It was a deep blessing to be invited back to Church in Bethesda this past Sunday morning to bring a message during worship. I’m dropping the transcript of the sermon, below. I share this realizing that choosing wholeness and achieving wholeness are often two very different things, but I do believe we begin with the choice. Cheers!
Our text is Matthew 6:26-34 from The Inclusive Bible:
26 “Look at the birds in the sky. They don’t sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet our God in heaven feeds them. Aren’t you more important than they?
27 Which of you by worrying can add a moment to your lifespan? 28 And why be anxious about clothing? Learn a lesson from the way the wildflowers grow. They don’t work; they don’t spin. 29 Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in full splendor was arrayed like one of these.
30 If God can clothe in such splendor the grasses of the field, which bloom today and are thrown on the fire tomorrow, won’t God do so much more for you—you who have so little faith? 31 “Stop worrying, then, over questions such as, ‘What are we to eat,’ or ‘what are we to drink,’ or ‘what are we to wear?’ 32 Those without faith are always running after these things. God knows everything you need. 33 Seek first God’s reign, and God’s justice, and all these things will be given to you besides.
34 Enough of worrying about tomorrow! Let tomorrow take care of itself. Today has troubles enough of its own.
Good morning, everyone. I come to you in the name of the God who dresses wildflowers in their bold colors and striking style, who sees each individual in the vast clouds of birds which crisscross our skies, and who sends us to seek and make justice in our world. Let us pray…
“Saving God, may we seek you and your justice, trust you deeply and move into this world as your agents of peace, and kindness, trendsetting only when showing the great glory of your mercy and grace. May the words of our mouths and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.”
It was an interesting experience to put our passage from Matthew 6 out on Facebook this week as our text for today, and immediately hear from multiple people something like, “Oh that’s my favorite text!” The longer I live, the more I fall in love with our diversity as human beings and people of faith. I did not choose the text for today because it’s one of my favorites, in fact, I chose it because it holds a message with which I struggle. An opportunity to speak to you is a chance, perhaps selfishly, for me to dig into a passage and grow.
You see, I’m good at worrying, it’s always been one of my special gifts. I’m not only kinda good at worrying, I’m also good to planning what I’m going to wear and especially what I’d like to eat. Just to illuminate that: When we lived Africa we had a professor from our seminary come and visit us, and I was so excited for us take him out and show him some the places where we were planting churches. As we drove through the rural areas I would often point to places along the road and say, “That’s a nice place to stop on the way home for some beans and rice. Oh, sometimes I like to stop over there because they have really good chicken. Sometimes I’ll go down here to the edge lake because companies bring ice to pack the day’s catch of fish in, and they use the ice to have cold Cokes!” He finally laughs and asks me, “Todd, are all your landmarks in life places to eat?” Yeah. They kinda were. Anyone with me on that way of mapping life?
I’m also paradoxically really good at procrastinating, even though my whole life I’ve tried not to procrastinate as much. Anyone else good at putting things off and feeling bad while doing it? Anyone else with me in wishing they didn’t put things off as much as we do? I’m a conflicted guy sometimes, making all these great plans and worrying, just to put off following the plans.
And in one little passage Jesus comes in and threatens my whole house of cards, to topple both my comfortable worrying and my comfortable guilt over procrastination: he says, “Don’t worry about anything, just put it off until tomorrow.”
What? Am I to really do that? Doesn’t Jesus know we’ve invented some of our own proverbs over the years, proverbs about doing. “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” Anyone ever try to find that one in scripture? It’s not there, but it does very aptly capture one of our societal and religious preoccupations, huh? And more to the point, we have often quoted and canonized a “verse” that’s not even in scripture: “God helps those who help themselves.” That is exactly opposite of what Jesus just said!
I remember hearing this passage as a young Christian and being mortified… Jesus just told me to goof off. Every other teacher I’ve ever had has told me the opposite. Because at a glance, in English, this looks to be a debate about goofing off, when it really it’s more a text about wholeness.
The Greek word for anxious here is merimnaó, “a piece instead of a whole.” Jesus says not to let ourselves get pulled to pieces by life, taken apart by cares and concerns over small stuff, but as whole people seek the greatest things, and remain whole people by focusing on the greatest things: God’s reign, God’s justice. Hear the passage again, but paraphrased a bit with this drive for wholeness woven into the text…
Look at the birds in the sky. They don’t work like we do to buy the stuff we buy, yet God’s birds have all they need. Aren’t you smarter than birds, who just go be the birds they were made to be without worrying if they’re bird enough? Which of you by falling apart over the small stuff can add a moment of meaning to your life? Why lose your bearings in life over clothing and fashion? Really? Learn a lesson from the way the wildest flowers of the field grow. They don’t work. They don’t shop. Yet not even King Solomon in his fullest splendor was as amazing a sight as one of these delicate marvels. In God’s world outward adornment is casually lavished on the unplanned growth of the fields, which measure so small against your value – you have been made even more wonderfully. You don’t need a bunch of other adornment to be the beautiful creation God intended you to be.
