What kind of gospel is this?

Let’s be honest with one another. I hate the fact that this is the lectionary text this week. It’s a terrible story. Very un-gospel-y. It makes Jesus look like a jerk. It’s confusing, and full of what seem to be secret metaphors I don’t immediately understand. It feels incomplete. It makes me stop and ask the question, “What kind of gospel IS this?”

I try to preach and pray from the lectionary for one very particular reason: it keeps me honest as a believer. It makes me read stories like this, that are hard. It stretches me not to stick with what is comfortable, because the gospel isn’t comfortable. This Matthew text where Jesus meets the Canaanite woman with a demon-possessed daughter definitely makes the list. What is the story we’re looking at today?

Jesus had just left “that place,” where he’d been ministering to the people – he’s headed toward Jerusalem, on the downswing of the gospel story, toward the cross. We’re more than halfway through Matthew, and he’s starting to really build momentum.

The district of Tyre and Sidon where he’s headed are outside the boundaries of Israel proper. Jesus actually told his disciples in chapter 10 not to go to these areas. However, while Tyre and Sidon aren’t Jewish, there are large pockets of Jewish settlements north of the Galilean border in these territories.

So here comes Jesus, striding through this territory, likely with his mind on how to proclaim the gospel to the Jews he would find there, and BAM here comes this Canaanite woman, shouting after him. The disciples follow – after all, that’s what they do – and everyone in the traveling party hears her yelling.

“Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon!”

She literal screams for mercy.

And what does Jesus do? The scripture says, “But he did not answer her at all.”

What?!? He ignores her. A screaming, frantic local woman. Probably pretty difficult to pretend she wasn’t there, but that’s what he does.

So the disciples hurry up to him. In my heart, when I read this text, I sort of breathe a sigh of relief, “Yeah, of course, this is a test. They’re going to beg him to help her and everything will be okay.”

Except. It doesn’t go like that at all. Instead, they beg for their OWN mercy…
“Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”

They’re more worried about their own precious eardrums than the woman in pain in front of them…

What in the world is going on here? Usually, when the disciples are uncaring, Jesus finds a way to correct them. But here, HERE, Jesus seems to be on their side! What can this possibly mean? What sort of Gospel IS this?

Let’s talk briefly about this woman. The Israelites and the Canaanites had historically been terribly at odds. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Canaanites had been in the Promised Land LONG before the Israelites wandered in from the wilderness. And once the Israelites got there, all they wanted to do was to have God destroy the people living there already, to make space for them. The Promised Land wasn’t empty when they arrived.

So this woman is outside of Jesus’ frame of reference in some pretty striking ways. Their cultures are at odds, sort of enemies – in ethnicity, in heritage, in religion. Her behavior is entirely unacceptable for the time. She’s a Gentile woman approaching a Jewish man, and she is not reserved, respectful, and quiet. She’s shouting, she’s likely running, she’s demanding. Unacceptable. She’s a gentile and unclean. And where’s her husband? Meanwhile, she’s got this daughter who’s ill with demon possession. In a Jewish world worried about who’s in and who’s out, who’s clean and who’s not – this woman is as much an outsider to Jesus’ group as it can get.

Throughout Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus only ministers to Gentiles 3 times. Once to the centurion in Capernaum, once to the Gaderene demoniac who lives among the tombs, and (ultimately) here. His mission, he says to the disciples as they tell him to shoo off this woman, is to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” What he’s basically saying is, “This is not my problem. I’ve got my eye on other things.”

What sort of Gospel IS this?

When you hear these texts, it might make you wonder who you consider to be inside, and who is out. Where do we draw the lines and who matters? People of Jesus’ time asked these questions, and we do, too.
If we only have so many hours in a day and so many dollars to spend, who gets our resources? We live in a world of scarcity. Who gets our generosity and who gets our silent rejection?

These are tough questions to face.

It might surprise us that Jesus has to face the same questions, and he struggles with them.
He is focused on who he is and what he is about. He has come as prophet, priest, and king to restore his people – the Jewish people – to their right place in the world and their right place with God. The cross is coming.
There’s a lot of work to be done. He can’t do it all, and focusing may be the difference between success and failure.

Basically, Jesus has been called by the Father to bring people to repentance and to hear the good news about the Kingdom of God, and in Matthew – but not in Luke or Mark’s gospels, where he ministers to Gentiles in numerous contexts – his calling is limited to the Jewish people. Limited.

But here’s this non-Jewish woman begging for mercy from him. She’s planted herself in his path – literally – and won’t be ignored.

She kneels before him and says, “Lord, help me.” The mercy she is begging of him is something she believes he owes her. The word she uses is the same one that the merciful receive in the beatitudes “the merciful shall receive mercy.” It’s the same quality the unforgiving servant in chapter 18:33 lacks when he refuses to forgive the debts of his debtor. Mercy, here, is a challenge. She is challenging Jesus to admit that he has an obligation to God and to people to pay back debts that HE has. This is revolutionary. Does she really think Jesus owes her something?

Jesus doesn’t. In fact, he answers her harshly by saying, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Basically, “I don’t owe you anything.” She begs for help, and his answer is to call her a dog.

Now, there are a few interpretations of what is going on here. Turns out, I’m not the only one who’s read this story and is uncomfortable with it. Theologians and biblical scholars have tried to give Jesus a “bye” on this passage a lot over the years. Suffice it to say, though, that no one has been able to honestly get around the fact that calling someone a dog (and using this word in the Aramaic language Jesus spoke), is a familiar insult, a favorite of the Israelites. Calling a woman a female dog would have had the same tone and effect as if it were shouted down a high school hallway today.

It was not a kind thing to say. More frankly, Jesus was being very rude. Dismissive. Discriminatory.

But the woman doesn’t scrub over, or try to wiggle out of, what Jesus labels her as. Instead, she brings their differences into the light and calls them into question. She uses the opportunity to teach Jesus a lesson.

Can you imagine?

She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” In other words, “I may be a dog, but that doesn’t mean I don’t matter – you owe me mercy.”

In Romans, Paul struggles with this question of “who matters.” What separates people from the love of God in Jesus Christ? Who deserves grace?

He ultimately comes to the conclusion that all people are the focus of God’s saving grace. Jew or Gentile, Christ came to save us regardless of our background – remember, Jew or Greek, slave or free, man or woman?

And here’s Jesus, on that journey, in that moment, excluding this woman and all people like her. To him, here, SOMETHING DOES separate some people from the good news.

But she challenges his laser-focus and says, “There is enough grace for everyone, even people like me.”

And here’s the kicker. He changes his mind. Literally, in the middle of chapter 15 in Matthew, we watch a nobody Canaanite woman preach a bigger gospel to Jesus than he’s been preaching, and he changes his mind. From ignoring her to insulting her to answering her prayers, he changes his mind, decides he DOES owe her something, and forever after the gospel is different, bigger.

“Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

Here’s how we know his mind is changed forever: at the end of Matthew, the gospel is for all nations (28:19). All people. All nations. Jew or Canaanite, African or Greek. Free, slave. Male or female.

The final word in Matthew is basically Jesus saying, “The news is good, and there’s enough for everyone.” THIS is the kind of gospel this is. Amen and amen!

What to do with 5 loaves and 2 fish?

In my family, I’m always known as the one who can be counted on to pack enough food. I’ve been on trips where I’ve packed entire meals into my purse – my friends call it the feed bag – so that I wouldn’t have to worry about whether (or where) we’d be eating. I remember an important moment in one of my greatest friendships, April, a dear friend I roomed with on a trip to India in 2008. We’d been traveling all day in the heat, and someone asked if there was any food on the bus. April and I simultaneously started listing all of the things we had in our bags – Beef jerky! Snickers! Almonds! Trail mix! Peanut butter! – and the bus went silent. We realized we were soul sisters – the ones who would bring the food. Sometimes, though, I forget.
Have you ever gone on a trip and not packed enough food?
I remember another time when my dad took my baby brothers and I on a car trip to Montana. We always hiked together, and my dad was pretty good about bringing things so that we would be safe. This day, we got out of the car because we saw a trail we wanted to hike, got the back pack with the poncho, the safety gear, and the sunscreen, and started to hike the back trails outside of Big Sky. It was a really good hike – lots to see, hard trails, wildlife. But at one point, about an hour in, my youngest brother Lex asked Dad – as he usually would – “Can I have some water?” And Dad cracked open the pack, pulled out the canteen, and I remember the look on his face when he realized… it was light. It wasn’t full. He dug frantically into the pack again – one chocolate bar and a bag of granola. Not enough for all four of us, and no fresh water in sight. So we each got a sip to keep us going, a bite to refresh us… and we headed back the way we came.
So what is it about this scripture we read, Matthew’s loaves and fishes miracle? This is the only miracle story recounted in all four gospels.
When this sort of thing happens in Scripture, it means it’s of unusual importance – it’s like the biblical authors are saying, “That was so important, I’m going to repeat myself.”
First of all, you should know, this story happened once already in the Hebrew Bible – what we sometimes call our Old Testament. It parallels Elisha’s in II Kings 4:42-44. So this is an old pattern – God feeds his people in strange circumstances, through a prophetic leader.
So Jesus has just been rejected in Nazareth. He’s just watched his cousin and friend John the Baptist – a bit more of a fire-brand than Jesus – get his head chopped off for speaking truth to power. He’s had a very, very bad month. A sad month. He needs to recharge, to find his direction again. So he heads out to the wilderness. Away from the people crowding for his attention. But they follow him. I’ll don’t know about you, there’s a particular feeling you get when you think, FINALLY, I’m going to get some peace and quiet! Time to think! But he looks up, and there they are again. Matthew says this is the story of the 5,000, but the actual words are “5,000 men, besides women and children.” What we should know is that this means, in that time, about 20,000 people. Families.
And he sees these people, not famous, not rich, many ill, poor, uncertain, but hungry for words of power and sustaining bread… and his heart feels for them. The scripture says he has compassion – and this means he feels with them. He teaches them, gives them what they’re looking for, which is the power they feel coming from him, the possibility and the hope they need. He sits with them. But then night falls, and the disciples sidle up and let him know the crowds are starting to murmer about being hungry after a long day. I imagine the disciples themselves were pretty exhausted, pretty hungry. They suggest Jesus send the crowds home. Now, something you should know about the wilds outside of the towns there – there wouldn’t have beeen anywhere to go. They were, like my hiking trip, stuck. Either those people were going back hungry to fend for themselves without much of a plan, or they were going to be fed right there in the middle of the desert. Not a lot of choices.
He’s in a pretty vulnerable spot – Jesus’ ego, if he were one of us, might have been sorely tempted to feel better – This could take Jesus to a new opportunity to “turn stones into bread” as the Devil challenged him to do in the Temptation (4:2). Just get it over with! A hungry crowd, a wilderness place, fed with food from nowhere. The public seeks him out, follows like Ancient Near East paparazzi. He has the power. It would have been hard to resist.
The problem is, the disciples make a bit of a mistake. They should know this Jesus better by now. What do they say? “We have nothing here, but 5 loaves and 2 fish.” So they don’t tell a whole truth. They say they have nothing, but they do. The disciples clearly thought they had not nearly enough (v. 17). It was small, but it wasn’t nothing. They just don’t want to share. Which makes sense, right? What do you do when you have 5 loaves and 2 fish?
Jesus has the answer ready – he tells them to bring them. They dig into their travel packs and hand the fish and bread over to him. I can only imagine their faces. Were they curious? Or sheepish? Upset?
He looks up to heaven, blesses and breaks the bread and returns the now holy food to his followers. Who then give them to the crowds. They probably watched and thought – oh, don’t take too much! Oh…. No! that one over there!
And they do it, and – this is the important part – ALL WERE FILLED. Unlike my story of hiking, where we had a bit of water and candy and got just enough to make it back to camp, these little bits of fish and crumbs truly FED the people. All of them. All ate and were filled, and they took in EXTRA.
So this story shouldn’t be called “Jesus Feeds the 5,000” after all. Jesus only feeds the 12. The 12 feed the 5,000, or the 20,000, if we count the invisible women and children.
The scripture says there were 12 baskets left over. Now, that may seem like a lot – 12 baskets out of those tiny servings??? But think about this – have you ever had a family reunion? What happens? There’s always a ton of food left over. People have to take home plates. No matter what. 20,000 people, and there end up with just12 baskets left over – this is a miracle of stewardship, as much as feeding. It’s like Jesus had a family reunion, and all that was left over was one pack of hotdogs.
Everyone got exactly what they needed, and there was enough. A small margin of error, and enough. Any more would have been a waste.
Now, in order to take this story seriously… we need to chat a bit about what it means that this is part of our Scriptures.
Interpretations vary. The most common ones are that Jesus and the generosity of the disciples moved the people to share so that all were fed. Basically – people had secret food they weren’t telling about.
That it was only a symbolic and spiritual feeding. (though verse 20 implies physical satiety, not spiritual.
That this was a truly powerful and miraculous experience for those involved, so shocking that all of the gospels felt the need to share it.
Hard to tell – obviously a supernatural event being reported, so must look theologically.
I wonder if it really matters how this happened. What is crucial is the message that Jesus shares in this story through his actions and his words: God will provide God’s people when they are hurting, and wandering in the desert, and trying to be faithful. With a little to spare – and perhaps with the simple things – , but there must be no greed or waste, or some will go hungry. Psalm 78:19 asks “Can God spread a table in the wilderness?” This story, in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, 11 Kings, and everywhere else it’s told answers with a resounding “Yes!”
“What do you do when what you’ve got is 5 loaves and 2 fish?” You simply remember:
God is love (compassion shown through Jesus)
Disciples have been given an awesome responsibility to be the body of Christ through concrete acts of love and justice. – Christ. As Elisha performed this through his servant, Jesus enlists the disciples – called to be God’s instruments in meeting the needs of others
When we need it most, God will give us the power to work for good in the world. Holy Spirit. God uses what we bring.
God’s will is that hungry people be fed. What are the loaves and fish you will share?

