waited so long to see her on the big screen”

Me, too

…when she says, “I don’t always wear a tiara, but for Wonder Woman, oh yeah.”

Me, too.

… when they say, “I am Wonder Woman.”

Oh, hell yes, we are.

Want a ride in that invisible jet?

A Subtle Shift

Somewhere along the way, it happened. A subtle shift.

It must have been that gradual kind of subtle, because I don’t think I’d even have noticed it yesterday morning, if not for the dream.  A running dream.

Not the nightmare kind of running dream.  Lord knows, I have plenty of those that recur often enough.  Like the one that I couldn’t shake in 4th grade – we were on a field trip at a bizarre theme park, populated by famous trademark characters. For some reason, Little Sprout wanted to run away with us, which totally pissed off the Green Giant.  I would awaken in a cold sweat, having run as far and as fast as I could before being caught by the no-longer-Jolly giant.

Or the one that actually comes back once in a while during hurricane season, in which I am at a mall in a rainstorm. The lower floors begin to flood so badly that fish and other water creatures start swimming through the doors… including sharks.  Sharks that can shapeshift, grow legs, and run after you when you head up the stairs to escape.

The thing about these nightmares is that they always reflected the reality that I didn’t just dislike running, I loathed it. And always knew I was just awful at it.  In real life, I mean.

I was always the slowest.  Even when I was at my fittest, I was big and slow.  And it always felt like I was running through tar, or that my feet and legs were made of pliable lead.

This dream was different.

I met up with some friends who were at a park and we started jogging. And talking about life.  Running just happened to be the way we were moving through the world.  I was keeping up, but not sprinting magically ahead or taking half-mile strides (as happens in those crazy superhero dreams).  Running was somehow natural and nice.

And the weirdest part was that the next morning, after the usual awkward warm up part of my workout, I noticed that it wasn’t just in the dream.  Running was somehow natural and nice.  And it happened again day 2, post-dream.

Mind you, I am still slow. And still on the bigger side of average.  And I’m still liable to catch my toe on the edge of the sidewalk or dance awkwardly around the yappy dogs I encounter.

But there has been a subtle shift.

She thought she might could…

It seems that if you run my social media posts through the standard marketing algorithms, you end up targeting a woman who supports other women, does road races, and is likely to consider items with snarky, pithy or motivational sayings.  Which means I get a lot of ads for t-shirts, wall art and jewelry with a particular saying:

She believed she could, so she did

 

I have several friends, in fact, who own the t-shirt.  And they hashtag all kinds of accomplishments, large and small, with #shebelieved.  Which is great, for them.

I just am not that woman. I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever actually done anything remotely hard because I actually believed I could.  Especially not at that “go-no go” moment when the  attempt is public and real and all the “holy shit, who thought this was a good idea” chemicals start raging.

Nope.  I want the  wall art or bracelet or t-shirt that says

She thought she might could, so she gave it a try.

I mean, I can’t be the only woman who would buy it. There have to be a lot more of us out there who hesitate than who just “believe,” right?  Women who question ourselves and our preparation.  Women who still go for it – all in – but are as ready to deal with the consequences of failure as we are to celebrate every success we are fighting like hell to achieve.

I thought I might could stand in a pulpit and make sense of the scriptures for a congregation, so I gave it a try.  Several hundred tries later, I am beginning to believe that the folks who affirmed that suspicion and have encouraged me to press on just might be right.

I thought I might could finish a half-marathon, so I gave it a try.  Fully prepared to get swept by the team that closes a course, I finished strong.  Smack in the middle of the pack. Turns out that yeah,  I could!

And then I thought, I might could do it faster…

And somewhere along the way, I thought I might could mix some running into the walking.  So I gave that a try.  I never imagined, much less believed that I would run 75% of my next half.  But the idea that I might could… that was enough to make me try.

Pretty sure this is what God sees in me, too.  There are so many ways I’ve had to wade into faith, especially when the “just because” of childhood beliefs got strolled away.  Trying out areas of trust, taking risks on mystery, making space for grace that would solidify, eventually.

I might could believe that love and grace are real
I might could believe that I am enough
I might could trust the people I love to your care

It’s a start, that seed of hope.
Not full-blown belief.
But enough to make me try.
Every morning.

God Sees (With) the Heart

Psalm 51:10-14

As you read last week with Jody… Samuel was called by God to be a prophet, to speak to and lead the people of Israel.  As a matter of fact, Samuel was last of the leaders in Israel we call judges

The Judges were a series of leaders who came after Joshua, who led after Moses. God used these women and men to unify the people, get them to repent, deal with the spiritual problems of the nation, and also deal with the physical threat.

They are sometimes military leaders who know how to mobilize the nation for war against an enemy, but their real power lies in their knowledge of the Torah and ability to adjudicate Jewish law. Like Deborah and Samson before him, Samuel was a combination of prophet, judge and warrior.

In his early years, Samuel would travel the land, adjudicating the law, and giving people advice. But as happens as we humans age, there came a time he just couldn’t do it all any more. His two sons, who were meant to take over for Samuel, they were corrupt and not surprisingly -unpopular with the people.

Meanwhile, the people of Israel realized that the series of wars they were engaged in with the prior inhabitants of the Promised Land weren’t going to end any time soon.  They thought maybe things would go better if they had the same kind of political ruler that the nations around them had.