So, decide today that you’re not going to keep falling apart and losing yourself in addictions to food and fashion. You are so much more those things, made to be so much more. Anyone can dress, and anyone can eat, and everyone does. God knows you. God loves you. So, live to see God’s glorious peace in this world, first in your own life and then multiplied around you. Live to see God’s justice made real in this world, first in you, and then multiplying in the world around you. Enough falling apart over the junk that doesn’t really make us happy or fulfilled… that stuff steals from us our today and promises us a false tomorrow! There’s enough need for justice today to keep us busy. Tomorrow will present opportunities for action and justice all its own.
Folks, I’m still going to do my laundry. Jesus wasn’t saying I have permission to stop doing my chores. I’m still going to eat, and Asian foods like Phó and Bulgogi will still be some of my most favorites. I plan to eat them some more. But I’m also going to hold extra tight to the truth that no matter how well I dress, someone, honestly a bunch of someones, will be dressed better. No matter how well I wear my clothes, there’s always some who will wear them better. And no matter what I eat, my favorite foods or not, it is still fuel for the meaning, it is the energy for what matters: God’s will and God’s reign in me and God’s justice for those who most need it.
May we never lose sight, that after the food is done, the clothes have faded, and all that we thought was so important has vanished from memory like last year’s whithered flowers, God’s justice and the hope that God’s justice engenders in us and the world, that is our tomorrow.
It’s no wonder that this passage drops into it’s context as it does, caught between the discussions of heavenly treasures and not judging. This passage is a natural extension of putting our focus on heavenly values, the things worth treasuring, and it’s a perfect prelude to a warning about judging people around us or succumbing to that judgement.
Wholeness is the opposite of judgment. Wholeness is a refutation of life lived as critical competitors focused on the flaws of others. Wholeness is freeing for us and the world around us.
No, Jesus isn’t writing us a life-long hall pass to skip class and goof off from our responsibilities. Jesus is reminding us that God is involved here, and even if the clothes fade and the flowers whither, there is justice, there is peace, and there is life infused with meaning, the kind of meaning that lasts.
So, fly. The God of the Birds has also given you wings. And smile. Enrich this world, for the God of Flowers has also made you beautiful and amazing. This is our gospel, our Good News. Amen.
Thanks, everyone at CiB, for a blessed morning together!
Here’s a link to CIB’s post about our visit with a few more pictures: https://www.churchinbethesda.com/single-post/2017/07/06/Thank-you-Todd-and-Teresa-Thomas
Got a long post for you… I’m preaching today at the the 8am, 11:15am and 5pm services, and this is my transcript. Be blest, you beloved of God!
I stand before you now in the name of the One who called to Lazarus, “Come out,” who wept with hurting friends, and who risked it all to be with those whom he loved. May we cherish one another as deeply and be as present with each other, in joys and in the darkest of days. Amen.
Has anyone started doodling on their bulletin, yet? I know ours can’t be the only bulletin doodling family at St. John’s. Not only do I invite you to doodle away, keep your hands as busy as you need to, but I invite you to think with me for a moment, and maybe doodle or jot down a few things that come to mind with this question… “What labels do you wear?”
As examples: First in this life I was son and brother, and later I became husband and father. I am Christian, and I have been “Pastor.” I have labels applied to me according to my work and employment, my sexuality and gender, and I have labels that try to define and capture my political thoughts and opinions. Some of those labels, I kinda like… but sometimes labels can be hurtful, or limiting and completely unnecessary. Labels are a daily tool and reality of life. We can say we don’t like labels, but we’re kinda stuck with them. So, I think we need to be careful with them.
Someone in our Gospel story we just read was labeled a long time ago, and that stigma still sticks to him, today. Even someone who may not be a student of the Bible has probably heard and used the phrase “Doubting Thomas” to name the Apostle Thomas or chastise a doubting friend. But is that fair? Is a Doubter all that Thomas was? Or, is a doubter even an important part of who or what Thomas was in his life?