Hello, my name is Julia, and I’m a sinner.

Hi, my name is Julia, and I’m a sinner.

I can’t tell you how often I want to say that sentence in my day to day life.  Hi, my name is Julia, and I can’t do everything right.  Hi, my name is Julia, and I really have trouble asking for help.  Hi, my name is Julia, and I just can’t seem to get a handle on my mouth most days, or on the facts.  I mess up a lot.  I say angry words.  I get self-righteous.  I ignore poor people.  I wish I could ignore other people’s feelings.  Hi, my name is Julia, and I’m a sinner.

Maybe it should be, “Hi, my name is Julia, and I am a human.”

Because this is one of the hardest, and one of the most heart-gut-soul recognizing passages in all of Scripture, for me.

I remember the first time I read this passage.  I was a new Christian, blindly trying to figure out what the heck I was supposed to do in order to pull off this being Christian thing – I had a vague sense that it had to do with reading my bible from cover to cover.  So, that’s what I did.  I started at page one – Genesis 1:1, and read through it.  Page by page, word by word.  At one point, about a year in, I made it to Romans, and I read this passage.

7:15 I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.
7:16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good.
7:17 But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.
7:18 For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.
7:19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.
7:20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.
7:21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.

And I felt two things:  the first was… relief.  Oh, my God!  There I am!  You know me!  I wanted to look up and find someone standing there and say, like when you find yourself by surprise in a photo album or in the newspaper – look!  The first person who you see, Look!  It’s me!

But then, almost immediately… terror.

Because most of the time, in those sad years in my very early adulthood – I felt most days like a ragdoll whose stuffing has come loose.  A patch of hair here, a dangling thread there.  If someone had come by and tugged on one, I imagined I would have just unraveled across the floor.  My life was headed in a direction I didn’t understand, and wasn’t happy about.  I was angry.  I was a tumble of pieces haphazardly glued.  I was arms and legs, a brain – but maybe, it felt like not much of a soul.  So I protected myself with toughness and ambition, with some smarts and a bit of sharp humor.  Because when you feel like the stuffing is showing, you got to back it up with something, right?  Got to distract from the truth a bit?  And the terror – because if I knew this passage was true, then surely someone else would know it, too…

I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do the good that I want, but the bad I do not want is what I do.

Paul’s words are not just for himself – a Pharisee, the perfect – no, he’s speaking for all of fallen humanity before experiencing God’s grace.  This is the cry of the human soul.

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate!  Oh, how I wish I could understand why being human is so hard…

 

We are not children – who, out of ignorance, can’t be held accountable for our actions.  No, we know what to do, we just can’t seem to do it.  What’s worse, the closer we get to doing right, the harder the temptation.

We have a number of AA groups that meet in our churches – some of you are personally familiar.  The striking thing of AA is its simplicity, the humility.  All it takes, is admitting that you are powerless in the face of your addiction.  You surrender yourself to a higher power.  You confess your mistakes and find welcome and support in the company of others, who celebrate the small victories.

“I’m not going to use today.  Tomorrow I might, but not today.”

The sin that Paul describes in this passage: it’s like a modern medical metaphor.  It’s like Paul is talking about a virus that lives in our bodies until it’s activated by stress or poor diet or some other trigger.  Sin isn’t just a behavior that Paul – and we – can choose to do or not do.  It lives in us, resides in us, like a parasite living off a host.  It will not stop being destructive, will not cease killing the person it’s in until it’s removed and replaced by something stronger – the spirit of Christ.  “Romans 8:11.

Have you ever seen the movie A Beautiful Mind? John Nash, a brilliant and tortured physicist, suffers from schizophrenia, a mental illness that confuses, frightens, and challenges him and his family.  At one point in the film, John – a genius in his field who has never doubted his own abilities – assures his psychiatrist that he will deploy his intelligence to cure his own illness.  “You can’t reason your way out of this,” his doctor replies, “because your mind is where the problem is in the first place!”  We can only be rescued from without.

And that’s the truth that scared me when I read it, I think.  Fro not only was it scary to see myself written on that page… God knew that about me.  God knew and knows, that even in our best actions, sin flourishes.  Not only in our failings – not only when we’re at our worst, but even when we’re trying our hardest.

That’s hard medicine to take.  We’re not – even the apostle Paul was not – entirely able to save himself.  We can’t save ourselves.  Only a truly humble person – someone who can say, “Hi, my name is…”  can be on the path toward that salvation, that liberation, that help.

Because of this, we can know: if the problem were weakness of human will, then reconciliation would require nothing more than a little more willpower.  Jesus would be something just a bit better than a good life coach, someone who could help us keep our resolutions.  The gospel of Paul reveals that in Jesus Christ, sin is defeated in every setting, if we only trust God to do so and stop trusting our own selves to do it.

That’s the power of this passage – doing the right thing apart from God’s grace is a losing battle.  And, we are not alone in the struggle.  That’s the problem – we act like we are.  That’s the problem – we stop reading at Romans 7:21 – we stop at

 

7:21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.

 

And we get caught up in the fear, the intimidation of being perfect and don’t read the blessed rest, which says:
7:22 For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self,
7:23 but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.
7:24 Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?
7:25a Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord

 

Who will rescue me?  God in Jesus Christ.  This is the promise.  WE can not do this alone.  We can not do this without God.  WE can not do this without one another.  I can not do this without you, and you can not do this without me because we are brothers and sisters in Christ – we are the body, and the body can not function without its many parts.  We may have stuffing poking out of our seams, and we may be raggedy, but we are rescued from our raggediness by Jesus, who particularly cared to save the broken and battered ones.

 

That’s what this table – this place of grace, forgiveness, reconciliaton, and nurture – is all about.  This is where we find assurance and pardon for all things, over and over.

Because I will need grace from you, in this coming year.  And you will want it from me.  Perhaps we can come to this table together, this table where we admit our humanness, and ask once again to be fed so that we can grow to be more like the Divine together.

 

Grace, grace, all is grace. Let us simply do our best, in the power of the Holy Spirit and by the grace of Christ.   Let us live out our call to confess our humanity and to offer it up to become sacred – as Paul did, as Jesus taught us – let us say who we are, and then remember the most important part, whose we are.  I do not understand my own actions!  But thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!!!

Not Quite What I Was Planning

There are stories everywhere around us.  From the moment we slide into this world, we hear stories – about what happened before we were born, about our parents, about our grandparents.  fairy tales, children’s books, bible stories.

As we get older, we hear histories in school – we learn from the radio and television that people’s life stories are so fascinating they deserve their own air time.

Policy – the work of governments – is nothing more than story-telling wars, and whoever’s story is most powerful, wins.

 

If you listen, really listen, almost nothing human beings talk about during the day is anything other than story telling.

 

Sorrow and loss, wickedness and failure, humor and happy endings and hope for the future.

 

We embark on this endeavor because stories the way we pass down information from one generation to another.

 

Words and language are the threads of life, and from Homer’s epics to the stories we tell about and to one another at church potlucks, family gatherings, and funerals , stories are way to engage the imagination of a listener.

 

They’re the way we inspire, persuade, inform, complain, make change happen, move forward, teach, understand.  And in the end, we tell stories to understand ourselves and others a bit better.

 

Gossip? Storytelling.

 

Gospel. Storytelling.

 

And you and I, we follow the master story teller – no one told stories like Jesus.  Everywhere he went, he told the stories of the land in which he lived – of the wheat and the chaff of the fields, of the fishermen in the sea of Galilee, of the small town widows. Of the power-hungry religious leaders of Jerusalem and the wandering shepherds of the hills.   He told story after story – what we call “parables” – pointing toward the greater meanings of the life of the people he met, those same fishermen and shepherds, widows and religious leaders.  He used stories to tell a bigger Story.  The Good News. The story of the Kingdom of God.

 

So.  Stories.

 

Maybe you’ve heard of the book, Not Quite What I was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure?