So a delegation was dispatched to ask Samuel to anoint a king instead:
And the the people said [to Samuel] “Behold, you have grown old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now set up for us a king to judge us like all the nations. And the thing was displeasing in the eyes of Samuel …” (1 Samuel, 8:5-7)

Samuel doesn’t want to do it, but God tells him to go ahead and find a king for the people.  I always imagine God saying to Samuel, something like “Yep. Bad idea. You know it, I know it, but they clearly need to see it for themselves…Let’s do it”

And so the  Time of Judges comes to a close.

Samuel functioned as a leader for 13 years, the last two of them co-leading with the first king of the Jewish people. That first king – whom Samuel grudgingly anointed- was named Saul. Saul was indeed a great warrior. And he unified the people. Saul made mostly good – but sometimes problematic – decisions.

Then he usurped Samuel’s priestly role. And he helped himself to some of the spoils of war, essentially disqualifying himself from the job. Samuel told Saul as much, but he wasn’t happy about it. So things are more than a little tense.

So to recap as we head into our passage for today (1 Samuel 16:1-13):
Israel wanted a king. God gave them one. Along with their king, Israel now has palace intrigue and a brewing violent conflict over succession.

When Saul became King there was an interesting mixed reaction. Saul himself tried to hide from all the attention, but Samuel was having none of that.  (1 Samuel 10:23-24; 26-27).

By all appearances Saul would be a great king – and he did have a good start. But those who knew him best – those who really knew him – they didn’t think so highly of him.

Yet, even when Saul failed miserably due to a lack of integrity and faithfulness, Samuel mourned the loss of his reign. But God knew it was time to move on and told Samuel as much.  God chose a new king and Samuel was sent to anoint him.

Actually, the Hebrew phrase translated “I have provided for myself” Is more directly read as “I have seen” for myself a king. God has seen, has a close eye on, the King that God wants Samuel to anoint. And now Samuel must listen closely, because his human vision stops at the surface.

Kind of like our vision can be lacking as we look around us… I ran across an interesting story along these lines. It’s about a woman named Rita Belle and a man-  Richard Walters.  They met at a senior center, a mission in downtown Phoenix for the poor and homeless where Rita worked.

Richard was more reserved, but Rita was outgoing. She spent time talking with him, and they became friends. He had never married, didn’t have children, and was estranged from his brother. He told her he had no home and slept on the grounds of the senior center. Richard ate at the hospital and used a telephone there when needed.

What Rita couldn’t see when she looked at Richard… What Rita didn’t know… was that he was a retired engineer; an honors graduate of Purdue with a Masters degree; and a Marine. In time, Richard became ill.  Rita became his nurse and ultimately the executor of his estate.

Here’s the thing… it turns out that Richard Walters was wealthy.
Very Wealthy.

He left behind 4 million dollars, which was given to places like the senior center.

Among his few possessions was a radio. If you listen to NPR, you may have heard an announcement like this:
“Support for NPR comes from the estate of Richard Leroy Walters, whose life was enriched by NPR, and whose bequest seeks to encourage others to discover public radio.”

See, Mr. Walters left close to half a million dollars to NPR. But no-one, not even Rita, would have imagined it. The way someone appears doesn’t tell the whole story. We are sometimes taken in by the appearances of others.  

As author Agatha Christie once wrote, “The human face is, after all, nothing more nor less than a mask.”

When we judge by appearance, we can give credit to those who don’t deserve it, and we can fail to acknowledge those who deserve to be encouraged. Deciding who is worthy of our love and friendship based on outward appearances is an all-too-common problem for humans.

Pre-judging someone has a name – prejudice. We often think of prejudice as primarily about race, but we can find ourselves discriminating or facing exclusion based on gender, primary language or an accent, jewelry or headgear that expresses religious beliefs differing from ours, or body shape, age, or even the way we dress.

We know not it’s not right to judge a book by its cover, but I do it anyway…
Anyone else in that boat with me?

Sometimes, we get to know someone just a little… and after learning one fact or hearing one story….we paint an entire picture of who we think they are…Never really seeing, much less getting to know, the real person within.

That’s not the way that God sees you.
That’s not the way that God sees me.
And that is very good news.

That’s also not the way that God saw David

God looks on the heart.
And God being a God of relationships, looks
with the heart.

God saw in David’s heart the makings of a king:
He was not the oldest
He was not the tallest or strongest
He was young and ruddy and the last person Samuel would have chosen, even if David had come through earlier in the parade of sons.

This is why God needed Samuel to stop mourning Saul and listen closely.

It was time to stop looking backwards, to the past…
God was ready to do a new thing. Again.

For Samuel to get this right, he was going to need to connect with God’s heart.
To hear God’s voice over his own internal dialogue

This required the prophet to do the same work we must do in our hearts.
To connect to our hearts to God’s and hear God’s voice more clearly,
We must cultivate the habits of confession…
Of confessing our awareness of our own habits and sin
Of confessing our earnest desire to clear away the clutter that threatens to separate us from God.

We must cultivate an attitude of prayer that comes from faith, not fear

We must cultivate a life of prayer that flows out of a deep trust in the God who created us, and who loves us best.

