Scripture Acts 11:1-18; John 13:31-35
Acts 11:1-18 (The Message)
11 1-3 The news traveled fast and in no time the leaders and friends back in Jerusalem heard about it—heard that the non-Jewish “outsiders” were now “in.” When Peter got back to Jerusalem, some of his old associates, concerned about circumcision, called him on the carpet: “What do you think you’re doing rubbing shoulders with that crowd, eating what is prohibited and ruining our good name?”
4-6 So Peter, starting from the beginning, laid it out for them step-by-step: “Recently I was in the town of Joppa praying. I fell into a trance and saw a vision: Something like a huge blanket, lowered by ropes at its four corners, came down out of heaven and settled on the ground in front of me. Milling around on the blanket were farm animals, wild animals, reptiles, birds—you name it, it was there. Fascinated, I took it all in.
7-10 “Then I heard a voice: ‘Go to it, Peter—kill and eat.’ I said, ‘Oh, no, Master. I’ve never so much as tasted food that wasn’t kosher.’ The voice spoke again: ‘If God says it’s okay, it’s okay.’ This happened three times, and then the blanket was pulled back up into the sky.
11-14 “Just then three men showed up at the house where I was staying, sent from Caesarea to get me. The Spirit told me to go with them, no questions asked. So I went with them, I and six friends, to the man who had sent for me. He told us how he had seen an angel right in his own house, real as his next-door neighbor, saying, ‘Send to Joppa and get Simon, the one they call Peter. He’ll tell you something that will save your life—in fact, you and everyone you care for.’
15-17 “So I started in, talking. Before I’d spoken half a dozen sentences, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as he did on us the first time. I remembered Jesus’ words: ‘John baptized with water; you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ So I ask you: If God gave the same exact gift to them as to us when we believed in the Master Jesus Christ, how could I object to God?”
18 Hearing it all laid out like that, they quieted down. And then, as it sank in, they started praising God. “It’s really happened! God has broken through to the other nations, opened them up to Life!”
John 13:31-35 (First Nations Version)
31 After he left, Creator Sets Free (Jesus) said to them all, “The time has now come for the True Human Being to honor the Great Spirit and to be honored by him. 32 As soon as the Son gives him honor, it will come back again—full circle.” The Passover meal was coming to an end. It was time to close the ceremony and face the dark night ahead. The heart of Creator Sets Free (Jesus) was full of compassion and love for the ones who had walked the road with him for over three winters. 33 “My little children,” he said to them, “my time with you is almost gone. You will look for me, but where I am going you cannot follow. This is the same thing I said to the other Tribal Members and I now say to you.” His followers lifted their heads up and looked into the face of their Wisdomkeeper.
34 “I am giving you a new road to walk,” he said. “In the same way I have loved you, you are to love each other. 35 This kind of love will be the sign for all people that you are walking the road with me.”
M. Wildman, Terry. First Nations Version (p. 196). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.
*Hymn - There’s A Spirit of Love (https://music.youtube.com/watch?v=YfYd-oJjnnI&list=RDAMVMYfYd-oJjnnI) - words are on the video
Scripture - Revelation 21:1-6
Revelation 21:1-6 (New Revised Standard Version)
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; 4he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” 5And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.
Leader: A Word of God that is still speaking, People: Thanks be to God.
For the next couple of weeks, there was one word that kept popping up in various scripture passages from the lectionary - and that word was “home.”
It was a word that surprised me a bit, especially since one of the phrases I’ve been using to talk about my experience in Lancaster a couple weeks ago was that it was like a family reunion among people who hadn’t yet met in person - in fact, in all the meetings over Zoom that we had up to a few weekends ago, we talked about how much we longed to eat together…worship together…sing together.
Home…and family…all bound up together - and it is my hope and prayer that all of us will be able to experience that connection and kinship among each other soon.
So we’ll be spending some time exploring this idea of home and household and thinking about what it means when God is a part of those spaces.
But let’s start with our homes right now - or maybe even the homes we remember from childhood.
In the place that feels the most like home to you - maybe that’s right now, maybe a place in your childhood - What were some of the house rules in that space? They can be small little rules or big ones.
In this house we…[images of signs and posters]
Two kinds of rules - practices tied to efficient running of the household (who does what, what is or isn’t allowed, what choices people can make for themselves) and they run the gamut from how much screen time is allowed to who takes care of the trash to what happens and when. They are sometimes explicitly stated and many times practices we fall into without really talking about it.
Then there are the rules that are about how we are with one another. What happens when there’s conflict and how we restore relationship. How we use our words to build each other up and speak respectfully. What practices create a place of safety and belonging. These kinds of rules point to something that’s deeper than a legalistic framework of “dos” and “don’ts”; they reveal values that give structure to our life, our home - our church.