 

A few years ago, an online magazine asked readers to submit their life stories in just six words.  Its actually an old idea.  The challenge was given to the famous author Ernest Hemingway decades ago to write his story using just six words.

 

He retreated for a few weeks, then came back with, “For sale, baby shoes, never worn.”

 

For sale.  Baby shoes.  Never worn.  What story did he tell with those six simple words?

 

Perhaps it was the difficult memory of his own child, lost to death before the age of toddling along with her father.

 

Perhaps it was a heartbreaking tale of the older sibling never born, whose place in the birth order Ernest took as the next in line.

 

Or, maybe it was the hopeful story of a life so powerfully lived that baby steps – those transitional phases of life – were unnecessary, a narrative of leapfrogging into a future with boldness and courage.

 

For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.

 

Six words.  So many possibilities, all of them powerful.

 

 

The online magazine in question received thousands of entries, which were later compiled into the book.

 

Some were funny:

Divorce was like reprieve from governor.

Dentist hurt me. I bit her.

Fell off wagon. Hitched next ride.

 

Some made me sad:

Still don’t understand why you died.

Found true love, married someone else

After Harvard, had baby with crackhead.

I found my mother’s suicide note.

 

Some made me glad to be human:

Ugly duckling life became swan dream

Today I reaped what I sowed.

 

My favorite, a nine-year-old girl wrote:  Cursed with cancer. Blessed by friends

 

I started thinking of my own, trying out this six – word story:

 

It’s all just downhill from here.

Messed stuff up.  Got over myself.

There’s light.  But first, a tunnel.

And, in honor of Mother’s Day: Becoming my mother; better than advertised.

 

 

Whether you’ve thought of this or not, you’re writing the story of your life, writing a story WITH your life.  Stories are everywhere and the we have a choice about the story we tell.  So what if you were to write your six word memoir?  What would it be?  Or, if someone else were to write it for you, what would you like them to say?  Would it be different than what they came up with on their own?

 

The passage from Acts this morning – of the disciple Peter’s story of God’s Kingdom Salvation – remember! ““Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

 

He was telling God’s story – a story of grace.  Of forgiveness.  Of the big picture, of the great beyond, beyond and through the wounds we’ve endured, the wounds that are living us.  That your sins may be forgiven!

 

Repent!  Tell your story! The gospel – the good news – it’s just that.  The telling of the news, and it’s good.  It’s grace.  It’s yours.  And you can tell it.

 

There’s light.  But first, a tunnel.

Found by God. Surprised and grateful.

2:39 For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”

 

There is a promise to be fulfilled, yet.  You still have time left, right?  Your story isn’t done.  At least, you have the final chapter to write.  And you’re the one composing it.  So what would you like your six word memoir to be?

 

God is writing a big story it this world, and you are a part of that story, but how will yoru story fit in the big story?  What do you want your life to be about?  What are you hearing God telling you’re your life is supposed to be about? For what do you want to be remembered?

 

If your life were a six-word memoir, what would you like it to be?

 

Maybe: Extravagant lover.  Grace wholesaler.  World changer.

 

Or how about, loved unconditionally.  Loved audaciously.  Love wins.

 

I hope mine will be something like:

 

Received without cost.  Lived in gratitude.

 

God wins, that that is the final chapter of the story – but how will your story fit into the big story?

 

One Life. Six Words. What’s Yours?

Let it be the good news.

A New Beatitude

Someone once said, a preacher only ever preaches what she herself needs to hear.  Today is definitely one of those days – we’re going to leave the lectionary and get back to basics for the week.  I’ll tell you why.

This evening I will make a pilgrimage.  Some of you will join me in this journey to Lakeside, where hundreds of United Methodists will come together for 5 days of holy conferencing, lawmaking, and fellowship.  We will also come into Hoover Auditorium and try, in large and small ways, to be faithful to what we understand the gospel to be.

I love Annual Conference – I love the disagreements, the family atmosphere, the ice cream, the long hours, the heat, even the mayflies.  I love sitting with my brothers and sisters in Christ, praying, singing and thinking through the issues at hand in the life of the Church, on the edge of the Kingdom of God.

But.  This year, I haven’t been looking forward as much.  I dread some of the conversations we’ll have, because I know they will be sad.  Some will, despite our best efforts, be unkind.  They will be hurtful.  Because, once again, we’ll be “debating” the value of some of our beloved friends, colleagues, and family members – our glbt lay and ordained leaders, those like Bill Bronson, who is our elected CFO but who will have his character assassinated again on the floor of Hoover Auditorium because he is both an excellent CFO and honest about his sexual orientation.

I find myself thinking a lot this week about the Beatitudes.  Matthew 5 is perhaps – after John 3:16 – the most quoted portion of the gospels – You can probably recite most of them from memory.  Blessed are the persecuted.  Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are the meek.  Blessed are the mournful. Blessed. Blessed, blessed, are those we do not expect to receive God’s blessing. Blessed.

I find it nearly impossible to share a blessing with some of these, my brothers and sisters who will stand at the mic and defame one another.  But Jesus sets a precedent I can’t ignore – a model of commending even those who appear – from all outward appearances – to be unblessable.  To be incapable of blessing others or being blessed. I need some help understanding how this blessing stuff works… Maybe you do, too?

Let’s remember the scripture again – it’s an old and complex story for Jesus, this understanding of blessing.

Blessed.

The first time we encounter this word in the story of Jesus, it is in Luke’s gospel. Elizabeth offers this word—repeatedly—when Mary comes seeking sanctuary with her elder kinswoman amidst their mutually miraculous pregnancies.

Blessed are you
among women,

Elizabeth says to Mary,

and blessed
is the fruit
of your womb.

And blessed is she,

Elizabeth says soon after,

who believed.

Blessed, Elizabeth says to Mary: once, twice, and yet a third time.

Blessed, blessed, blessed.

Barely beginning to take form, Jesus feels the jolt that goes through Mary when she hears this word, blessed. Something in the growing Jesus feels the way the word settles inside Mary when she recognizes it to be true. When she knows it in her bones. When she claims the word for herself as she sings the Magnificat:

Surely, from now on
all generations will call me
blessed.

Blessed. Jesus absorbs this. Blessed seeps into his forming cells, blessed passes from Mary’s flesh into his own. From the womb, he knows the power of receiving a blessing, of living within it. He understands what it means to inhabit this word, to dwell within one who has been named blessed.

Jesus knows this word from the inside. And so there comes a time when he begins to say it. Again. And again.

 

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

(It is as though Jesus is saying, Can God fill anyone who is full?  What if you find you are full of illusions rather than truth?)

 

‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

(To mourn is to be given a second heart, to care so deeply that you show your ache in person.  To be unashamed of tears, and to forget yourself for a moment.)

 

‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. (Is meekness the face of weakness, or to be so full of truth that everyone is comfortable in your presence, to need no followers but only the need to be true to themselves.)

 

‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. (What would it be like to be hungry for all that is lasting and right, for broken bread and kept promises.  Hungry for Good News?)

 

‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. (For when you throw around forgiveness unconditionally, like rain on a dray earth, will never be forgotten, nor untouched.)

 

‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. .   (Can God ever say no to one who is like a child exploring a new day, to whom all is possible? Whose heart isn’t hidden?)

 

‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. (Are these not God’s special people?  The ones who dream dreams, walk in peace where the wild things are, whose hearts can not stay at home?)

 

‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (What is it to be one who says, “I will stand on the side of those with no power.  There is no joy like being the voice of the voiceless.” These are the ones who believe most deeply, for they have the most need to trust.)

 

‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

 

It seems, blessed are those who make themselves vulnerable in some way.  Not the powerful, not the wealthy, not those who are strong or who have a plan or who create extravagant church growth charts or budgets. No.  Those who become permeable and let the world in, who take a chance on a different path, they will be called blessed.

 

What Elizabeth did for Mary, Jesus does in the Beatitudes for his disciples. What Elizabeth spoke to the one who bore Jesus into the world, Jesus speaks to these whom he will call to become his body, to continue to bear him in this life, to become his hands and feet after his flesh is gone.

Jesus will not cease to say blessed after this passage, this litany, in Matthew 5. He will speak it yet again. When the imprisoned John the Baptist sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus tells them to return to his cousin and tell him what they see and hear, of the healing that comes to the blind, the lame, the lepers, and more…What Mary did—hearing, seeing, opening, receiving, responding—Jesus invites all his hearers to do. The blessing that imbued Mary—the blessing that Jesus absorbed in the womb and proclaimed throughout his ministry—Jesus tells the crowd is available to them as well.

We often talk about being blessed as if it is a reward, as if good fortune comes to people as just desserts for good behavior. Much of Christian culture equates blessing with prosperity, with health, with satisfaction and obvious abundance – with, if you will, WINNING.

 

With the beatitudes, Jesus utterly disrupts this line of thinking.

 

Christ is telling those who hear him that they are fortunate to be this way. They are fortunate to possess these qualities of life. Why? Because it means they inherit the blessings or fortunes of God’s promised kingdom.

 

In Israel, where Jesus first shared these Beatitudes, it was not common to think of the poor, the hungry, or those who were in mourning as blessed. The Beatitudes were a shocking reversal of expected values and virtues. We also live in a land where prosperity is equated with blessedness and the poor and the hungry are pushed aside. If we were to rephrase the Beatitudes, what words and images would we use today?

 

Annual conference is a season when I find it most difficult to believe in blessing.  I want everyone to be peacemakers – but I myself am not one.  I want all to be meek, but this is not who we have become.  I want all to be pure in heart, hungry for righteousness… but we are human and fall down.  We all hold some hatefulness in our hearts– how can people who behave in such ways possibly be blessed?  How can those who are oppressed by them be?  And If I’m going to be a beatitudes-liver, can I learn how to bless and be a blessing to even those who I struggle with the most?  What the beatitudes command from me – in the model of Jesus – is the willingness to bless those who look unblessable.

 

Are people who hate – for whatever justifications, rationalities, or reasons of faith or conscience – are people who hate “bless-able?”  What is to redeem in that behavior?  How can we all watch one another make mistakes – even terribly damaging ones – and bless one another, just as Jesus blessed those around him who would ultimately fail him at the cross?

 

In answer, I’ve been working on some “alternative” and rephrased Beatitudes this week, to address these modern questions.  Let me know what you think – you should write your own, and let me know how it goes.

 

Blessed are those who wait, for they shall see the completion of the Kingdom.

Blessed are the anxious, for they will receive peace.

Blessed are the narrow-minded, for they will find the greatest measure of transformation.

Blessed are those who think in only black and white, for they have at least found two points on the spectrum.

Blessed are those who have been told they are to stay silent, for they will be spoken for in God’s voice.

Blessed are those who notice desolation, for they will be also the first to recognize new growth.

Blessed are those who have grown small, for they will be given more space in which to breathe.

Blessed are those who suffer, for they will be strong and ready for times to come.

Blessed are the tenderhearted for they will recognize hospitality in strange places.

Blessed are you who have been wounded by others, for you will find a new way to heal.