One of the many reasons I love our Gospel passage from John 11 is that we learn something about this man named Thomas. If we only knew Thomas from the later chapter when he doubts the word of the other apostles, then maybe I would be more open to the Doubter label, but here he is in chapter 11, the lone apostle of the group we hear daring to go with Jesus into hostile territory. In fact, Thomas is willing to go die with Jesus should that be their fate for venturing to Bethany. He’s willing to go die with Jesus.
This guy Thomas is bought in, folks. He belongs to Christ and is willing to follow him anywhere, into anything and through the worst. Maybe we can understand his moment of doubt in a better light when we understand the depth of his love and devotion to Jesus. Later when he watches his Lord die, he must have been crushed. The idea of his resurrection must also have been a desirable idea, but… trusting the words of his friends?
He’s already lost so much, felt the hurt so deeply, he’s not ready to trust their words and dare to again hope. From the man we know in our passage in chapter 11 this Doubting Thomas could as much or more easily have been labeled Daring Thomas, Devoted Thomas or DareDevil Thomas, willing to give his all to Jesus. And by the way, so ya know, Jesus didn’t label him Doubter, and neither did anyone in our scriptural witness. We did this to him. We, his legacy of faith through the generations, labeled him I suppose for his worst day, his doubting day.
We saddled him with Doubting instead of Daring or Devoted. In a similar vein we’ve done worse to Mary Magdalene through the years. All we know from scripture for sure is that Jesus cast demons from Mary and then she was his devoted, faithful disciple. The Apostle John even names her as the first to witness the empty tomb of Jesus. But we through the centuries have most often rewarded her faith by associating her with a nameless prostitute in another Gospel story. We have often needlessly associated her with sexual sin. By our scriptural witness, she has no specific sin at all, neither a failure of moral or doctrinal nature, attributed to her… but we needed to do that for some reason. We needed to label her Sinner and Adulteress.
What drives us to do this to one another? Why do we need to see one another in the worst light? Jesus didn’t do this… he sets no example of relating to people in their worst moment or identifying them by their failure. He sees people in their best light, sees into their best nature and loves them deeply. That love led him into hostile territory in our Gospel story… Bethany wasn’t safe, but he was determined to be with his hurting friends. And when he arrived, and Lazarus had died, Jesus weeps with his friends.
Maybe standing next to Jesus as he wept Thomas put his hand on his Lord’s shoulder to comfort him? Maybe Thomas held Mary or Martha, Lazarus’ sisters, in their moment of grief and weeping? Thomas was there in the middle of it, because he followed Jesus anywhere and everywhere, and Jesus was in the middle of it. Daring. Devoted.
Think back on some of those labels you carry with you. Specifically, now… think about the negative labels you’ve been given, or maybe have even chosen for yourself… in your mind, name them… do any of us carry something similar to dumb, undeserving, stupid, inadequate, loser, cheater, liar, thief, unworthy, fake? These labels, when given to us or even chosen by us, are not our true selves. Those labels, even when they have been earned, are not who we are.
Martha and Mary both say to Jesus, “…if you’d have only been here…” But Jesus is not late. He reminds the sisters that he has a few labels of his own: I am Resurrection and Life. Martha adds a couple more in a beautiful statement of faith: Messiah, Son of God. And Jesus is going to take that label of “dead” that clings to Lazarus, and tear it away. “Lazarus, come out!” Because if Jesus is Life and Resurrection, then so also is Lazarus, and so are we.
If Jesus is Resurrection and Life we are also Resurrection and Life! Jesus will tear away the worst of the labels we own and replace them them new labels of Goodness and Hope. He does it so many times in Gospel stories: the Unclean and Untouchable become Clean, sometimes they even become Dinner Guests and Hosts. Paul echoed this to the church in Ephesus when he wrote: “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient… But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…”
Recently in a Gospel reading (in John 4) we saw Jesus chatting with a Samaritan woman at a well! This woman who seemed in several ways to be labeled Unfit or Undeserving of that conversation with Jesus suddenly finds herself labeled Fit and Welcome by the Messiah. She would even become Prophetess and Missionary, bringing her whole village out to the meet and believe in Jesus.
A few chapters later in John chapter 8 Jesus will famously draw in the sand as some accusers drag a woman caught in adultery to him for judgment. She is labeled Sinner and Guilty, and seems to have earned those labels, being caught in the act. Jesus labels her Un-condemned, Loved and Capable. He sends her back to life with renewed energy and purpose.