Monastics and contemplative Christians would call this “A Rule of Life.”
Home isn’t just about what happens within the walls of our residence - though that’s a start. Home is about belonging in community with others - a place of grounding, collaboration with neighbors, where we wrestle together with hard things, celebrate together the beautiful things, and rely on each other when life gets hard.
We talk a lot about how Chebeague is this way - or at least, this is what we tell ourselves about our island home and what we aspire to together - but this is also how the church should be - in what ways is our church a place of shared life together? What are the house rules we live by? For those who, for whatever reason, don’t connect with us as their spiritual home, what does that say about where we may need to grow?
The scripture we heard from Revelation declares, as we see this new heaven and new earth, “the home of God is among mortals.” God dwells with God’s peoples and they belong to God - this is the vision of creation that is both a now and not yet as the unfolding of the kingdom is both a present reality (Jesus’s message that the kingdom of God is at hand!) and as the future when all things will be made right in God.
God’s home is here among us - and John in Revelation paints that vision of a place of healing for all. As Michael Fitzpatrick at Journey with Jesus writes, “Everyone will be bound in moral responsibility for each other, and it will be a community without tears or mourning or pain. We will be a people who drink from the springs of Life itself.”
If God’s home is here, and if we’re being drawn into that life even now, our other two passages of Scripture point to what I think are some pretty essential House Rules:
It looks like sharing possessions together. Carrying or shouldering each other’s burdens and rejoicing in one another’s celebrations. Washing each other’s feet. Being cared for when we’re burned out. Listening to the experiences of those who are different from us and letting their stories shape our hearts. Caring for the needs of vulnerable populations -- and working to change systems so that folks aren’t so vulnerable. Encouraging each other in spiritual growth - this is why I love the way the First Nations Version puts it - where Jesus (or Creator Sets Free) says: 34 “I am giving you a new road to walk,” he said. “In the same way I have loved you, you are to love each other. 35 This kind of love will be the sign for all people that you are walking the road with me.” We are companions together on this path - we are bound together by Jesus, who draws us deeper into this life where God is at home with us.
Again from Michael Fitzpatrick: “A real home is one enmeshed in a community of belonging, where we fashion a moral future together by recognizing that no one is dispensable, that there is no one whose judgment and contribution we can do without in forging the moral life.”
Enmeshed in a community of belonging. No one is dispensable. Love as we have been loved.
This week I saw a story from NPR about a young woman named Elizabeth Bonker, who was the valedictorian at Rollins College in Florida, and delivered the commencement speech to her fellow graduates. This wasn’t noteworthy in and of itself - but Elizabeth is a nonverbal autistic who hasn’t spoken since she was 15 months old. But with help from technology and with the support and acceptance from her peers and teachers - she was able to overcome many challenges. In her speech, she said:
"God gave you a voice. Use it. And no, the irony of a nonspeaking autistic encouraging you to use your voice is not lost on me. Because if you can see the worth in me, then you can see the worth in everyone you meet."
She also channeled a bit of Fred Rogers - who is the college’s most famous alumnus. She said, "When he died, a handwritten note was found in his wallet."It said, 'Life is for service.'" She then had her classmates write down those words on a piece of their program to tuck away. She then continued, “We are all called to serve, as an everyday act of humility, as a habit of mind," she said. "To see the worth in every person we serve."
As we continue to take these first steps into being a Community Church - I invite us to imagine what it would be like to truly take these house rules to heart - what a shared life together looks like even when it may look completely different than what we’ve known previously; what does loving one another as we have been loved by God look like; what does it mean for God’s home to be among us? What does it mean for us to be at home with each other when we all have vastly different understandings of what it means to worship, to serve, to pray?
These are some of the biggest questions we need to sit with together - especially in a season where the pandemic has changed the landscape of so many people’s relationships, priorities, needs and hopes. They aren’t new questions - but they are ones that will help us get at the heart of who we are as a church together and how we are called to serve our friends and neighbors who live here - and our friends and neighbors who live around the world.
In all this, we have the guidance of a God who makes a home with us. Who is our Source and our Grounding. Who draws us deeper in love and grace. Who holds all things together and who makes all things new. Our home is in God - not just in some distant future, but in the here and now. Thanks be to God. Amen.
I love the way that enfleshed poses these questions, starting with “What would it look like if we, as individuals, really believed God dwells in us? This would mean mustering the courage to fight for our dignity, to refuse to be doormats, to humble our egos, and to protest all the systems and people that keep us from access to resources necessary for thriving.