Blessed are those who love unwisely, for they have found the secret to living.

Blessed are those living in dark places, for they will care most creatively for the light.

Blessed are those at the end of their rope, for they will reach out for help and expand therefore their community.

Blessed are the envious, for they will remind others of what they already possess.

Blessed are the clumsy, for they will drop seeds along the path.

Blessed are those who give out of their poverty, for they will be good stewards of what they have been given.

Blessed are they who are hated, for they will rise up and give the lie to the false gospel of earned salvation.

 

Beatitudes are for people who have their hearts set on the Reign of God.  They are a way of life designed for those who want their lives to be a blessing.  They have a kingdom on their minds that won’t let them rest until all the world is striving to be just, compassionate, and single-hearted.  They call us forth from the cozy ruts of daily living and urge us to be Christ in the world.  They tell us that the Reign of God is already in our midst if we can bless the world with beatitude-living.  The beatitudes are values that come straight from the heart of Christ.

 

To be blessed is not a static state. There is a dynamism within the word blessed: it implies an ability to be in the ongoing process of recognizing, receiving, and responding. To be blessed is to enter a kind of pregnancy: to take Christ in, to let him grow in us, to bear him forth, then to receive him and bear him yet again in our acts of mercy, of compassion, of solidarity, of love.  And so, we can bless those who are hateful.  We can bless those even who seem opposed to Christ.  We can bless those who we do not understand, who are strangers to us – we can do this because giving a blessing is about being on a path together, about the journey TOWARD Christ.

 

And you? Who or what do you name as blessed? How do you seek to embody the blessing of God in your own life—to see and to hear Christ, to recognize him and bear him?  Are there any here, or down your street, or across the country who you need a new beatitude for in order to give them a blessing?  Who are they, and how will you bless them?

 

I pray that you’ll be with me in spirit this evening and through the week at Annual Conference – pray that we will be blessings to one another, that the Beatitudes will be alive and well there.  Pray for our Conference, for our lay leaders and pastors, for our conversations.  Pray that they are holy.  Pray that they are kind. Pray that we will be a beatitudes people, a blessing to one another.

Can These Bones Yet Live?

In 1987 I was six years old.   You could say 1987 was the best year for movies – after all, The Princess Bride stormed theaters (and castles), letting loose rodents of unusual size, Andre the Giant, and mai-wage on the American public.  The hero, Wesley – the one who would rescue the princess Buttercup – his only true love – from the evil Prince Humperdink –  has been tortured to death by that same prince’s minions, to the dismay of all of his friends.  His co-conspirators, out of sheer desperation, take his dead body to the neighborhood magic man, Miracle Max, and beg for help.  They lay his obviously dead body on the kitchen table and ask for a verdict, a diagnosis.

Max, suspicious of anyone who would haul around a dead man wonders, “He probably owes you money huh? I’ll ask him.”

Inigo Montoya: (reasonably) He’s dead. He can’t talk.

Miracle Max: Whoo-hoo-hoo, look who knows so much. It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive. With all dead, well, with all dead there’s usually only one thing you can do.

Inigo Montoya: What’s that?

Miracle Max: Go through his clothes and look for loose change.

 

A good joke, but Wesley had been tortured for hours.  He’d been put through the pain machine, a terrible device invented by the evil prince’s partner – they’d cranked it up to 11.

 

He was dead as a doornail, as far as definitions go.  DEAD. There was no hope – the movie was over.  And here’s this magic man, this miracle man, saying “Whoo-hoo-hoo, look who knows so much.”

 

When the hand of God lifts Ezekiel into his vision of the valley of the dry bones, it’s after 597 BCE.  If 1987 was a big year in movies, 597 BCE was THE BIG YEAR for the people Israel.

 

Just about all of the elite of the land had been shipped off, kidnapped if you will – like Princess Buttercup – to Babylon.

 

 

God’s told Ezekiel  to preach to the deported peoples in their terrible distress – like the dead flesh of a severed limb, separated from their source of life.  So he goes about his work, himself a kidnapped Jerusalemite, himself missing home, called to the practice of prophetic street theater, an apparent marionette in the hands of his God.

 

So it is in this emotional space that the hand of the Lord lands on the shoulders of this young prophet and he finds himself standing over a vast valley filled with the remains of what can only appear to Ezekiel as a horrific, ancient genocidal act.

Bones over miles and miles, bleached and burnt in the sun, drier than sand, deader than dead, heaped up and stretching out to the horizon.

 

The scene of a battlefield where the slain never even received a proper burial.  Skeletons, perhaps of the memory of a beloved, enlivened time.

 

Can you see it?  Hillocks and mounds, scattered as far as the human eye can see, of arid, jumbled spines and rib cages, bleached and jaggedly vulnerable, entangled.

 

Intimately naked, but in some way impersonal.

 

I imagine, looking over that valley with God, that Ezekiel felt… emptiness.  Perhaps he felt a little confusion.  Maybe some curiosity, fear, anxiety, a sense of dread.  But I doubt that he felt hope.

 

He definitely wasn’t looking toward the future. In fact, one of the most curious phrases of this scripture comes right after Ezekiel first stands over that bone valley and feels whatever he’s feeling that’s not hope.

 

God asks a terrible question, a question with only one obvious answer: “Mortal, can these bones live?” and Ezekiel, he answers, “O Lord God, you know.”

 

Now, I’m pretty sure sarcasm existed in 6th century BCE just like today, and as a former teenager, I can spot it.  But it’s not obvious here what the prophet is saying, his tone.  Given what he’s just seen, is he saying, in faith, “Only God knows…” Like, “God’s will”?  Or is it, “God only knows?” We can’t tell from the text – I think it could be argued either way.  Trust, or sarcasm.  O God, you know.  He’s three visions into what will be a four-vision career, and it’s still hard to tell what this prophet thinks of the capabilities of this God he’s called to witness to.

 

And yet this death-ridden, bone-addled text, riddled with a what may be assurance but is just as probably sarcastic flippancy, is read by Jews and Christians the world over as part of the celebration of the Sabbath of Passover week and the final weeks of the Lenten season.  Times leading into joyous celebration of God’s faithfulness, of God’s miracles of promise in the face of total destruction.  Why?

 

After all, we live in a world full of dry bones.  So many valleys of dry bones in the world today – visible and invisible, past and yet to come.

 

The death-dealing social realities of poverty, genocide, abuse, addiction, strip mining, ecological destruction, war, slavery, abandoned children.

 

And over these arid hills and dales, these memorials to the power of death’s hold on our world, lingers the miasma of spiritual death, our sense of impossibility of rejuvenation, or of transformation.

 

So the valley of dry bones is not a fantasy – these passages are entirely grounded in the world.  Any one of us honestly looking around our human family can easily join Ezekiel in his panoramic view of the despair below.

 

Can these bones yet live?  In the time leading up to Easter, I wonder when you – when we – hear about the valley of the dry bones, what images come to mind.  In the midst of Lent, is our instinct to look around our own churches, our own neighborhoods, and wonder, “Can these bones live?”

 

In the midst of this the 21st century, in a period of decline in the history of the American Protestant church, do we look inward for the dry bones, for the desiccated remains of our own faith?

 

This wouldn’t be unreasonable.  It may not even be unfaithful.

 

But it is wrong.

 

We always want to see ourselves in these stories, in the wonderful and challenging Scriptures that we love so much.

 

 

 

I’m afraid that some of us will look around ourselves, read this story – with its ultimate ending of death becoming life, and hear God saying, “I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live,” and feel a sense of relief – “Well, at least when I die, there’s heaven.”

 

And we will read this story as God swooping in to provide us with a heaven at the end once we have lived our lives as dry bones.  That the Church will be revitalized and we will be saved.  The Spirit will come and save us.

 

There’s an old song we sing a lot at my church,

“I’ll fly away, oh Glory, I’ll fly away in the morning” –

I worry that we’ll see this story as an opportunity to fly away.

 

You probably look out over that valley with Ezekiel and see your own selves, the life-spirit drained out of them.  We think that we’re the dry bones Ezekiel’s prophesying to and about, the people Israel God is trying to call back.  In some ways, that’s fair.  But there’s more to this story than personal salvation.

 

And there’s more to it than God waving a magic wand over a death-filled situation.  In so many ways, God says to us, “Oh, you – woohoo hoo… look who knows so much.”  Look who knows so much.

 

The problem with this way of reading the story is that it isn’t full.  It isn’t whole.  The story doesn’t end with a prophet simply looking over a death horizon, with God asking, “Can these bones yet live?”  and then God saying, watch this… look at what I can do, swelling them with breath and life.  The sinews, muscles, and flesh enlivening while the faithful do nothing.

 

No, God continues, saying to his called-one:

 

Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. …

 

Yes, God says to the prophet – prophesy! Help them to hear the word of the Lord! God asks, Can these bones live?

 

And God expects – no, demands – a response.  God brings his faithful one up to survey the damage and asks for participation – you, you prophesy.

You, you tell me what you see.  Tell me how much you really know.

You, you watch the work I am going to do in the world.  You.  You do this.

 

I know you’re one of them, that you’re as dry a bone as they are, that it might as well be your skeleton on that heap.  But.

 

But God takes us up and asks us to stand, in our dry-boneness, to stand together at God’s side and look out upon the world and call it what it is.

To witness it with God, and to call life into it, with God.

 

It’s as though the question God asks, “Can these bones yet live?” is directed at his people, at the Ezekiels he has called out into faith who are a part of the Exiled Ones who come up out of them but who refuse to just lie down and dry out.

 

The question is, “Will you witness to my power, you who think you know so much?”

 

God’s Spirit lays upon the man Ezekiel as a call, a question – will YOU attest to the truth that the crushing apparent realities of this world are not My final word, that THAT word is, instead, RESURRECTION THROUGH ME?

 

Faithfulness, after all, is having a fierce moral vision of right and wrong, of death in relation to life, of the long view, of hope and the assurance that God’s promises are God’s promises which have been, are, and always will be honored, even in the midst of the heaped up skeletons crushing our hope and our human capacity to win against the dominating powers that assault us.

 

Of revealing God’s glory, of bringing attention to God’s presence and power in a world that denies (with all of its might) that reality.

 

Of calling out to the bones that are dead and dry, not only in our own selves but in the world around us and responding with every fiber of our being, with conviction that can not be moved, “Yes, Lord, yes!”

 

The “Can these bones yet live?” vision is the long view – from Eden –  to Canaan – to the New Jerusalem, it is a view encompassing what was as well as

what will be and

what is now.  And we are a part of it, God’s partners, we who only know so much.

 

We are called to have assurance in the rightness of what we are doing, and when we do, that it is God’s spirit bringing life into our dried up bones.

 

Rest assured in the grace and full promises of our God who promises that, Yes, these bones can live!

After all, we have only a week til the Cross.

The cross must have seemed the most arid of deserts.

Only a week until the light goes out in the world and the only ones left to witness for those three days of darkness are … us.