Can you imagine how it must have felt to be either of those women, relabeled by love in the presence of Jesus. Can you imagine how it felt to be Lazarus, when the label of Death is remade into Life? Now maybe you want to say to me, “Todd, dead is not a label for Lazarus, he’s dead, as in dead.” And you’re right, he’s physiologically dead, not just labeled so out of spite, but sometimes aren’t we? Maybe we aren’t physically expired, but our souls feel dead, our spirits crushed, our emotions flatlined and others may view us as unworthy of more life, of better life, or full life. We acutely feel the label of unworthy, dead.
Jesus preached a familiar and oft quoted line in his Great Sermon as recorded by Matthew: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the Law and the prophets.” What would life be like for us, for those around us, if we applied that sentiment to the labels we use? Jesus sets an example for us of applying labels that give life. He looks into the lives of the people around him and loves them, and he labels them by that love. He sees them as the best of who and what they are, and he names them as such. And he treats them as such.
Oh, to have someone ignore my worst day, when I fail so miserably, and remember me and call me by my best day. Perhaps I haven’t even had that best day yet, but I think Jesus would still see me for it, name me for it, label me by it. Because the same power that called Lazarus from the grave can awaken my soul, revive my spirit, and re-energize my life, as he calls me Beloved, Redeemed, Sought After, Worthy and Alive.
And this can be scary! Jesus said to roll back the stone and the people protested, “Jesus, it’s gross in there. It stinks.” I can feel the same way sometimes, “Jesus, don’t come to close, I’m just not always what I seem.” But he is not deterred. He says, “Come out to life! Be who you were made to be!”
God has labeled us with love before we earn it, deserve it or even seek it. God has chosen us for love. You are called Alive, Wanted, Worthy. You are Beloved and Welcome. When we are called into his kingdom and mission, this is a gift we receive and then give to those around us who are mired in the death-dealing labels which steal their joy and true identity.
I will remember Thomas for his Daring Faith, not his Doubting Faith. And as God sees me, the best of me, and calls me Beloved, so will I strive to see you and all humanity, in your best. And I with God will call you such: Beloved. Worthy. Amazing. Beautiful. Needed. Valuable.
I have a short favorite poem/prayer I’d like to share with you in closing, written by a Jesuit Father, Michael Moynahan called “Broken Record”. I often turn to it when labels offered to me by this life or by my own failures begin to cloud my memory of how God has labeled me, how God has called me. It’s a prayer of remembrance. It’s a prayer of our truest self and our truest label. It begins briefly as spoken to God, but then shifts to be God speaking to us. Since you can’t see that shift indicated in the text I’ll signify it by raising my hands as God begins to speak in the poem…
You see our sin / as symptomatic stutter,
self-effacing struggle / to ignore
the confounding reality / of Your willful vulnerability:
“I love you
because I can’t do anything else.
I made you,
every last part of you:
all that’s hidden
and all that’s revealed,
all that’s muddled
and even all that’s clear.
at the risk
of repeating Myself,
dear to Me.
You are precious
in My eyes
you are Mine.
That’s enough for Me.
And it will have to do / for you.
Wrestle with it / until you get tired
and then relax / and give in.
Take a deep breath / and enjoy.”
I got a welcome email from our pastor, Rev. Sari, with some dates for me to do some guest preaching at St. John’s in Bethesda/Chevy Chase! Here are the dates and service times of my up-coming opportunities…
It’s exciting that two of the dates are in the Lenten Season, a deep and reflective time of every year. My thinking right now is to engage the Gospel passages on each of these Sundays as listed in the lectionary. (Links to the passages for each Sunday are inserted above with their dates.)
St. John’s is always a safe place for everyone. The inclusive and welcoming spirit there is one of the reasons we were able to make the congregation our home. You’re always welcome to visit for services, and of course, it would be pure joy to see you drop in when I’m given the privilege to share a message. Questions? Drop me a note with the form supplied below.
A four-year-old blog post of mine on preachers inciting violence has been coming to mind lately in light of the recent events in Orlando, and the hate-filled preaching of some pastors. Violence is a sickness, especially violence shrouded in religious piety. More than ever, our world needs those who will love in the face of hate and work to heal the sickness of these preachers. I’m sharing a recent nasty example from a pastor’s Facebook postings, and then linking in my blog from four years ago on preachers who incite violence. Lord, have mercy.
Recent nastiness in the name of Christ…
My post of four years ago: On Preachers Who Incite Violence
We must loudly and strongly, with civil tongues and constant hearts, repudiate these voices and their messages. We must stand against these messages of hate and violence. Silence is not an option, no more than violence. Answer them with sure, true and sincere messages of love. May our voices never cease to sing and weave the story of God’s unending love.