Because when we can open our hearts to God, leaving them fully open to God’s love and grace, then we can live fully into the people God made us to be

Our work is offering God open and honest confession, seeking to be free
God’s work is beautifully described in our Psalm reading for today

God creates in each of us a new heart
God puts in us a new and right Spirit
God does the work of renewal, renovation and restoration.
God brings us into relationship and brings us back… over and over again.  

We see this more clearly… more tangibly… in the descriptions we have been given in the gospels of the way Jesus lived and moved among people. Even after his reputation grew and crowds began to follow him or to come out to meet him in the villages and towns he visited, Jesus’ ministry was all about powerful encounters with individual men and women.

He would see or hear someone
He would call them out of the crowd
He would look them in the eye

Jesus could be so aggressively personal as to be invasive.  And… his personal interaction was never restricted by human societal expectations of which people a good Jewish rabbi should be around

He saw people.  

I’m sure the fully human side saw the lepers’ sores, the twisted forms of the paralytics and epileptics, the hard lines of pain etching into the faces of the women forced into difficult labor or selling their bodies to survive.

And, I would imagine, there was a part of him that recoiled, a fully human part of him that wanted to look away or pull back and look at the crowd as a sea of indistinguishable faces.

But the divine in him?
No, the divine in Jesus always looked beyond the outward appearance
Beyond the human reasons to turn away, to exclude and to deny

The divine heart that beat within Jesus Christ looked to each of their faces and then looked at their hearts, and he saw in every single one of them the heart of a beautiful and beloved child of his own father God.

He ate with them
Drank with them
Mourned and partied with them

Jesus saw their sorrows, their pain, their needs
He heard their desires
He gave them hope
He restored and renewed those broken hearts
He made a way for each of them to rejoin the community

He loved them.
In the same ineffable, undeniable, indefatigable way that you and I are loved.  

And then he commanded us to do likewise.
Doggone that Jesus.
He commanded us to do that very same thing.
That very hard, very personal thing.

To LOVE

Not theoretically, but tangibly
And profligately…
Regardless of what our neighbors look or smell or sound like.

But remember, it’s more than just the outward appearance…

What we think we know about someone can shape the way we see them, too. An article circulated a while back about an experiment that Canon – the camera manufacturers – conducted.

They wanted to explore the  power of perspective in portrait photography. So they enlisted the help of 6 photographers and asked them each to independently shoot portraits of a man named Michael.

But as in every experiment, there was a variable.  A twist: each photographer was told something different about Michael’s background.  The photographers were told that Michael was: a self-made millionaire, someone who has saved a life, an ex-inmate, a commercial fisherman, a self-proclaimed psychic, or a recovering alcoholic.

Meanwhile, Michael, an actor, did his best to take on some of  the personality of each character. Enough to make it believable.

They shot their photos in the same studio with the same props, but the six sittings produced radically different results.  The choices made by the photographers – poses, angles, lighting, even their interaction with Michael –  had at least as much impact on the images as the actor and his physical being.

They thought they knew who they were seeing in front of them, but that knowledge was incomplete. The photographers had just enough information to put Michael into a category or stereotype. Their decisions were based on a surface understanding of who he was, almost like a label.   

In a culture that would break us into demographic segments competing for resources and attention, power and influence, we are called to look beyond those outward labels, beyond the markers that separate US and THEM

We are called to look beyond
Left and Right
Blue and Red
Old and Young
Traditional and Emergent
North and South
Black and White
Right and Wrong

We who call ourselves Christians must live into this truth:
We are made in the image of God, who looked past the outward appearance to the heart.

We are made in the image of God in Christ, who humbled himself, setting aside a comfortable seat in power, and taking on the form of an infant, became vulnerable:
Became the target of ethnic cleansing
Became a refugee
Became a poor carpenter in a minority enclave

And he obediently modeled and taught the way of love that eventually meant his death at the hands of the Empire.

We are made in the image of God…
And we are made in the very human image of the Son of God…
Who felt the tug of a hand at the edge of his robe even while the crowd pressed in all around him
Who saw Zacchaeus up in the trees and joined the little tax collector for dinner
Who told the woman at the well every little detail about her life because he knew her heart was thirsty for living water

We are – each of us- image-bearers.
And we are – together as the church – the embodiment of Christ- the ultimate image of God.

Each and all of us are called to see more than skin deep, to look beyond the labels
We are called to see and restore and defend the dignity and humanity of each of God’s beloved children

And we are called to trust that sometimes, God will surprise us,
Pointing us to people we least expect
Speaking through those we would choose to ignore
Leading through those we would prefer not to follow

We are called to look beyond the outward appearance and using the hearts that God graciously, consistently and patiently cleans restores and renews within us,

We are commanded to follow in Christ’s way of love.

 

Old friend

I can’t remember why
or even when
not exactly

It has been so very long now…

More years have passed
than I even imagined I would live

Now more old
than old friends
after half a lifetime
creating lives, growing up
chasing dreams, making do

Almost forgetting
just how tightly
laughter and music
the energy of shared joy
can bind the hearts
of the young at play.

Was it because I moved?
And then you moved?

It has been so very long now…

And all that time
Like a loose thread in my pocket
that I only notice when it gets caught between coins
you have been along for the ride

Just there enough
that I knew you
after all these years

Just there enough
that the laughter and singing
come easily
and joy
can’t help but follow
after all these years

I can’t remember why
or even when
Not that it matters, old friend.