Only a few days until you will be called upon and are asked by God, “Can the Crucified Man live?  Can these bones live?”

 

Only days, mere hours until you must look around this world, into the valley of the dry bones, one more time and answer…

 

“Yes, Lord, Yes.  These bones WILL live!”

Back to Basics: The Gospel and the Lorax

 

I was lucky growing up to have lots of books in the house.  From the time I was tiny, I played with books, even before I understood what they were.

 

By the time I learned to read, I was in love with stories of all kinds, Dr. Seuss’s rhymes, Aesop’s fables, C.S. Lewis’ worlds of talking lions and kingly children, Winnie the Pooh, Alice in Wonderland…. I loved them because they took me places.

 

But I didn’t just love them because of where I hadn’t been.  They captured my heart because I could also see myself in them.

 

They didn’t just tell me a story.  They told me MY story.

 

Has anyone else had this happen?  Do you have a children’s story you love, that you fall into, that you cherish?   Now that you’re older, do you see something in it you didn’t see before?

 

I think we fall in love with these stories because they have some growing room, something that even as children we know is both exactly the right size and something bigger in it that we’ll understand later.  They have hope for more, secrets we still can break open like a gift.

 

Jesus’ parables are like that.  Over and over again the gospels, Jesus says things like, “The Kingdom of God is like…” “Those with ears to hear, listen!”

 

and the story seems both very small and simple and so big we can barely see all of its corners, the hugeness of its meaning.

 

In fact the whole story of God is like that, isn’t it?  The bible, every story, every character, every test and life and failure, teaches us about that situation and also about the meaning of life even thousands of years later.

 

Just a few moments ago, you heard a familiar story.  Perhaps its one of your favorites.  Maybe its just one you’ve heard a thousand times.

 

He (Jesus) said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like?  And to what should I compare it?

It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden;

it grew and became a tree,

and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”

 

So simple.  We could read right past it… except.  The story is so much bigger.

 

Over the next few months, we’ll look at these familiar stories and passages in our bible – the ones we know so well.  But we’re going to go back to our roots.  What I mean is, we’re going to go back to those stories that we loved so much as kids, and read them again as older children, as bigger children.  We’ll try to find out whether they have something more to teach us, if their stories match up with the stories in the bible.

 

But first, we need one to kick us off on this journey.  My favorite book growing up was The Lorax by Dr. Seuss.  I loved him partly because he made up words, which I also love to do… the pictures helped, too.  Do any of you know this story?

 

Here’s the recap, and it might sound a mite familiar: Once, the world was better than it is today. It was a beautiful garden, with many incredible creatures living in harmony.

 

Then, the Once-ler- a faceless, greedy wanderer with a dream of making lots of money – came and noted with satisfaction that there was much beauty in it, and some opportunity to be had there.

 

“Way back in the days when the grass was still green,

and the pond was still wet and the clouds were still clean,

and the sound of the Swamee Swans rang out in space…

one morning (he says) I came to this glorious place.

And I first saw the trees! Oh the Truffula tress!

The bright-colored tufts of the Truffula trees.”

 

He came, and knew just what he’d do… in no time at all, he had built a small shop, and he chopped down a Truffula Tree with one chop.

Then another and another to build on his greed, oh he fed his great greed, fed it with mind-numbing speed!

 

Calling on help from his family and friends, he used up the world, used it up to his own despicable ends…  so that it was unrecognizable to those who had lived in it before, he used it right up then he used it some more.

 

The Lorax, who lived in the land and oversaw it, spoke up –

 

He said, “Mister!  Mister,  (he said with a sneeze), I am the Lorax, I speak for the trees.  I speak for the trees for the trees have no tongues, and I’m asking you sir at the top of my lungs…”

 

(What, oh, what oh what have you done?)

 

But his fist raising and finger shaking, yelling, eye rolling and chest puffing didn’t seem to have an effect on the Once-ler.  Disbelief and warnings of terrible consequences made no dent, either.

 

He just kept on churning out the products of his greed, his entitlement, his sense that he could do whatever he wanted with the world.

 

Until, finally, all of the people, the animals, the beautiful places… were…. Gone.

 

The brown Barbaloots with their barbaloot suits, the Swamee Swan songs and the Humming Fish humming… they left with their hearts sadly beating, they went running.

 

The last Truffula Tree, the crack of its wooden spine heard across the now-empty spaces, signaled the loss of all hope.

 

The Lorax picks himself up by the seat of his pants and takes off with the Once-ler yelling “Bye Bye, then, Gramps!”

The factory’s silent, the ponds are all mucky.

It seems there’s no more, that this story’s unlucky.

There’s just one thing left, other than that there is nil – it’s what the Lorax left, just one word… “UNTIL…”

 

Oh, no.  The story, it seems done.  How can we go on?

 

Let us return to the mustard seed.  Just for a minute.  It’s all right, you’ll see.

Don’t worry – we’ll get back to the Once-ler’s big greed.

 

You see, Jesus tells the mustard seed story, in the middle of Luke’s gospel, but it’s not the only thing we have to listen for.  Just like all great stories, if we keep listening, if we read ahead and re-read what came before, the big picture shows us new things we never would have seen.  Right before the mustard seed, Jesus has done what?

(Who’s got their bible open?)

 

He heals the bent over woman.  Now, this woman has been persecuted by a debilitating condition that had crippled her body for 18 years.  It must have bent her mind, too, crushed some of her hope for herself.  But Jesus, he says to her, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment!”

 

And he touches her, and she stands straight, walks away, away from her bondage, from her despair.  She turns toward hope.

 

The mustard seed story follows directly on the heels of this woman’s healing.  It is a comment on it.  It’s not a jump, unrelated – they’re directly related, the seed and this woman’s bent back.

 

Luke’s scripture tells us, by putting these two of Jesus’ teachings one after the other,

that no matter how long you may see

catastrophe,

pain,

awfulness,

hopelessness in the past,

brokenness can be bent into straightness,

roughness can be made smooth,

small, weedy plants can become shelter for the wandering birds,

broken hearts can become generous,

the most destroyed places have within them the seed

… for Eden.

 

Let us return to the land of the Lorax, where there are no more Brown Barbaloots, in their Barbaloot suits, no more Swamee Swan songs, no more beautiful, swaying, soft Truffula Tree fronds, no. No. More. Humming fish with their humming so stunning.

 

 

But remember that word “Until?”  … Until.  A small boy wanders into town and finds the Once-ler, in the midst of his left-over garbage, the destruction he created, waiting.

 

And he says,

 

“Now… now that you’re here, the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear.  Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better.  It’s not.  So, catch!, called the Onceler.

He let something fall.  It’s a Truffula Seed, it’s the last one of all.

You’re in charge of the last of the Truffula seeds, and Truffula Trees are what everyone needs…

Grow a forest, protect it from axes that hack.

Then the Lorax and all of his friends may come back.”

 

Saint Augustine once wrote,

“Hope has two beautiful daughters: anger at the way things are, and courage to see to it they do not remain that way.”

 

What I think he meant was, the good news is that in order to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in Heaven,

our minds,

our hearts have to stretch beyond what we see with our eyes,

beyond what we have been told our entire lives is possible…

and see the layers of mysteriously impossible beneath.

We have to see them, to believe that they in fact are the true reality, and then to get all worked up about the fact that other people have been made blind.

We have to get a bit mad, like the Lorax, but unlike the Lorax,

we have to remember the seed,

we have to be  brave enough to trust that there is life in us yet, that God’s promises will be fulfilled.

And, we have to do something.  It takes cultivating.

 

There are ancient Jewish comments on the Hebrew Scriptures, called the Talmud.  They are often quite like poetry.

One of these comments says,

“Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers, “Grow, grow.”  Yes!

You, my friends, you’re in charge of the last of the Truffula seeds, and Truffula Trees are what everyone needs…

The hope of this world, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary,

despite looking out your front door in the morning and wondering what is this world coming to?

Despite the bend in your back.

 

You’re called to “grow a forest, protect it from axes that hack.  Then the Lorax and all of his friends may come back.”

 

Your mission is to hold onto the seed of hope, to protect and share it, to give it what it needs to grow – air for it to fly on, light for others to see it, food for it to become strong-  to remember that just because it is small now, it will be a looming tree soon enough.

 

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously preached in his last Sunday sermon in 1968, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

He said this just before his fateful trip to Memphis where he would be assassinated on the balcony of the Loraine Motel.

He said this, knowing that he would not likely live to see full equality for his African-American brothers and sisters, for help for the working poor in the South, for peace in Vietnam.

 

It would be easy to lose faith in the promises of salvation and restoration, to crumble under the world’s high pressure, to lie down and just hold on… except.

We have this word, “Until…”

We have something inside us that won’t allow that to happen.

 

There has been a seed planted in us, a tiny pin prick, germ-sized, something that won’t let us go… something waiting for us to come along and notice it and give it sunlight and food and loving care, to see the long view, to jump on that arc, throw our arms out and ride it past the bend toward justice.

 

What if we heard in this story of the Truffula Trees, of the Lorax, of the seeds of “UNTIL”, what if we heard in it, our own story?

 

The Zone’s story?  Has the Hilltop lost its hope?  We come together in the Shalom Zone because we believe that there is a seed of hope for the Westside.  And, like the Truffula Seed, it comes surprisingly, shockingly, from least expected places.  It comes from within us and that we are called to be its caretakers is a miracle.

 

We are like the boy in the Lorax, who now has an opportunity for greatness.  We have found dozens and hundreds of others who, too, are saying, “UNTIL.”

Small events, seeds, in our local community are popping up everywhere, signs of God’s kingdom appearing and evil powers receding.

 

The loss of hope is the most destructive force on the planet.  Research shows that loss of hope, loss of a belief that things can and will be different, leads to crippling inaction.

It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  It is a spiral.

 

And people in our neighborhoods, in this very room, are struggling to hope.

There is a reason that poor people are twice as likely to be depressed as those who have enough to eat, enough to pay their bills, enough to keep their kids in school…

 

We may feel like the bent over woman, 18 years of looking down at the ground, unable to stretch up and see down the arc of the possible future, unable to see Jesus coming down the path with hands full of healing touches.

 

But Dr. King, in the face of 400 years of slavery and racism, held to the hope, because he believed the gospel of Jesus, which says,

 

“The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.

 

And we, we have that same gospel.

 

We’re  the ones who’ve been given the seed,

that tiny, invisible seed that we need,

big hearts that trust faith will bear fruit like a weed,

that the power of God is inside us indeed,

that it’s open to everyone,

everyone, lacking for none,

that it’s wild and wonderful but that it needs sun,

that a sneak of a gardener wants us to share it…

so that we can go out in the world… and repair it.

 

 

Amen.  Amen. Amen.