I was blessed to be asked to preach again at St. John’s Episcopal Church this past weekend. Heres’ the transcript, with a warning that it’s a bit longer than my usual posts. =)
Sermon of June 12, 2016, St. John’s Episcopal Church
Any prepared sermon is going to be undeniably challenged by a tragedy the likes of which we have witnessed in the past 24 hours. So as we begin, we also stop. We’ll take a moment to pray for those who have died and been hurt in Orlando, Florida, and their grieving friends and families.
“God of the Dance, God of Love and God of Life,
Our hearts break at these tragic deaths
and this horrible glimpse into the darkness.
Welcome the souls of all those who have died needlessly
in Orlando this past night, by an act of humanity’s deep
and dreadful love of violence, hatred and division.
For their souls we ask a place at your feast table,
at your home of light and life and love, forever.
For survivors, their families and friends we pray peace and comfort,
that your Spirit and your people will surround them,
hold them, and heal them in their rending grief,
and that they may know joy and healing in the coming days.”
“Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so
move every human heart in this our broken and needful society,
that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear,
and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed,
we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.” BCP pg. 823
Tonight’s Gospel Reading from Luke 7:36-50…
36 One of the Pharisees asked Jesus[j] to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37 And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38 She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” 40 Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “speak.” 41 “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii,[k] and the other fifty.42 When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus[l] said to him, “You have judged rightly.”44 Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” 48 Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Maybe you’re not like me and don’t have stories from your childhood which embarrass you. Maybe you matured faster than I did and you avoided the worst of decisions and moments we often experience as forming people, but I had some real doosies.
Tonight I’m thinking of 7th Grade Todd, and a time when I was at my worst. I was in the Art Club, and our much anticipated field trip to the Zoo in Dallas had arrived. We were going on a sketching trip! I was fired up, until we started assigning seats with parents to drive to the Zoo. My closest friends were all in one car, and I was assigned to ride with someone else and his mom. Now, this other guy… he was not a friend. In fact, he was a bully at whose hands I had occasionally suffered some hurt and harassment. He wasn’t smart, either. This is back in the day when they divided our seventh grade class into groups from the most smart to the least smart; our groups were labeled 7:1, being the smartest, all the way down to 7:6, being the least smartest. And this guy was a bit behind me and my friends. I’m also pretty sure his family didn’t go to church anywhere, and we know those things in a small town. I loudly proclaimed my horror at riding with him and his mom, “I don’t want to ride with him! Why is he in Art Club anyway?” I was told to quiet down and get in his mom’s truck, and I’d get to ride home with someone else. It was a tense, joyless ride to the Zoo.
And on days when I read stories like the one from Luke 7, I’m reminded of the lesson so painfully illustrated by 7th Grade Todd. Like Simon, I was the one who would invite Jesus over to supper, not the other person. I was the one who would be most likely to have Jesus over for supper (at least in my way of thinking), not them. I was the one, not them… I’m “the one most” (fill in any other descriptors you want): deserving, good enough, forgiven, allowed, expected, invited. But in a Gospel view of the world they are the one who is welcomed, grateful, forgiven, closest to Jesus.
Oh, Simon. I get it. I really do. Imagine working so hard to be ready for Jesus to come to dinner, making sure the right people are present, the food is perfect and you look your best. And then this sinner crashes the party. That word sinner says it all, huh? This sinner takes center stage. This sinner becomes the focus of discussion and begins to take Jesus’ attention and energy from your dinner party. Why is she here anyway? Wouldn’t a prophet know she doesn’t belong?
It’s easy enough to say that Jesus loves everyone. What takes a little more energy is really digging into Jesus and getting a hand on his way of seeing people, God’s way of seeing people. It differs so dramatically from the way I have so often viewed people. Did you notice in the words of Jesus that this sinner seems to be both responding to forgiveness and also still waiting to receive it? He says that her act of love flows from having much forgiven, and then afterward says to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
She seems to be responding to a forgiveness that has yet to be articulated, maybe even yet to be sought after, but that has totally consumed her. She teaches us something of how God sees people: forgiven before even asking. in the story she is returning a love that Jesus has yet to express directly to her. She’s an inspiration. Of course, Simon’s not all that inspired, because he only sees her as needing to be forgiven, while Jesus seems to have forgiven her before the first tear, before the anointing.