Charley, Harvey, Irma and Me

Today, we are waiting for Irma.
We’ve been waiting and watching for the last few days.  And I’ll be honest, I have alternated between being ok and being scared shitless.

I am not, by nature, prone to worry or anxiety. And I’m pretty highly skilled at diverting nervous energy and/or ignoring any fears that are creeping in so that I can focus and work a plan.  But I have some physical manifestations of stress that let me know when I need to pay attention to that inner world a little more.

I want to sleep.  A lot.  And when it’s really bad, I get a rash on my ribs that is almost like shingles. That rash popped up yesterday. And so it was time to name what’s going on.

Back in the summer of 2004, we decided to sell our first Florida house and build a newer home that was big enough for Mom to move out from Texas and join us. We were scheduled to close mid-August and house-sit for a friend until the new house was finished around the first of October.  That meant packing for a move and an extended stay, making all the decisions that come with building a new home, and staying in communication with Mom about all of it from half a continent away. Stressful enough.

But then, the week that we closed and moved into our temporary summer home, Hurricane Charley ripped right across Central Florida.  Right over the house.  And while Charley was much smaller than many of the storms we have seen since, the rain and wind was intense and lasted most of the night.

It doesn’t take effort at all to remember exactly how I felt that night.
And how it felt to wonder when the power would come back on.
And how hard it was to keep our kiddo from freaking out when we experienced two more direct hits, moved into the new house, and started attending a new school (between storm breaks).

By the time Hurricane Season was over, I was a wreck- emotionally and physically. But we had to get back to work and keep moving forward.  It has been quiet here since, until last year when Matthew gave us a scare. But he wobbled out to sea enough that we were spared all but a couple of hours of wind and a few lost shingles.

So I didn’t really realize how much I had shoved aside and not dealt with until I started seeing my friends post about their experiences as Harvey rolled into Southeast Texas.  I literally couldn’t read about the sound of wind or the water coming in, or even how worried they were, without my own heart rate rising. I had to limit my engagement until the storm stopped and the (horrible) extent of the damage was clear.

And now, here we are, waiting for Irma. Right now, for as ginormous as she is, we’re in a pretty good place. We’ll have some serious winds and a fair amount of rain, but not for nearly as long as our neighbors in South Florida or on the gulf coast.

So…a year older and maybe slightly wiser, what am I going to do differently this time?

First, I’m doing something Brene Brown calls “embracing the suck”.  Actually feeling the feelings that I don’t want to feel, rather than running past them. When I sit with the feelings, I can untangle what they really are.  Then I can deal with the concerns and fears I can actually do something about, and I am aware of the (yes, totally reasonable) fears that will only go away once the storm is past.

Second, I went running. Not walking, but running.  Yesterday, I did my usual interval workout- a shorter walk interspersed with running. Today, I was just going to do a short walk, since it looked like rain was about to start.

At about half a mile, though, I felt like a little running, so I thought maybe I’d do another interval run. But as I ran the back half of that first mile, I knew that today was different.

I needed to keep running.
I needed to see how long I could sustain a pace that was faster than usual.
I needed to know that I could persevere, not just physically but mentally.
And so 1 mile became 2 miles.
And 2 miles became 3.
And three miles became 3.6.

I ran a full 3.1 miles (a 5K) after that half-mile walk.
Because I could.
Because I have transformed my body over the last 18 months.
Because I have transformed my mind over the last 18 months.

Yes, I am stronger and leaner and more fit than I have been in decades. My running intervals added up to just under half of the 10-mile race I completed last weekend. But the hardest part of getting stronger and leaner has been mental – taking on the habits and lies that used to keep me in bed or on the couch.

I ran a full 3.1 miles (a 5K) after that half-mile walk.
Because I believed I could.

I know today that I am mentally strong enough to push toward big goals,
to believe that yesterday’s personal best doesn’t dictate today’s
to face challenges that have nothing to do with running, walking, biking or swimming.

I can do the hard things – like lead my congregation, face conflicts head on, make decisions I’d rather ignore.
And wait for Irma.
I will be ok this afternoon, tonight and tomorrow, when the worst of the storm is here.
I won’t like it (because who would???)
I’ll be scared.
But I will be ok.

A handful of things

It really stinks sometimes, being the kind of person who needs lots of words to find her way to the thing she wants to say.  I mean, most days, I don’t get around to that kind of writing because I’m busy getting announcements and sermons and newsletter articles and emails and other time-sensitive stuff out the door.

So, rather than wait for the “Now I can get that whole post out of my head” moment, here are some things I am thinking about, experiencing and… now… sharing.

I was alone on eclipse day, staring up at the sun with my safety glasses on, thrilled to be able to see even the 80-whatver percent coverage we got. I finally hunted someone down so that we could “wow!” at it together as we shared the specs.  A couple of days later, I was driving across town, listening to the RadioLab podcast that had audio recordings of people as totality occurred.  And I realized just how much we need events like this to connect us to one another in moments of awe.  I literally wept as these people I didn’t know described an event I couldn’t see… because they were so overcome by what they saw that you could hear it in their voices. Young and old, all over the country.  Awe is contagious and evocative.

 


 

Yesterday, I stopped to pick up some coffee on the way to work.  A group of people walked into the shop as I was leaving and the last guy stopped to hold the door and let me out.  I said thanks, to which he replied “No problem, have a great day.”