Burning Bushes and Burning Hearts

I’ve been thinking a lot about falling in love lately.  About what it’s like, about the feeling of it.  Isn’t it a mystery, the way you meet someone and, perhaps suddenly but maybe over time, your eyes are opened to that person.  You see a person – and really, they are probably just like anyone else, basically – but to you, they are exactly the right thing, at the right time, in just the right form, and your heart warms.  You feel drawn to them.  You want to spend time with them.  All of your time, probably.  You want to know them, their good and bad parts.  And you want the best for them.  Have any of you felt this?

 

The reason I’ve been thinking about this is that I wonder whether the same sort of “falling in love” happens with ideas, with opportunities, with next steps in our lives, with our calling.  Last week, Tim preached and asked us the question of what we will do in response to God.  His question got me to thinking – how do we decide?  Each of you is so different.  You, and I, have such different experiences – of work, of family, of life.  We have different experiences of what church means to us, of God.  We have each encountered God in such different places. Perhaps for you holy ground has been a Sunday school classroom or a church altar.  But maybe that holy ground was the face of a person on the other side of a dinner table or a special song.  Perhaps it was a hospital room and a diagnosis, or the hitting bottom of a bottle of alcohol.  Maybe it was a book you read or a hand you held or a lost opportunity that made you turn over a new leaf.  Maybe the holy ground was marked by a burning bush and had God’s voice calling out of it saying, “Psst, look over here!” But maybe it was like falling in love, a gradual warming of your heart toward a new direction.

 

We talk about holy ground and new opportunities, and in the scripture from Exodus today, we see how Moses encountered them – he needed a pretty surprising and obvious tap on the shoulder to see the place he needed to go.  A burning bush will do that to a person, if their eyes are open.  I think about this holy ground question, the “How will you respond?” question and I think of Moses.  He had been wandering around, trying so hard to do right, to find his place in the world.  After all, if you remember the larger story, Moses had a double identity – he really struggled to know whether he was a royal Egyptian or a peasant Hebrew.  He’d been rescued from the river by Pharaoh’s daughter, claimed as one of the royal household, but he didn’t know for sure what he was SUPPOSED TO DO WITH HIS LIFE.  He felt injustice keenly – after all, he’d seen the way the Hebrews were treated as slaves, and had killed an Egyptian slave master for beating one of them.  He didn’t know how to do more.  He hadn’t had his way made plain.  Because his heart hadn’t been warmed yet by God.  He hadn’t yet seen the burning bush. Moses hadn’t yet fallen into love with his own calling.

 

 

So Moses.  I’m not Moses – I’m not saying that any one of us is necessarily called to lead a nation of people out of slavery to the Promised Land singlehandedly.  But I do think we’ve got to consider the possibility that we don’t know how God’s going to show up or just what we’ll be asked to get excited about.  Just like we might be walking down the sidewalk one day and fall in love, we might be wandering around on our day-to-day chores – just like Moses shepherding his sheep– and turn and see the modern day equivalent of a burning bush with God’s voice whispering out of it, “Pay attention!  Here’s what you didn’t know you were looking for!”

 

Really, this keeps on happening throughout the scriptures, doesn’t it?  People think their lives are going to be the way they are, that their path is set, and God does something that burns them up, fires them up, sends up a flare, illuminates a new focus, and they’re in love again, in love with their lives and with God and with their calling.

 

Moses probably said, Well, I guess shepherding is as good as it’s going to get.

Then there’s a bush, and God sends up a holy flare, warming Moses heart for leading the people to freedom.

 

Cleopas and the other disciple, devastated by the loss of their leader and their hope for a new world probably were saying to each other on the road to Emmaus, “Well, I guess we’re just going to have to head back home.  It’s fishing for fish now, for us, no more fishing for people.  That was a nice dream.”

Then there’s Jesus walking on the road with them, eating dinner with them suddenly, and their hearts warm up and they see they’ve been called to go home, indeed, but with a renewed calling.

 

But this calling question, this idea that our day-to-day is where we may be called to act, to respond, is so bizarre.  I mean, really, which one of us regularly has God talk to us?  Not many of us literally hears God whispering (or yelling) at us.  Don’t get me wrong.  I believe without a single doubt that God still speaks to us today, I believe this, but still, I don’t hear a lot of voices.  In fact I tend to be cynical about people who say they hear God’s voice – I tend to think they hear their own voice telling them what they want to hear, instead.  But then I hear about people like Michelle and Cody, and the script gets flipped a bit.

 

Cody was a bass fisherman who was so good he’d been featured on ESPN.  He was on his way to being a millionaire, but then got caught up in a crack addiction.  He soon went through his whole savings for crack, then his Harley, his car, his house, finally his boat.  He lost everything to his addiction, and ended up living homeless in a field next to a church in Nevada.

 

Cody would get up every morning, wash windows til he had enough money to score some crack, then spend the rest of the day in hat field, high. He lived that way for 8 months.  After he went 3 months in a row without bathing, the other folks living on the street around him started avoiding him.  Cody later said, “You know it’s bad when homeless people think you smell.”

 

Then one of his friends from the street shared a tip: “This church over here will feed you on Sunday mornings and let you take a shower.”

 

Cody was anti-God, anti-faith, anti-Christian.  The idea of going into a church repulsed him, but so did not showering.  So that Sunday, he took a risk and walked into the church.  He didn’t want to think about where he was and hoped no one would acknowledge him.  But a member of the church named Michelle happened to be facing that direction and noticed him as he stood in the doorway.  He was filthy, emaciated, and scraggly.  And as she looked him over, she sensed God telling her, “You need to go over and talk to him.”   She resisted for a second, but knew God was telling her to do it and so she walked timidly over to Cody and said, “You look like you need a hug.”

 

Cody said later, “She didn’t know it, but at that moment all I really wanted to do was put a gun to my head and blow my brains out.  I mean I had eaten at fine restaurants… and now I was eating out of garbage cans.”

 

Cody looked over at this normal looking woman, a soccer mom.  And he said, “Lady, I don’t smell very good, you don’t want to be near me.”

Michelle looked in his eyes and said, “Jesus loves you,” and gave him a hug.

 

Cody said in that moment, for the first time in his life, God began to warm his heart and get through.  He was so stunned that this lady would come up to him, even with how horrible he smelled and appeared, that she would hug him, that his heart opened to God.

 

 

I believe that both Michelle and Cody heard God’s voice that day, calling to them.  The holy ground they walked was that brief space of church basement between the door where Cody stood and Michelle’s outpost in the gathering area.  And in that holy ground, neither of them thought anything special would happen that day, but God spoke to both of them – to Cody God seemed to say, “Be brave and try” and to Michelle, “Find your courage and say this,” and they both saw the flare go up and their hearts were warmed.  The holy ground was their day to day life, but both of them listened and so both of them met God in a new way and were turned onto a new path.

 

Have you had this happen to you?  Let me tell you, I’ve had this experience, this year, with you all.  Now I’m not old enough to have reached the end of my rope on some things, like Cody, but I do know what it is to think, “Maybe this is as good as it’s supposed to get for me.”  I know intimately, personally, the desire to fall into love with my own life, to feel called to a place, to an idea, to have my heart be warmed.  You might think a pastor automatically has that feeling, or why else would we go into the ministry? Right?  But I’m telling you, sometimes you know you’re walking in the right general direction – you’re on the road to Emmaus, you’re in the desert doing good work, real work, valuable work – but your heart doesn’t feel fired up.  You’re waiting

 

And then, one day, you hear about a thing, about chance to be a part of something powerful, and grace-filled, and you say, that’s ME, I SHOULD DO THAT!  Your heart warms.  That’s what happened to me when I heard about the Shalom Zone.  I heard there was a group of people over here on the Westside of Columbus sitting around tables together, talking around and over barriers of race and poverty and violence, trusting each other to do the good work of building the front porch of the Kingdom, and my heart gave a little jump.  It warmed up, and ministry seemed like something I could really dive into headfirst.  I was, all of a sudden, all in.  And I learned about Freedom Schools – where poor kids could learn to love to read, and have mentors, and come to dream a real dream of going to college, and have their voices heard by the people in power in our communities, and my heart jumped again.  I fell in love.  I fell in love.  God set a burning bush in my path and spoke to me out of it.  Jesus walked alongside me and I looked over and said to my friends, “Didn’t you feel your heart burning in your chest, just then, when Jesus said the words – FREEDOM SCHOOLS?  Didn’t you?”

 

 

But what’s the opposite?  We all feel compelled to do things – I mean, after all, Cody’s addiction might qualify – there really are things in this life that make you feel good, that “warm your heart” but that are, ultimately, destructive and not of God.

 

What’s the difference between having your “heart burn within you” and feeling compelled to do something?  It seems like there’s a scriptural test you can apply… after all, even Jesus was tempted to act in certain ways, was visited by a spirit that asked him to follow his “heart” and to give up his real calling for glory of other kinds.  How can we tell the difference between falling in love because of God and falling into a trap?

 

I suggest that Scripture guides us clearly here…

We can ask certain questions of the thing that seems to be warming our hearts…

Is it in line with the good news?   Does what you are feeling called to become a part of provide an opportunity to share more, to give your gifts for the good of others, to make your faith more inclusive, to open doors to others to hear a message of hope, of hospitality, of opportunity?  Does it, in the words of Isaiah, reveal that God is doing a new thing in your midst?   OR, does the thing with which you are newly in love merely create a

 

  • A sense of burden
  • A feeling of fear that stops you moving forward
  • Sense of dread or of sadness?
  • Does it break relationships rather than build them?

 

I won’t focus on this very long, but I do not want you to believe that saying “yes” means saying “yes” to everything.  After all, without intentional, deep reflection and discernment – with God alone and within your trusted community – we may just say “yes” to things that are not in fact God’s hope for us.

 

I just keep coming back to Tim’s question, and I ask, have you had your heart warmed by something?  Have you encountered a holy moment, a holy ground and felt the burn? God sometimes sends up a flare: here I am! If you want to know me, come here!  Do this!  Where have you felt the “flare?”

Something you just suddenly KNEW you had to have, be a part of, know?

Was it here, in the ministries of New Horizons?

  • When you read in the bulletin about the wonderful free breakfasts our hospitality at Morning Manna, Sarah’s, Angie’s Kitchen – does your heart warm?  Does it burn within you?  Do you want to turn to your friends walking this road with you and say, did you feel that?  Because if you do, that’s God talking.
  • When you hear about Christ’s Cupboard on Wheels, hear the needs of people living in desperation in homeless camps across the Hilltop, you’re your heart jump?  Does your heart burn within you?  That’s God talking.
  • When you read and hear about Freedom Schools, about kids who if they don’t learn to read are going to end up in prison, about kids dancing and singing, kids hoping, kids making a difference in their own neighborhoods and families… when you hear about that, about families getting nutritious meals and hope all in one place, about safety and music and free books and family time, does your heart start to pound with excitement?  Do you have a niggling little thought in your head, “I wish I could be a part of that?”  Does your burn within you?  That’s God talking…
  • Or maybe it’s seeing all of our awesome children and terrific young adults up here during children’s moments, a sense that this is the future of the church.  Your heart jumps, and God’s asking you to notice.
  • Or maybe the choir sings and your soul says, “Yes!” And it’s God’s voice you’re hearing.
  • Or ministries of healing, visiting the sick and homebound, offering communion, taking the Table of the Lord out into our living rooms and streets, opening our doors to those who can’t physically join us.  Do you hear Gene offer this opportunity for hospitality and feel your heart warm?  Do you feel a little more in love with Church when you hear that?  Then listen, because that’s God saying, “Child, pay attention to me, I’m waiting for you.”