There’s a really good old theological term for this: prevenient grace. This is an term that states, in various ways in differing Christian traditions, that God’s grace and forgiveness pre-exists our seeking it and in fact enables us to seek it and understand it. This concept doesn’t in way lessen our turning to God and experiencing grace in repentance, but it does help us with taking what scripture teaches about forgiveness and form a daily Way of living with that understanding. So scripture teaches that Christ died while we were still sinners, that God predestined us, elected us, chose us before… these statements are familiar to biblical students, and they point us to way God sees us, viewing us in our intended beauty, in our intended state of grateful love, in our very best and deepest place of love and dignity. I especially like this as a counterpoint to the idea of Original Sin, that instead we are born into a state of Original Forgiveness. Perhaps, we are born into a state of Indelible Grace.
Wouldn’t that bring us to the feet of Christ, too? Do you think that maybe just hearing Jesus teach in the marketplaces and streets, maybe preaching on a mountainside, this woman got it, she understood, and that grace brought her to her tears? The story reminded me of times when scriptures instructs against partiality, judgement…
“1 My child, do not cheat the poor of their living, and do not keep needy eyes waiting. 2 Do not grieve the hungry, or anger one in need. 3 Do not add to the troubles of the desperate, or delay giving to the needy. 4 Do not reject a suppliant in distress, or turn your face away from the poor. 5 Do not avert your eye from the needy, and give no one reason to curse you; 6 for if in bitterness of soul some should curse you, their Creator will hear their prayer… 22 Do not show partiality, to your own harm, or deference, to your downfall.” (Sirach 1:6 & 22)
“2 My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 2 For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, 3 and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” 4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? 7 Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you? 8 You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 9 But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors… 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:1-9, 12-13)
And Jesus in Matthew 7:1-2
“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.”
I don’t think these passages are only good teachings in times of economic disparity, but must be applied to a broader sense of partiality which threatens to divide us, blind us and to honestly make fools of us. Simon seems to have had some justification for knowing that the woman was sinful. But Simon is intimately shown that he doesn’t understand forgiveness and his own love-debt to God’s grace. This sinner does. Simon is ultimately shown a new definition for “sinner,” which he may think means “undesirable” or unforgiven, but in actuality means deeply beloved and sought after.
After our trip to the Zoo I was relieved to be informed that I would get to ride home with my two closest friends. I crammed happily into the back seat with them, and then began one the of longest hour and half rides of my life. My friend’s mom figured that I didn’t go to the right kind of church, wasn’t good enough. So for the next hour and a half she illumined me on my impending damnation and sinfulness. To top it off, after I was dropped off at the school, she later called our home to accuse me of stealing a class ring from their car, a ring later found to have slipped between cushions and into the trunk of the car. Oh, Simon. You and me, brother. Some of us must learn the hardest lessons of life in the hardest ways to sink them through our hardest of skulls and into our hardest of hearts.
I will probably continue to fail at this, but I hope that every time I am confronted with someone I imagine to be the least forgiven, the least lovable, the least worthy, Christ might help me see them in their prevenient beauty and grace. I pray that the next time I feel so unworthy and believe the worst of myself, I will hear that call of grace, and my tears will be a thank offering for all the love and forgiveness God has already intended to lavish on me. 7th Grade Todd was not prepared to understand Martin Luther’s poignant exclamation, “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly.” 7th Grade Todd wasn’t ready to get it, and I can only hope I am before I’m 70.
Once more little gem from the Book of Common Prayer, one more cry to heaven…
“O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us
through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole
human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which
infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us;
unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle
and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth;
that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you
in harmony around your heavenly throne;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” BCP pg. 815
I’m taking some time this week to reflect and pray about the move I took a few months ago, following the decision Teresa and I made together almost a year ago, to leave my position as Pastor of Church in Bethesda, our spiritual friends and family for eight and a half years. (And so you know, this post will be longer than 500 words, my latest exercise to practice brevity and be more concise.)
It wasn’t an easy decision to leave Church in Bethesda and I’ve written some things about my entrance into the Episcopal Church, one the strongest factors that led to my resignation. And for the first time in a long time, I’m back in the role of being a member of a congregation without any leadership or teaching responsibilities.
Yes, I’m pursuing ministry options within the Episcopal Church, and I hope to serve our new Church family. I’ll even go ahead and say that I hope and pray that I am able to serve the Episcopal Church and our world as an Episcopal Priest, but it’s all up in the air for a while longer. For now I find myself outside of a role that I have served in for a long time, one I am realizing that I have internalized and made who I am as much as what I do: Shepherd.