I smiled again, “You, too,” and I walked on toward my car.  Can I just tell you how much it made my day for him to call after me, “You look beautiful today”?  Not because I had dressed up (because I hadn’t).  Not because he’d ever seen me to make a distinction about yesterday’s level of beauty (he was a total stranger).   It was just a random kindness.  The world can use more of that, for sure.


Does anyone else ever have the problem of their ears folding over in their sleep?  Clearly a side-sleeper issue, the ear between my head and pillow sometimes gets tucked in on itself and the pain will actually wake me up.  Weird.


A couple of folks lately have described me as Type A, which sits kind of funny.  I’ve never seen myself as “driven” so much as determined. That’s a good thing, mostly, since it keeps me from giving up on hard stuff (or boring stuff). But it’s got me thinking I need to explore the way my overdeveloped sense of responsibility interacts with the athlete in me who learned you “leave everything on the court”.

 


 

I have other thoughts on Harvey, the Nashville statement, and big stuff in the world, but I’m fighting my allergies and have a church newsletter to get out the door. So… this will have to do for now.

Meanwhile, what kinds of things are you thinking about these days?

Living Generously

This week and next, we’re going to spend some time thinking about the meaning of stewardship in our lives as followers of Jesus and in our shared life as a community of faith. Before we dive in, though, I want to acknowledge the elephant in the room. Or maybe the herd of elephants in the room. 

It’s no secret that our American culture is steeped in capitalism. And as consumers, we are trained to measure our success by comparing our stuff (clothes, car, electronics, jewelry… toys of all sorts) with others.

We may or may not measure up to some, but we can usually find at least one person to place ourselves above. And even as we make clear how much we have, we tend to want to keep how much we make and how much we give a secret.  We go well beyond privacy about money and giving…We flat out don’t want to talk about it…

And that paradoxical thinking about money that most of us grow into means the mere mention of stewardship can cause even the most mature Christians to reflexively cover their wallets and hold their purses a little closer.

That reflex has led many churches to instruct their pastors NOT to speak about money and generosity and how those relate to a life of faith… except when the church needs to ask for money.  And then, because we don’t like to talk about money, we need to cushion the blow by including an out.  Usually in the form of giving of our time and talents.

It’s getting a little crowded in here, but let me add another elephant to the herd…

We pastors are not immune to the money paradox. And we get to add a layer of awkward to the whole thing, given that a good chunk of any church’s budget goes toward …yep… the pastor’s salary.  

Oh, and then there’s the pressure not to preach about anything remotely controversial or uncomfortable for a few weeks before or after talking about the budget and giving… so that people don’t protest by withholding their tithe.

So, here we are, approaching the fall, the time of year when the session puts together the budget for next year, the time of year when my contract needs to be reviewed… the time of year when it would really help for us to know what folks anticipate giving.

Which means it is definitely the time of year when all of us would really just like to talk about something else.
Anything else.
Like the start of football season.
Or the Nelson’s new dog.
Or pretty much anything but money and what God wants us to do with it.

It really doesn’t have to be that way.
No really, it doesn’t.

In fact, I suspect Jesus would be mightily surprised at the church’s squeamishness over stewardship, given the number of references to money we have in the gospel accounts of his teachings and his conversations with the disciples. And the story of the early church, as well as the letters we read from Paul and other early church leaders indicate that finances were anything but a taboo topic.

So… why not just take a leap of faith and join them?

Let’s all breathe deeply and offer up a prayer before we read our scripture lessons for the day…   We’re going to start with a portion of Paul’s letter to Timothy.  1 Timothy 6:6-19

And now we’ll turn to a brief snippet of Luke’s gospel.  A scene with Jesus and his disciples that should sound familiar from earlier this year. Luke 20:45-21:4

—-

If ever the word of God was a rejoinder against a pastor standing in her pulpit wearing a long robe asking her parishioners to give until it hurts… so that she might live all the more comfortably… there it is.

To be honest, this passage makes me think of my grandmother, who gave generously to her church, but then would set aside change in a jar that eventually went to at least one of the evangelists she watched on tv. All of whom had more than enough money for their ministries, for their homes and for their sometimes bizarre projects. In the meantime, my grandmother had no choice but to live quite frugally until she died.

To this day there are plenty of famous ministry leaders or pastors we can point to who fly around in jets and live in mansions. It’s not difficult to find stories – even right here in Central Florida – of ministers worth millions whose parishioners give above their means in the hopes that God will bless them with the same sort of prosperity they see their leaders enjoying.

Let’s just say that you will never see this pastor in a Lear jet.  Or making promises that increasing your giving to the church will lead to an unexpected cash windfall for you. That’s not the way God works and it is certainly not what Jesus taught.

Now, Jesus did say at one point that we must be willing to give away all we possess if we want to truly follow. He told the rich young ruler to do just that… and the man couldn’t. Few of us could.

I do know of a few Christian monastic communities that have been founded in the last several years.  One is called the Simple Way, and each of its members take a vow of poverty. They have a common purse, into which any earnings go, and from which all their needs are met. And then the rest is given away. While I admire that level of faith and community, it’s hard to imagine taking on that call myself. And I honestly don’t know that all believers are called to that kind of living.

So I have to believe that somewhere in between running after wealth in the name of a God of Prosperity and running toward poverty in the name of the God who had compassion on the poor… surely we can find a sweet spot… a faithful way of living in relation to money?