 

 

What will YOU DO when there is a burning bush, a burning heart within you, when you encounter the living God standing right next to you on the Westside?

Sit in silence: pray for your path to be revealed to you.

What burning bush is calling for my attention, my discipleship, for me to respond with faith, “Here am I”?

What is making my heart burn in me?  Where have I encountered Jesus and now must share that news with the community?

But remember: People who are warmed or burned up by God go talk about it and get others to join them in the mission.

 

Today, I invite you to pray on these questions – where is God sending up a flare for you?  What’s your burning bush today?  Where is your heart burning within you?  And how are you going to respond?

 

Holy God, You who show yourself in surprising corners of the world and of our lives, show yourself today.  Burn a bush in our midst, make this holy ground, and give us the blessing of your presence among us, so that we may also leave this place exclaiming, “Did our hearts not burn within us?!?”  Amen

God’s Heart for Justice

I really struggled with this sermon this week.  One of the reasons was that in my “day-job,” my primary appointment as a United Methodist deacon, I work with a non-profit who’s mission it is to achieve affordable, accessible health care to all Ohioans.  If any of you have been within ten feet of a television recently, you know how violent and difficult the rhetoric is right now around health care.  My job is as an advocate for people who are too poor or too sick to be able to access health care in our state.  This has not been a good week for them, and so it has not been a good week for me, as I look toward a future in our state where the poor, the sick, and the elderly are told by governnement officials either to “Get on the bus, or get run over by it.”

In the midst of this, I’ve also been working with our very own Greater Hilltop Area Shalom Zone, the collaborative of more than 90 congregations, social service agencies, schools, and governmental organizations tasked with the mission to rejuvenate this wonderful, broken place we call the Hilltop.  The Zone, of which, you, yourselves,  are an essential part, a church sharing the Zone’s mission.

However, this week, I’ve witnessed continued crime reports – murders, assaults, domestic violence, robberies – in our Zone neighborhoods.  I’ve listened as members of my own congregations have prayed and begged for the money to feed their families as their homes are foreclosed upon, as their children face gun violence at school, as they struggle to pay their mounting medical bills, as their drug addictions rear ugly heads once again, as the snow continues to fall on their homeless camp, but manna does not.

As I’ve listened to this call from the people, and as I’ve heard hateful words come from people at the “top of the food chain” in our state government, I wonder, at how far we’ve come from the days Dr. Martin Luther King stood and gave his famous speech, “I’ve been to the mountaintop!”  I have seen the Promised Land.  He had so much hope for us that the Promised Land was within view.

As I’ve listened, to government doling out “pull up your bootstraps” advice to those who don’t have boots to begin with, I’ve visited the scriptures, and what I found there was at first a mystery to me.

‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, “I am going away, and I am coming to you.”

My peace I leave with you… Do not let your hearts be troubled.  The Promised Land is in view.  Peace, do not fear, said Jesus.   We are nearly there.

But my friends, I am troubled.  I don’t know this peace, and an advocate is hard to find.  Who is standing for those who suffer?

We live in a world where a child is born into poverty every 16 minutes.

Attainment of high school diploma is the single most effective preventive strategy against adult poverty but the new Ohio budget will cut education funding that would lift that child into stability.

We live in a country that is 2% of the world’s population, but 25% of its prison population, and we in Ohio spend 3 X as much money on each prisoner as our public school pupils.

The cost of mentoring: $1000/year, of employment training $2500/year, of public education in Ohio $10,000/year.  And of prison?  $86,140/year.

And yet we refuse to make the Ohio budget God’s budget.  We spit in God’s face and refuse to make prevention our priority, instead spending more money on building prisons to hold our children than opportunities to live a better way.

We live in a world where to be born black and male is to be born into the “cradle to prison pipeline,” where 1/3 young black boys will end up in prison, and  1/13 white boys will.

On the Hilltop, 82.4% of West High School students are economically disadvantaged, at Briggs, 81.9%.

We fall far below the state average in graduation rates, which impact unemployment, guarantee low income, and increase the likelihood our kids will get into gangs and drugs, and ultimately prison.

We live in a world where racism still exists because what WE KNOW is that poverty and prison sentences aren’t caused by the color of a child’s skin but by risk factors like

pervasive poverty,

inadequate health and mental health care,

gaps in early childhood development,

disparate educational opportunities,

chronic abuse and neglect,

rampant substance abuse,

overburdened and ineffective juvenile justice systems…

And yet, this year we will pass legislation that will cut essential supports like Medicaid that allow single parents to work and raise healthy families.

We will slash funding to mental health services across the state because they are deemed “voluntary,” and we will no longer provide money for batterer’s intervention programs to respond to the crisis of family violence breaking our homes apart.

I think of Dr. King’s speech in March of 1964 when he said, “We must live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” Or perish together as fools.  Fools.

Dr. King focused on these and so many other concerns.  Racism was the foundation of inequalities in our nation, but lack of jobs, unfair labor practices, discrimination, poverty and substandard housing were the symptoms.  He began what he called “the Poor People’s Campaign” as part of the second phase of the civil rights movement.  The campaign would help the poor by dramatizing their needs, uniting all races under the commonality of hardship and presenting a plan to build a solution.

Under the “economic bill of rights,” the Poor People’s Campaign asked for the federal government to prioritize helping the poor with a $30 billion anti-poverty legislative package that included a commitment to full employment, a guaranteed annual income measure and more low-income housing.

Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968 and the economic bill of rights was never passed.  But he left us the legacy of the dream of it, of one-step closer to the Promised Land.

But how do we arrive there, given where we are?  How must we act?  On whom can we depend?

Remember our scripture, with Jesus, saying, “I send you an advocate.”  The Paraclete.  In the Greek, it means “comforter, or exhorter, or appealer, or advocate, one who is called out.”  Jesus referred to the Holy Spirit, of course, who would empower and compel his people to act on Jesus behalf.

The Paraclete would comfort them, advocate for them and their values in a world that seemed entirely opposed to their way of life.  The Paraclete would give them the words to speak and the power to speak them.

I think Dr. King could be called a “paraclete.”  He claimed over and over again that the voice of the poor must be heard and then he offered to speak on their behalf, as one of them.  Listen,

“I choose to identify with the underprivileged. I choose to identify with the poor. I choose to give my life for the hungry. I choose to live for and with those who find themselves seeing life as a long and desolate corridor with no exit signs. This is the way I’m going. If it means suffering a little bit, I’m going that way. If it means sacrificing, I’m going that way. If it means dying for them, I’m going that way. Because I heard the voice saying: do something for others.

 

But if Dr. King can be a paraclete, identifying with the poor, choosing to live for and with those who suffer, then you and I are called to, as well.  For remember, the Advocate, the Paraclete, is here for you – but Jesus did not come just for our comfort but said “Whoever does not love me does not keep my words”.  And what are his words?

Comfort the sick.

Bring good news to the poor.
Proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
Let the oppressed go free.

The Advocate comes to remind us of Jesus’ teaching.  Dr. King reminds us of Jesus’ teaching.

If we are advocates, we come to remind the world of Jesus’ teachings about the poor, about the gospel and to appeal to the authorities on their behalf.

Now, some you may say… it is not the place of the Church to prevail upon the authorities about such things as the Ohio budget, or the systemic discrimination against people of color, or the relationship between being poor and being in prison in this country.  Some of you might say it is our job to comfort (one aspect of the Paraclete) but not to advocate, another.

To you, brothers and sisters, I say – look to the model of Dr. King who faced down Senators and police officers.  I say, look to Moses, who harangued Pharaoh.  I say, look to Jesus who stood at the authoritative feet of Pontius Pilate and refused to submit until he had fulfilled what he had been called to do.

They were advocates, teaching, appealing, pointing out injustice and standing in its way.

And Jesus didn’t think he was the last one who would do so.  He didn’t walk to the Cross without setting up his successors, broken and dependent as we are.  Remember, “I send you an Advocate who will teach you… and “My peace I give to you” –  But what is this peace?  It is trust.  Trust that we can learn.  Trust that the work will matter. Trust that things will change.  Trust that when you face the gates of hell, they will not prevail.  Trust that light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.  Trust that you have an advocate, and because of it, you can become one, that you are “advocate” –  Called out.  That you are called to a place of standing in line with the poor, standing in solidarity with them, standing in their stead, even, because that is what Jesus did for you, does for you every time you screw up or sin against another.

The peace of Jesus is nothing less than the presence of God, the willing SEEING of God’s face in all.  Stop saying you do not know where to find Jesus, or that you do not know what to do.  You do.  You will.  But you must go into the places where the poor are.  You can not simply bring them to you.  You must join them.  You must advocate for laws that improve their lives.  You must wage a Poor People’s Campaign and live as though your mother, your brother, you son, your daughter are the poor.

This is the Farewell Discourse in John.  Jesus knows he’s about to be executed.  He knows he is walking directly to his death.  And he passes the torch.  He says, here, now it’s your turn.   Have we?  Have taken up his offer?  Have we followed?  Have we accepted his gift?

The Advocate can only come if Jesus is gone.  Our role, and the role of the Holy Spirit, exists because our Lord was crucified so that the good news would come to the poor, that release would come to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed.

Faith is NOT for the faint-hearted.  If you want to just be called a Christian, to claim the label, then by all means, come here on Sunday.   But if you want to BE a Christian, then you’re going to have to build yourself a new life.  If you want to BECOME a Christian, you’re going to go into the homeless camps on the Westside.

You’re going to call your congressmen and women and tell them that the Ohio budget is God’s budget, and that God’s priority to for the poor, that it is Jesus standing in those food pantry lines, that it is Jesus’ face you see sleeping on the icy sidewalks, no place to lay his head because shelter has been cut yet again.

You’re going to learn to welcome the hungry into your church and into your homes as a protest against the crimes our government commits against them.

You’re going to learn to mediate violence on our streets.

You’re going to think in new ways about how to share the gospel through food, and laughter, and friendship, real friendship that hurts a bit – because real friends don’t just give hand outs to one another – You’re going to sit with little kids THIS CLOSE to prison while they learn to read in the local elementary school.

You’re going to give, and give, and give some more of your time and your love and your prayers.

If you’re like Martin Luther King Jr., or like Jesus = you might give your life.  You might give your life.

But know this, my friends.  You will have gained peace.  Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  I do not give as the world gives.  Do NOT BE TROUBLED.  Do not be afraid.  Jesus said that.

If you can’t trust him, who can you trust?

Faith is not for the fainthearted.