As a Pastor, a Shepherd, my role was to come along side other members of our community and dig into scripture, experience life’s best and worst, and to faithfully make sense of it all together. I prayed for and with others. I served others and with others. I weekly spoke and wrote about scripture, God and faith. I creatively pursued ways within community to faithfully hear and follow God’s Spirit and footprints across our dusty globe. I painted. I played my djembe. I solemnized weddings and I officiated funerals.
Talking of shepherds and sheep might sound a bit off-putting to you, as if we’re talking about being a leader with a bunch of followers. The reality is that a good shepherd is as often following the sheep as leading them. (I often saw this when we lived in East Africa.) A good shepherd is serving the sheep and working to meet their needs more often than the sheep might be serving the the needs of the shepherd. Of course, we’ve all known an egotistical church shepherd who wields a wicked stick, but that is not an image of a scriptural pastor nor the example of the Good Shepherd, our Lord Jesus Christ.
These most recent reflections are not necessarily about the people we left behind at Church in Bethesda, good people we miss and love dearly. I’m not really writing about them, but about life after them. I’ve become a shepherd without any sheep. I don’t have a group of people for whom I have committed to follow, lead and serve as pastor and shepherd. We do have a congregation, and it’s filled with wonderful folks. I’ve been able to preach a few times on Sunday nights, and Teresa and I have been asked to teach a teen class on Sunday mornings in the Fall. But these are more in the doing part of me as shepherd than the being part.
That being part is what I’m missing. It’s the prayerfully dreaming and the vision casting of ways to enact our faith, within our community and in the world. It’s the circle of deep care around a group of people in which I share and breathe. It’s making art for them and making art together, and the prayerful preparation before the making of that art. One thing that is really getting to me is having messages well up inside of me, and no venue to share. It’s having dreams and images in my heart and no canvas on which to begin making them reality. It’s the realization that it’s much more difficult to be patient in this liminal space than I expected.
My reflections are multifaceted, but I wanted to capture a few ideas while they are still crystallizing in my mind.
1) I’m still feeling very blessed and happy in the Episcopal Church. Our experience at St. John’s Episcopal Church has been wonderful and we’re happy to be there. And my recent joy at Missional Voices is still fresh. We have a beautiful, diverse faith family in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion, and I’m happy it’s our home.
2) I need to take my impatience and feelings of loss and channel them into prayer and devotion. The thing about liminal spaces is that with growing anxiety and impatience, depression and hopelessness are too often the natural course. It’s all too easy to lose touch with faith and forms, practices that instill hope and reinforce conviction. Choices must often be made and remade as life’s journey moves into new territory.
3) I need a community in which I am a sheep and a shepherd, wherein I lead and follow and grow and share with some other souls. This is probably going to be alongside our membership and participation at St. John’s, but never instead of St. John’s. I shouldn’t be just waiting for what is coming next in my religious life and vocation; it’s a good time to start dreaming and realizing what comes next.
As promised, I doubled the usual length of a blog post… sorry about that, guys. But if one of these three reflections sounds like something you’d like to explore with me, then let’s get coffee and talk. Let’s get together and talk about faith without judgment, diversity without anger, peace without war and love for our enemies… lots of good Jesus stuff. God is good. God is good all the time.
I’ve been so wearied and heart sick from the on-going violence and hate speech across our country and world. Most days I say something like “Well, my sinuses are acting up” when someone questions me, but the truth is that I’m simply soul fatigued by the darkness that is so often heard exploding from stages, pulpits and the barrels of guns. Preparing for this day’s Advent message on Love, I am reminded that there is a remedy for the hate. There is a prophetic voice that answers the bigotry and fear. It is not a fight fire with fire kind of answer or a choice to out-shout, out-hate or out-bigot the worst that we hear on a daily basis. It is love. Love released, love shared and love unfettered among us.
It was a challenge to prepare this sermon, sort of like those occasional nights as children when we woke in the darkness and groped along for what seemed like hours to find the light switch. All we wanted was to get to the bathroom and have some relief, but it seemed so impossible in the darkness to get there. We will get there. We will love. We will keep the prophetic voice of our faith. In humility and my in own soul-weary dance, I offer this message and reminder that we have a purpose higher than the politics and brighter than the darkness. We have love.
The Second Candle of Advent: LOVE
December 6, 2015
Our scriptures are big enough and old enough and engaged enough with humanity that within them there will always be some things that confuse me, things that anger me, and things that frighten me.