That, actually, is where our conversation around stewardship needs to start.  As followers of Jesus, what is our relationship with money meant to look like?  

There are a couple of commonalities between Paul’s words to Timothy and Jesus’ observation about the widow.

The first is that our relationship with money is rarely neutral.  Money – wealth – can be used for good or evil. It has utility…  particularly in a market-based economy.

As I mentioned before, our society teaches us from an early age that our level of success or failure is in large part judged on how rich and/or how powerful you can become.  Just look at the most powerful people – in politics, in business… they are the ones with the money.

Yes – we can point to some exceptions…. But think about the influence of people who own billion-dollar corporations. And now think about the influence of people who work in the minimum wage jobs.

Still not sure this is true?

In July, Forbes Magazine estimated that the members of the President’s cabinet had a combined worth of at least 4.3 billion dollars…
Yes, I said billion.  With a B.

Fewer than 20 people in that room, all sitting around a table, holding the power to change the nation’s laws and to shape the policy direction of every government agency.
For good or for evil.
And they got there because of their wealth.

In the United States in 2017, clearly, money is power.

And yet, we are here to worship a man who never had his own home. We have gathered to worship a man who never even took up a collection, unless it was food to feed the people around him.

So it makes sense that the Christian tradition would have us reframe this notion that money IS power.
Our tradition points to the truth that money HAS power.
And thus, that money can have power over us.

When we allow money to take a place higher than its proper order, it begins to define us, it begins to shape who and what we value, and we can begin to measure our own self worth based on our possessions in ways that are really unhealthy. Our relationships are affected, including our relationship to God.

Our possessions can come to possess us.

In the end, stewardship is less about managing our money… Less about being wise about spending and investing… And more about understanding our relationship with money.

Like any relationship, this one needs tending and awareness. I mean, if the love of money is, indeed the root of all kinds of evil, it makes sense that we need to pay attention.
Really close attention.

And not just personally…  As a body of believers, we must tend to our relationship with our gathered money.

In what ways might spending or saving or tracking or investing our money distract us from our other relationships?

Does anxiety and conflict over finances come between couples?
I’ve seen it… in my own house.  

Or between members of the church?
I’ve seen that too, in more than one house of God.

Can we have conversations about money without fear of fighting, and if conflict happens, without the threat of someone leaving?

These are important questions… And the answers help us to understand our unspoken priorities.

Priorities that need to be spoken aloud.
Honestly and openly.

See, we need to be honest about our priorities because… any relationship that takes priority over loving God has become an idol, breaking the very first and greatest commandment.

And any relationship that keeps us from loving our neighbors… Well, that would be the second half of the law of love broken.

Whether we’re talking about a relationship with food, a person, sex, sports, some other possession,  or money, any relationship that takes priority over loving God has become an idol.

And because of its connection to power and influence, even within the sacred community of a church, our relationship with money is the one most likely to get out of alignment.  The root of all kinds of evil, indeed.

Thankfully, Paul provided Timothy with some relationship advice for people who have money.   Let’s look again at the end of that passage, starting at verse 17:   

As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.

Step 1….
Make sure your trust is where it ought to be. Not in money, but in God.
God has and always will provide for us.

This idea runs against our culture, which tells us to place our trust in the goods and systems and financial reserves that we’ve created.  But even as we trust them, we know in our hearts they can fail us.  We don’t have to look back but a few years to see the widespread consequences of systems crashing.

So what do we do?  We worry and work to amass even more, so that we might feel safe again. So that we might trust the numbers in our account statements and investment portfolios to cover our needs.

In a recent essay on trust in God as a key to stewardship Marcia Shetler wrote,
Trusting in God is part of our responsibility as followers of Jesus. It allows us to joyfully and generously let go of what we think is ours and release it for God’s use. Those acts of generosity are our witness to the world, sharing God’s abundance as channels of God’s love.

She went on to share a few examples from scripture….
Elijah asked the widow of Zarephath to be generous by sharing her last meal and trust that she and her son would not go hungry. …A small boy gave his lunch of five loaves and two fish, [trusting he would not be left hungry] and more than 5,000 people were fed. Moses’ mother trusted God with her son’s life. Twice.

The first time she placed his life in God’s hands when she put him in a basket in a river, Moses was returned to her and she was able to raise and love her son while he was young. Later, she gave him up again, and Moses ultimately fulfilled God’s call as leader of the Hebrews.

And then Ms. Shetler turns to the widow’s coin, saying
…there have been numerous interpretations of this incident. But perhaps what was most important was not only the widow’s ability to give to God totally, but to trust God completely.

Truly, the only explanation for the widow’s generosity is that complete trust.  She had faith that the God who had faithfully provided for her in the past would continue to do so.

When we truly trust God to provide for us, we are free to give as lavishly and generously as God. Not because by giving we have earned a prize, but because God has promised to care for us, and we believe – we trust – that God is faithful.

In verses 18 and 19, Paul encourages Timothy to see all that God provides, not simply as the means by which we survive, but the means for us to do good in the world.  Speaking of those who have money, Paul says
They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.

This is the sort of giving that moves us beyond a transactional, quid pro quo understanding of stewardship into a life that is marked by generosity.  

When God gives to us, when God provides for us, and when we acknowledge the gift, there is no transfer of ownership. No paperwork to be completed and filed and accounted for. Instead a link, a bond is established between us. Gifts connect the giver and the receiver.