Or what if we, individually, really treated our neighbors as if God dwelled within them? This would mean being tender towards one another, working in collaboration rather than competition, having meals together, sharing
what we have with each other, fighting against every law, rule, and norm that diminishes our neighbors.
Or what if we recognized that God lives, too, in the nonhuman animals and the land around us? How could we let pipelines ruin our water, plastic fill our oceans, slaughter houses go without regulation, and species be wiped out? All while continuing to let corporations go without accountability?”
Scripture Luke 19: 28-40
After [Jesus] had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’”
So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.”
Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road.
As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
Leader: A Word of God that is still speaking, People: Thanks be to God.
Thoughts about an Imperfect Life and Faith
Who are you in this story?
Are you one of the disciples, dispatched by Jesus with some puzzling directions to procure a donkey, following Jesus’s orders - as confusing as they may be - part of his entourage as he wound his way down the Mount of Olives towards Jerusalem? Have you ever been confused by Jesus’ directions? What expectations have you put on Jesus that were borne out to be unrealistic? Were you shocked at the way that people received him, so much so that you started shouting out in joy and praise - or were you someone whipping up the crowd, getting them excited and ready for a revolution that was not meant to be?
Are you one of the owners of the colt, ready for a day of business as usual only to be interrupted by travelers, bewildered by who may have need of your pack animal, curious as to who the lord is? Have you been surprised by Jesus’s actions? Has Jesus ever done anything that left you scratching your head in wonder?
Are you the donkey, simply doing your duty and going where you are told, bearing your burden, plodding along one foot after another? Have you felt burdened by life’s pressures and stresses? Did you ever think that all you could keep doing was just keep moving, that survival was the only goal? Have you ever felt like sometimes you’ve carried more than your fair share - that people don’t fully understand the things you hold close? Have you unknowingly carried precious cargo - its value only realized in retrospect?
Are you part of the procession, laying down cloaks and palms upon the road for Jesus, preparing the way for a triumphal entry to Jerusalem, shouting and praising God? Have you ever gotten swept up in the press of emotion? Felt joy unspeakable? Ready to lay down anything at all for Jesus?
Are you a bystander to this spontaneous parade, wondering who this man is that is causing such a stir, caught up in the celebratory atmosphere or perhaps distant...questioning...doubtful. Did you ever feel that maybe all this Jesus stuff was just too much? Do you still wrestle with questions about who Jesus is - what he means - why he’s so important? Have you felt that maybe it’s better to keep your distance than risk a relationship with such an unusual figure?
Are you a Pharisee, disturbed by the procession making its way through the streets, worried about what the empire might think of such a display, wanting desperately for Jesus to stop what he is doing so everything can go back to the way it was? Have you ever not wanted Jesus to change you? Did you ever feel like maybe if Jesus went away, life could go back to being normal again? Have you ever felt afraid that Jesus would turn your world upside down if you really let him in - really listened to what he was saying and teaching - really followed his actions and way of life?
Who are you in the story?
Truth be told, we’re each probably a mixture of each of these characters. No one of us fits squarely into one category or another. Each of us carries with us multiple thoughts, feelings, motivations, and desires with us as we begin again the drama that leads us through hope, betrayal, suffering, and ultimately resurrection. We may be the ones standing and cheering “Hosanna”, dreaming that Jesus will fulfill all our wildest expectations only to be shouting “Crucify” on Friday when we realize that Jesus rarely does what we want him to do. We may be feeling a lot like the donkey, carrying our heavy loads only to realize that sometimes those burdens teach us and allow us to grow. We may think we’re an obedient disciple, going where Jesus tells us only to discover that the journey is difficult, and we are terrified of following the whole way. We may come with our doubts and our questions, unsure of this Jesus person and what he means and yet coming to recognize the new life that seems to grow everywhere around him.
Kate Bowler puts it this way in her meditation “When Words Fail”:
“Many of us are living in a strange, distended moment, the sameness of a world that groans for change. We need justice for all and miracles for the people we love. We need beauty that stirs our hearts and affordable health care for the parts of us that keep breaking.
There is hope for someday, but someday is not now.
There is a Christian version of this story. Holy Week begins with Jesus welcomed like a hero. Expectations are soaring: Jesus will fix everything. But by the end of the week, his best friends betray him, and he is convicted as a criminal and sentenced to death. He will rise from the dead and someday bring this world to a beautiful conclusion and wipe every tear from every eye.
There is hope for someday, but someday is not now.”