Dr. King said to us, “Almost always, the creative dedicated minority has made the world better.” You have riches and resources at your fingertips if you but stand firm on this foundation.  There will be no surprises because the Advocate will teach you.

And against such resources, the ruler of the world stands no chance.

Dr. King’s reminder that “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity” holds us fast.

We must live, because when we learn to live in this way, every day, as a peace-filled people led by the Advocate who calls us, shining out that call into the world, we will have finally become Christian.

Going Back to Our Basics: The Runaway Bunny

Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away.  So he said to his mother, “I am running away.”  “If you run away,” said his mother, “I will run after you.  For you are my little bunny.”

But the little bunny said, “If you run after me… I will become a fish… and I will swim away from you.”

The mother bunny said, “If you swim away from me… I will become a fisherman… and I will fish for you.”

If you fish for me, said the little bunny… I will become a rock on the mountain, high above you.”

If you become a rock on the mountain high above me… I will be a mountain climber, and I will climb to where you are.”

If you climb to where I am… I will become a crocus in a hidden garden.”

If you become a crocus in a hidden garden… I will be a gardener, and I will find you.” she replied.

If you become a gardener and try to find me… I will be a bird and I will fly away from you.”

If you become a bird and fly away from me… I will be a tree that you come home to.”

The little bunny replied, If you become a tree… I will become a sailboat and I will sail away from you.”

If you sail away from me… I will become the wind and blow you where I want you to go.”

If you become the wind and blow me away… I will join a circus and fly away on a flying trapeze.”

If you fly away on a flying trapeze… I will be a tightrope walker, and I will walk across the air to you.”

If become a tightrope walker and try to walk across the air to me… I will become a little boy and run into a house.”

If you become a little boy and run into a house… I will become your mother and catch you in my arms and hug you.”

Last time we were together, our story was of the Prodigal son and the little boy named Max who ran away to the land of the Wild Things.  We talked about being stuck, and about leaving home to find something better.  We talked about forgiveness, and that God waits for us to get unstuck.  It seems we’re surrounded by stories of runaways, doesn’t it?   Because the history of being human is a tale of running away from an inescapable God.

But we didn’t talk about who this God is who waits.  Or what else happens while God waits for us.  For you see, God’s waiting isn’t like our waiting.  It isn’t passive.  When we wait, we sit idly and twiddle our thumbs.  We think about our boredom, we dull our senses with meaningless chatter. But God, God doesn’t wait idly, passively.  God doesn’t sit in a corner and hope we’ll figure it all out.  God matches our running away with a running – toward.

In the Psalm we read, we hear that God forms us, searches for us across large, dark, and perilous spaces.  God’s presence is a wonderful work – a process.  God is a knitter, an artist, a weaver – God knows our every stitch  From beginning to end, the psalm paints a picture of God and the psalmist, one on one, so intimate and close that there is nothing hidden between the two.  God’s presence is about making something new happen, creating, overcoming even the most desperate of problems with hope and healing. Showing up in the most unexpected places and redeeming them, even while we run as fast as we can away.

7 Where can I go from your spirit? (says the Psalmist)

Or where can I flee from your presence?

8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there;

if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

Even in “Sheol” – a realm according to Jewish theology that is beyond even God’s reach, even there David feels assurance that God is Emmanuel (God-with-Us) – v. 17-18 “I am still with you”.

Even in the darkest dark.

The psalmist entrusts his life to God, inviting God’s searching gaze, open to instruction.  But first, he runs.

What seems to be the problem?  We don’t really believe in grace. I mean, we talk about it all the time – who doesn’t know, “amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me?”  But what is it?

I mean, what is it, this thing we call “grace?”  Intellectually, I know that it is the free gift in which God gives all – eternal life, forgiveness, purpose, meaning, healing – It is the way that God accepts us, the way that God says, “I love you.”  Grace means that I love you not because of anything you do, but just because… I do.  Grace means that you’re my child and there’s nothing you can do that will ruin that and nothing you can do to earn it.” Grace means that there will be something beautiful waiting even when I think I’ve gotten as deep into the muck as I can go.

The problem is, God knows that we can’t just intellectually understand grace.  We can only experience a love in order to really know it.  Until you feel love, it’s like a brick wall you can’t see over.

And so God meets us at the wall, and offers us wings to fly over.

“If you run away,” said his mother, “I will run after you.  For you are my little bunny.”

The mother bunny said, “If you swim away from me… I will become a fisherman… and I will fish for you.”

God’s said this to me.

I said, “I’m running away.” And God said, “If you run away, I will run after you, Jules.  For you are my daughter, who I love.”

So I said, “If you run after me, I’ll become the smartest kid in my class and go to a fancy school where no one believes in you.”  “If you go to a fancy school, I’ll be the books that you read that will make you think about me.”

“If you become the books that I read, I’ll leave school and work in the inner city with people who’ve been hurt by your so-called “children.”

“If you leave school to work with people who’ve been hurt, I’ll become the women and children you work with so that you see my face every day.”

“If you become the women and children I work with, I’ll  go to seminary and prove that you don’t exist like in the stories I’ve heard.”

“If you go to seminary to prove I’m a fraud, I’ll become a friend and I’ll forgive you and love you anyway, and you’ll find me there, too.”

Only love will go to such lengths.  Only this is grace.  In our United Methodist tradition, we have a special name for this kind of grace: it is “prevenient,” the grace that comes before -“pre”.

You remember that familiar phrase in psalm 23: “Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life…”

The word “follow” is the word “radaf” which means “to pursue, or hunt.” God pursues us, follows us all the days of our life.

It is this season of Advent, these four weeks before Christmas day, which begin on this very morning, that teaches us how truly God does pursue us, the risky grace God has given.

Advent is not the oldest season of the church.  Easter, the Passover, is far older, by at least two hundred years.  Advent did not begin in Rome.  In fact, the earliest mention of a period of preparation for Christmas didn’t exist until 490 CE, in Gaul, or what is modern France.

We are not here this morning because Christmas is the high point of the church year, and Advent its most profound season.  The church year does not start here because Christmas is coming.  The church year starts here to remind us why Jesus was born in the first place. Because we needed him so badly.

Advent means “coming” from the Latin.  Remember the word we just heard, “Prevenient”?  It is from the combined Latin words meaning “before” and “coming”.  The word Advent is related: it means “to come.”  Vent, venient.  They are the same.

Advent, a four weak period of concentrated waiting for something to come, of looking around for the signs of hope in time and place that seem entirely barren of joy or possibility.  How incredible our lives are that God is so present to us, so here, that God’s very self was living among us on earth in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

Advent, a season that teaches us to wait for what is beyond the obvious.  To see God in Sheol.  To look for God in the dark.  It trains us to see what is behind the apparent.  Advent makes us look for God in all those places we have, until now, ignored or even thought it was impossible for God to be, in the places to which we have run away.

But, life is not meant to be escaped.  It is meant to be penetrated, entered into, tasted and savored to bring us to the realization that the God who created us is with us yet.

When we only find God in the godly-places, we go through life blind to the wealth of life’s parts, of God’s creativity and persistent presence.

Recently, I saw a documentary film called, “Exit through the Gift Shop.”  The director, and subject, are a man who calls himself “Banksy.”  Banksy is a guerrilla graffiti artist.  In fact, he’s the most well-known unknown graffiti artist in the world.  Many people buy his art, thousands have seen it on streets across the world, but no one knows who he really is.  People speculate about his identity, but they can only guess He goes out under cover of night and creates his street art masterpieces in strategic spots.  He takes, boring, drab scenery and adds creativity, beauty, and meaning with his ideas.

On a wall in the war torn city of Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, he painted a dove wearing a bulletproof vest with crosshairs on the chest.  After Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, Banksy came in and left amazing paintings around the city, sharply commenting on the systemic racism revealed by the storm’s devastation and humorously exposing the hypocrisy of the relief efforts.  While police must, by necessity, consider Banksy’s work vandalism, his art inspires people to think and adds value to their neighborhoods.  It does something to their souls.

What is it that drives Banksy?  He answers this question by telling the following story:

Lieutenant Colonel Mervin Gonin was among the first British soldiers to liberate the Bergen-Belsen Nazi concentration camp in 1945.  Gonin and others who went in to liberate the camp describe the barren human wilderness they found with horrific words.  Corpses lay everywhere.  Mothers carried their dead babies as if they were still alive.  most of both the dead and the living were naked.  Women washed themselves in a a tank of water that also contained the floating bodies of dead children.

Shortly after the British Red Cross arrived to liberate the camp and try to help save lives and lead people back to health, a very strange shipment arrived.  What you would expect is… medicine, food, vitamins, bandages.  but no, what was delivered to the camp was a large quantity of lipstick.  Gonin, who was there to help, says that at first the shipment made him furious.  But soon he saw it as an act of “genius, sheer unadulterated brilliance.  I believe nothing did more for these internees that the lipstick.  Women lay in bed with no sheets but with scarlet red lips… At last someone had done something to make them individuals again, they were someone, no longer merely the number tattooed on the arm… That lipstick started to give them back their humanity.”

At that death camp, it was lipstick.  For Banksy, it’s some fresh paint on a wall in a hurricane-devastated or war-torn city.

With God, it’s a miraculous child born to a teenaged mom in a backwater town in the Roman Empire.

7 Where can I go from your spirit?

Or where can I flee from your presence?

8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there;

if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

It’s the God who pursues us with patient, deliberate, creative persistence where ever we are so that we remember who we are, and whose we are.   To remind us that someone cares, that someone remembers, that someone is working to change this world with us, that someone is chasing every one of us down until we all turn and say yes, until we see that the terrible places are places where God is working, too.

Because we haven’t finished the story quite yet.  When we left the little bunny, he was still running.  His mother told him…

If you become a little boy and run into a house… I will become your mother and catch you in my arms and hug you.”

Shucks, said the bunny.  I might as well stay where I am and be your little bunny.

And so he did.

The truth is that “we cannot move toward God unless God has first moved toward us.”

God does wait us out, but it’s not a passive waiting… it’s an activity, a creative, organic, persistence.

God’s prevenient grace begins the bridging, and despite the resistance we put up, God continually seeks us, enveloping us in the grace, which beckons us back.  And we CAN come back.  We have only to say yes.  We have only to look around and stay still.

This Advent season, in this season of your life, I challenge you to stop running.  Stop and wait.  Look around. See the sparks of humanity, the evidence everywhere hidden showing that God is with you, that God is here, that God is waiting with you.   Know that where ever you are, God is there with you.  That this is a season, a time, a place, to remember that God will pursue you all the days of your life.  And if you keep running, God will be there ahead of you, already present, always waiting, throwing up signs and points of light to remind you, becoming the net into which you fall, when you fall from grace.  This is Advent.

So let us enter Advent in hope, even hope against hope. Let us see visions of love and peace and justice. Let us affirm with humility, with joy, with faith, with courage: Jesus Christ—the life of the world, who is coming, if we can but stay still.

Amen.

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