This bond is what makes a really good gift, really special. And why a really bad gift can make you question a relationship.  I mean, think for a second… I bet you’ve gotten a gift that made you scratch your head more than a little. 

INSERT STORY ABOUT REALLY BAD GIFT….

It made me want to ask… Do you even KNOW me?  Why would you think I would enjoy/want that??

But think about a time someone gave you the perfect gift.
You know… something that was exactly the right thing, at exactly the right time.  

That kind of gift makes you feel known, loved, truly cared for by the one who gave it. 

Theologian Miroslav Wolf reminds us that no object on its own is a gift.  Not until the act of the object being chosen and given. Like this pen.  It’s just a pen.  Until I look at it and think, you know who could use this even more than me?  R.  

Here, R, I want you to have this…

Now the pen is a gift. I gave it to R and now he has something he needed because I saw that need and met it. The pen, now a gift, is also a social relation, an event between us.

This happens to us regularly, as God continues to offer the gifts of grace, of life, of air and all that we see around us. The more aware we are of these gifts, the more aware we are of the bond those gifts create between us and the God who loves us.

Wolf says it this way – “To live in sync with who we truly are means to recognize that we are dependent on God for our very breath and are graced with many good things; it means to be grateful to the giver and attentive to the purpose for which the gifts are given.”  

In other words, God gives to us, not only so that WE might enjoy God’s gifts, but so that we might know the joy of giving as we pass them on to others. As people who have received from God, we need to give to others. It is vital to our identity as humans. It is at the core of our identity as image-bearers of a gift-giving God.

Living a generous life requires an awareness of all that God is doing in our lives, all that God is providing.  Thus generosity begins with a heart of gratitude for a relationship that is not contingent upon us  and our ability to reciprocate God’s perfect love.

Generosity begins with a heart filled with gratitude for grace. Gratitude which leads us to love and serve and give in return. It leads us to live the life worthy of the calling to which we have been called.

Generosity leads us to use the spiritual gifts, the skills and talents and passions within us – all to the glory of God wherever we go… at work, in the community and in our homes… and at church.

Living generously means sharing from our abundance and even from our scarcity with those who are in need. It means taking the time to care for our own bodies and minds, taking a Sabbath rest away from the busyness our society worships.

Living generously and boldly as a church requires taking time as a body to look around, to take a fresh inventory of all that God has given to us.

Living generously and boldly as a church requires being grateful for the past and trusting God for a future.  And then following Jesus out into a world that needs the gifts we’ve been given to share.

Living generously requires us to receive new gifts with open hearts and open hands… courageously letting go of those things we’ve protected by holding them tightly…  So that our hands are able to gather up today’s blessings with gratitude and joy, offering them in turn to whomever might need them.

Living generously and boldly means trusting God enough to hold today’s blessings loosely so that we might open our hands and hearts to receive and give away God’s gifts again tomorrow…. and the next day… and the next.

Until one day we realize that our receiving and giving are a single inseparable stream, a river of life and love and grace flowing into and through us.

Next week, we will talk in more detail about some of those other aspects of our lives that are gifts from God which allow us to live and to love generously. And in the coming weeks, we will be talking about budgets and our household contributions to our shared life as a church.  

I ask that you would join me and our church officers in prayer for wisdom and clear guidance for our church as a whole and for each household…  That we would discern together what God is calling us to do with the gifts God has already given and those we trust God will give in the years to come.

Let us pray.   

Stay Thirsty- Sermon on Communion

Primary texts –  1 Samuel 21:1-9 and  Mark 14:10-31
The assigned Old Testament reading this week is obviously quite- well, interesting.  And as much as I enjoy taking time to give context to our scriptures…  I really just want to point out a couple of things about this odd episode in the life of David, which happened as he was running from Saul.

First,  the bread of Presence mentioned in the story isn’t quite the equivalent of communion bread.  The Holiness code called for what is sometimes translated as showbread to be kept on the altar. It is described as twelve cakes or loaves baked from fine flour, and arranged in two rows or piles on a table standing before God.

Each loaf was baked with specific ingredients by the Kohathite clan. They were  stacked along with the frankincense on the altar, in a way that seems reminiscent of the stacks of stones left in various locations as memorials to moments when God was uniquely engaged with humankind.  

The bread would only be left on the table for a week, replaced with new fresh loaves each Sabbath.  The priests were allowed to each the bread once they were removed, as long as they did so in a holy place. After all, this was holy bread.  Set apart for a purpose

And so, when David seeks to take the bread with him, he is asking for the priest to bend the rules, perhaps break a few. Ahimelech did help David and his friends, providing 5 loaves.  He was later summoned into Saul’s presence, and accused of disloyalty for assisting David, based on the information of Doeg the Edomite.

This is a complicated story – as most stories involving David are…He was not a priest… and yet, he was set apart. He was chosen by God. He needed bread, but he lied… he wasn’t sent by Saul. He was there because he was on the run and he was hungry

The only food that was present at the tabernacle was the bread of the Presence. There was nothing in the letter of the Law that allowed the bread to be given to anyone else, and Ahimelech was- as a priest aware of every letter, every jot and every tittle of the law. Ahimelech also knew the Law was given to further life, and that the spirit of the Law demanded that feeding the needy must be put ahead of ritual if the two ever seem to conflict.