Where we find ourselves now - and where we hope to be - and how the disciples navigated that same trajectory - place us in that story of hope for someday. We travel the steps of Holy Week - from palm processional with the roaring crowd, the questioning pharisees, the faltering disciples, the exultant friends. We walk with Jesus, carrying our burdens even as we carry the burdens of others. We connect with the story of betrayal and crucifixion and identify with the joy and mystery and bewilderment of the resurrection.
This isn’t just a story that happened 2000 years ago. This is our story that we live into now, that has meaning for us now, that happens to us, to our loved ones, to strangers. It’s a story that we recreate and celebrate and share -- this story of changing expectations, this story of friendship and betrayal, this story of powers and principalities, this story of death and new life. This story happens all around us all the time -- the question is -- at any given time -- what part are we playing?
Who are you in the story?
This week, I invite you to consider that question. Consider the ways that you are a part of the road toward Calvary. Reflect on the role you have played in the past - and where God has led you now. Consider what in your life needs to die so that new life can grow? I invite you to participate in the story - maybe for the first time, maybe yet again. Relive this week with Jesus. And let the story lead you to that hope for someday - for yourself and for others. Amen.
Scripture John 12:1-8
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus' feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)
Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
Leader: A Word of God that is still speaking, People: Thanks be to God.
Thoughts about an Imperfect Life and Faith
Are there smells that bring you back to certain memories - of places or people that linger in the air? Like grandma’s chocolate chip cookies, or your father’s aftershave or pine trees at Christmas time. Sometimes, smells evoke remembered feelings as opposed to vivid memories - like how our bodies react to the antiseptic smell of hospitals or how repeated use of lavender gets associated with feelings of calm and relaxation.
Smell and memory go hand in hand, so I have to wonder how the disciples came to associate this memory, with the fragrance of this extravagant, expensive perfume wafting through the air - a perfume that would have lingered on his body and that was used both as an incense offering at the Temple…and when anointing a body for burial.
Between the distinctive smell of the nard and Jesus’ words “you don’t always have me” - it highlights a reality that many of us have a hard time grappling with - our time on earth here is short and fleeting. We are fragile creatures. Life is full of beginnings and endings.
Jesus names the elephant in the room. He knows things are coming to an end. He’s well aware of the controversial nature of his teachings, the plots and schemes that must be going on, the attempts to keep peace with the Empire at all costs for some semblance of stability and security. Jesus was rocking the boat too much. I imagine he must have seen the writing on the wall in much the same way I imagine St. Oscar Romero saw his own impending death, or any other martyr who chose to rise against the powers-that-be.
We know, too, that death comes. To people. To organizations. Mortality is a given. Certainly as a society we’ve been living face to face with that reality these past two years, with almost 980,000 deaths due to COVID and the collective grief that comes with that is immense, especially with so many people delaying funerals or memorials because at the time of their loved one’s passing it was unsafe to gather. We know intimately the reality of loss as we all have loved ones who have died. We know the fragility of our circumstances, as life changes with a challenging diagnosis or even everyday endings and goodbyes. Each loss brings a reminder to us of what we value in life - so many times I hear how our seasons of grief and loss invite us to consider what is really important to us - how we spend our time and energy, what matters most and trying to draw straighter lines from our values to our lived reality.
I love how Jesus in this moment is at the house of his friend Lazarus - Lazarus, a dear friend who he had raised from the dead. Perhaps, even, the nard that Mary used to anoint Jesus was originally meant for his burial anointing. During this exchange between Jesus, his disciples, and Mary and Lazarus, we see this unfolding of truth that even as death comes to us all, there is this visible reminder of resurrection with Lazarus at the table. As Jesus talks with the disciples about the path ahead - he does so in the context of resurrection and the promise of new life. Woven through it all is this tender moment of love and devotion - a moment of heart, of extravagant beauty that demonstrates what truly matters in the midst of it all.
Mary’s vulnerability in this action is so moving to me. Her act of love and devotion to Jesus defies argument, no matter how much Judas wants to make it about himself (and his priorities).
Debie Thomas at Journey with Jesus writes, “Mary recognizes the importance of meeting the world’s brokenness, cynicism, and pain with priceless, generous beauty. Even as death looms, she chooses to share what is heartbreakingly fragile and fleeting: a fragrance. A sensory gift. An experience of beauty. Her perfume is her protest. Her scented hands are her declaration. In anointing Jesus in beauty, she declares that the stench of death will not have the last word in our lives — the last word will belong to the sweet and sacred fragrance of love.”