But within them I also find again and again the great themes and underlying truths keep me bound to God and to Christ, such as the prophetic themes of love, justice and mercy. The theme of God’s great love that cannot be taken from us is one of the constants of our scriptural narrative and record. The theme of our essential goodness and the struggle to avoid the darkness which will hide it is another great theme which calls us to renewal. I cherish the theme of needful justice for the oppressed and disenfranchised, and then mercy for those who have abandoned justice and need to be restored.
Our scriptures continue to inspire, comfort and convict, even in the midst of the challenges I mentioned before, because they are prophetic. They are prophetic, and the prophetic voice of scripture is love.
What does it mean to say that the prophetic of scripture voice is love? When we use the word prophetic we think of oracles and predicting the future, but we also are talking of the past and the present and a voice which often loudly and coherently binds them all together in a meaningful narrative and message. Such is love. Love is our past, our present and love is our future. Love is the meaning of our effort and struggle, the hope of our need and the joy of our suffering.
So the narrative of love begins in scripture with God’s great love for us and all creation, and God’s understandable discontent when the darkness of our hatred and violence kills and destroys. But God’s love continues, and so much of the Psalms are verses singing about that steadfast and deep love. And even though God’s anger is understandable at our failure to match that steadfastness, God’s love rolls on and on.
And in Isaiah 11, the prophetic voice of love reminds the downcast and the oppressed that hope is not lost. That prophetic voice casts a vision of a coming reality when love reigns in the coexistent harmony of so many seemingly incompatible things: infants and serpents, bears and cows, lions and lambs, the wise and the old being led by children and the unlearned. Can we just stop for a moment and notice the obvious truth here, that love is more often unlearned in our species than learned? The children lead us in love for they have not yet had its light extinguished by our older fears, bigotry and hatred.
The prophetic voice of love rings in the most difficult teachings of Jesus. If we are honest with each other, and I hope we are, the most difficult teachings of Jesus for our lives are not the “stop sinning” kind, but the “start loving” kind. Love enemies. Love and pray for those who persecute. Love one another. Love God. Love neighbor. Love as he Christ has loved. (Matthew 5 & 22, John 13)
These are the teachings that often confound us, but also that shape and create a coming future in which the seemingly incompatible can exist in peace.
We live and make our way in a time of global terrorism, gun violence in our streets, schools and places of work. Domestic violence and sexual abuse scandals are not uncommon in our headlines. Bigotry seems to have become a popular political platform on which to win elections. Neighbor turns against neighbor in fear and ignorance of those Muslims, those Christians, those Republicans, those Democrats, those refugees, those gays, those, those, those…
The prophetic voice of love says not those, but we. Love is patient when patience and civility have become lost virtues; love is kind because kindness is more powerful than fear or hatred. Love isn’t envious of others or lacking in hospitality or generosity. Love doesn’t divide us into factions and parties to put others down and feel better about itself. Love isn’t proud to the point of insufferable arrogance, insult or discourtesy. Love is not rude, violent, or in the habit of making jokes about its neighbors. Love accepts others when they are different in thought, belief and background. Love is not waiting to be angry or carrying old resentments just waiting for a chance to pull them out and inflict the world with more angry hateful speech. Love is not excited by violence or thrilled by vengeance, but committed to making peace. Love carries burdens. Love believes the best of its neighbors. Love kindles hope in darkened lives. Love only grows stronger when resisted. Love cannot fail, end or be extinguished for it is the past, the now and the future. Love casts out and ends the fear that threatens our weary souls. Love is God among us, God in us and God through us. (My personal mashup of some of 1 Corinthians 13 and 1 John 4.)
Our candle called LOVE is burning. This is our reminder and our calling to let love so burn in us. Love is our prophetic vision, our voice and oracle of all things to come, and we must not ever let the darkness hide it or take it from us. We cannot allow fear or ego to dampen it. We must answer it’s call and remain in it’s path.
May love’s Advent never end, but may the arrival continue, lighting the dark corners of our lives and the world around us. May we never lose hold of the goodness with which we are made and continually chosen by God to experience and share enduring love. May we never exchange this great prophetic voice for any other message or meaning. For in this endeavor, in this embrace of love, we join the deepest narrative and truth of scripture. We enter into the millennia old work of God to enact justice, to promote mercy and to the humbly journey together.
How could we choose any other voice of prophecy? How could we allow any fear or worry to obscure this love? How could we claim any truth above this love? How could our identity be known by any other mark?
Jesus said… “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” from John 13:31-35, NRSV