Jesus later appealed to this incident to justify His practice of ignoring the Pharisaic traditions that put preserving religious ritual above helping the hungry. Following such traditions leads only to bondage to sin rather than leading to freedom according to the law of love.

I think that is part of what happened the night Jesus was betrayed.

Everyone was familiar with the words to be spoken.
The order of the questions.
The answers.
The foods they would eat.
It was passover.

And passover is all about family.
And being family for those who are far from home or whose family is no longer with them.
It was comforting and familiar to recite the story together
To eat the symbolic foods
To drink the symbolic wine

The middle portion of our reading from Mark is familiar.  They are one version of what we call the “Words of institution”  The words that recall how this sacrament was instituted, came into being.  If I had my way, I’d change that nomenclature…

—  Tell story of attempting to memorize WOI for Dr. Shaffer’s class —

The assignment – memorize and demonstrate for the prof… Struggling to get the words right.  All week, I would try to get it right and forget/freeze every time.  It’s not like I hadn’t heard them hundreds of times in my church-going life, should have been easy…  But there I was, standing in front of classmates in an unfamiliar church, hot dog bun in hand.  Hopelessly stuck.  Finally Dr. Shaffer says to me.  It’s ok.  Just tell the story.

Because that’s what the words of institution are – the story.
The story of that night when they were gathered together.
The story as remembered by Mark. And Matthew. And Luke.

The story that Peter and the others must have told Paul – Or perhaps he heard it while he was blind and the Lord spoke directly to his heart… But Paul gives us in his letter to Corinth a testimony of what had been passed on to him, so that those who heard the letter might bear witness, too.

I added a few verses this morning… before and after. The part of the story in which Judas betrays him.And the part in which Jesus warns Peter that he, too, will fall away…

You see, it’s important to understand the human context in which this divine promise, this new covenant as Luke and Paul describe it, is being made.  Jesus is 100% aware of the betrayal and denial that is coming. He cannot and will not stop them, any more than he would avoid the pain and death that is looming.  

This is the world in which he lived.
This is the world in which we live.
Sinful, broken, not-yet-God’s Kingdom,
Not yet fully reconciled and awaiting an upgrade to the Resurrection Operating System

But Jesus loved those people gathered at the table.
Loved them like family.

And because he offers forgiveness in his broken body
BREAK THE BREAD

And because he offers forgiveness in his spilled blood
POUR THE JUICE

We are one family.
Claimed and adopted by God

Baptised into one church
Sharing one communion
Proclaiming his saving life, death and resurrection until he comes again.

Knowing that very night that some of his family would fail him, Jesus still bears witness to God being with us – all of us.

I could talk at length about the myriad ways theologians have argued and written about the sacrament….

There were the reformation era debates about Transubstantiation, Consubstantiation or just plain memorial.  Is Jesus really in the bread, in the room? How do we square that with his being ascended???  

For the record – Jean Calvin’s response is the one most Presby’s cling to: It’s a mystery, but we can trust that the HS is in us and with us. And that power allows our hearts to be in the presence of Christ as we celebrate the sacrament  

Argue over who can preside.
For us – generally an ordained MOWAS

Argue over who can partake and when.
Baptized… or at least being raised in the community of faith 
and learning what it means to participate. There’s that whole letter vs Spirit of the law thing again

I could talk about the way coming back to the table again and again is like sanctification, whereas baptism reminds us of justification – once and done.

But I want to talk about what it means for our hearts, for our lives
The how then shall we live part.

It starts by thinking about what a family meal means.
Gathering- family, bonus family (guests)
Remembering – meals past, people here and gone, good/bad convos
Celebrate- holidays with rituals and traditions
Nourish – eat, feel full hearts and bellies

Have people who brought dishes tell their stories…
Prompt Questions

  1. What did you bring?
  2. Who taught you how to make it (maybe you just watched)?
  3. What memories does it bring to mind…
    • who do you think of?  
    • What table does it remind you of?
  4. With whom do you most want to share this?

Food – especially comfort food…  It’s all about Love
Family
Coming together
Being nourished heart soul mind strength

Tell story about Pork Pie becoming part of my history when married into New England family.

Take bread to everyone as tell story about Monkey Bread, Mary Helen, hospitality, love.

Talk about the Smell of Grape Juice

  • Takes me back to family filling all the communion cups in the vestibule
  • First communion
  • Watching the Table –  the men and women who helped raise me along with parents standing, praying, telling the story in those words
  • Tell the story of Sarah Bell – frail, ravaged by stroke, barely able to swallow… but when she tasted and smelled communion… countenance changed, face relaxed, mouth formed words “Our Father”…

She was, in those moments truly present. With us, with God.
I was, in those moments, in the presence of God.
And when I stand at the table and smell the bread and the juice…
I remember… I am with the saints from my past and present.
I am loved…  I am thankful.
I am in the presence of God.

As the cup is passed, smell the juice, dip the bread, allow yourself to experience the mystery of the presence of Christ for you.   TAKE CUP TO PEWS FOR INTINCTION

That is what this table should mean… to us.
We should walk in, see the bread and the juice and stomachs growl
Because we are hungry for that company, fellowship
Because we are thirsty for the stories that remind us who we are
Belonging to one another – blood relatives, thanks to the blood of Christ.

Stay hungry, dear ones.
Stay thirsty.