I wonder how much we get caught up in the details and logistics of what we do and making it work and trying to perform and demonstrate commitment to the right things when, in fact, this vulnerable outpouring of love and care is what really matters in the end? How many times have we had a friend in trouble and worried about saying the right thing or wanting to fix the situation - as we have talked about before - when really what matters is what pours out from our heart? How many times have we felt unable to stop and breathe because we’re afraid of what might happen?
The actions, the thoughts, the gestures that come out of that place of compassion within us takes a certain degree of vulnerability and trust and courage.
Many of us are terrified of vulnerability. Of fragility. Of letting the messy ends show - especially when coming to terms with things that are difficult and that we’d rather not face. And yet - having a space to be vulnerable, to talk about the hard things, to give ourselves over in these acts of love and devotion - is so incredibly valuable. We need these spaces in our lives. Church needs to be one of these spaces. Where we turn to face each other in the midst of all life’s fragility - its painful endings, its hesitant new beginnings, its joys, whether tremulous or triumphant, its burdens no matter how heavy. Church needs to be a place where kids can celebrate their missing teeth or the pain of the first breakup, where we can name the challenges of caring for our elders or grieve friends moving away or give thanks for that first sip of a hot drink in the morning, where we can honor the simple joy of knitting with friends or learn how to be at peace with our aging bodies.
I love the question at the end of the “Honest Questions” part of our liturgy - where we are asked: "What if we stopped denying the limited nature of our lives and breathed in deeply the fragrance of vulnerability?
What would that free us to do?
I know I already shared this in our enewsletter from this week, but I can’t resist the chance to share Mary Oliver’s poem The Summer Day again. I think her poem also gets at the heart of spending time and love and attention on the things that matter most to us - and the fleeting gift of time we have to spend.
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean -
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down -
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
+ Mary Oliver
I wonder if we gave ourselves permission this week for our actions to be lead from our heart -- not our unrealistic expectations, not our well-planned, orchestrated schedules -- and even during the times when we’re at work (for those of us who are employed) -- to let everything flow from here…or even our gut…and not here? To let compassion, heart, love, empathy draw us forward in terms of our service to others, in terms of our care of our spirits…and not just the check-list of things we have to do? What if we lived this week more in line with how we yearn to live our lives - in connection with God, others, and ourselves - and let the rest be….good enough? What if we invested more energy and more of ourselves in the things that matter to us this week and let go of the rest? What if we did so because each moment is valuable and something to be treasured, because there will always be the demands of the job or the house or the schedule…but we won’t always have the companionship of our loved ones? Or the moments that fill our spirits?
Falling in the grass and strolling in the fields. Pouring a jar of expensive perfume over Jesus’ feet. Lingering over a cup of coffee with a dear friend. Holding a child as they fall asleep. Sitting at the bedside of one who is slipping away. Dropping off a meal at the home of an overwhelmed friend. Playing soccer with kids at the schoolyard. Walking along the beach and watching the sunset. Sitting with a friend on the recovery journey. Soaking in the quiet. Moving in the bustle of a protest or demonstration. Watching your kid skateboard.
Like Mary anointing Jesus, may your actions this week anoint others and feed your spirit. May they be witness to a hope and love that never dies, even in the face of our human mortality. May these outpourings of love and devotion be an offering to God and may they bind us together as Christ’s body - and may we as a church learn how to trust the Holy Spirit moving in the midst of these moments…binding us together in these good enough days. Amen.
Scripture Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable:
“There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.
“When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’
“So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.'
“But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate.
“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!'
"Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’"
Leader: A Word of God that is still speaking, People: Thanks be to God.
Thoughts about an Imperfect Life and Faith
I am my own harshest critic. Tell me I’ve done a good job on something, I’ll come back with five ways I could have done it better.
This was exacerbated back in the days when I performed music more regularly - either with the concert band or in recitals and smaller ensembles -- even in choral groups.
When I work on a piece of music for performance - particularly when it’s a solo flute piece - I know it inside and out. I know the spots that I don’t have to think twice about, I know the places that trip me up, the spots where my pitch tends to slide, the runs that my fingers move by muscle memory, the phrases that need some extra breath support (and even the places where I can sneak an extra breath or two in case I run out of air early). I know how it’s supposed to sound and I know how hard I’ve worked on it - and it’s rare that I’m completely happy with how I’ve performed it in front of an audience -- even if no one else can tell where I tripped up or where it wasn’t up to my standard.
I quickly learned to say “thank you” and move on, while keeping my criticisms to myself - but it’s taken even longer for me to say “thank you” and not beat myself up over what didn’t go right or according to my plan or expectations.
The story we heard from scripture is a familiar one to most of us - and I love how in some other cultures, this story is known as “The Lost Son” as opposed to “the Prodigal Son” because it invites us to consider which one of the two was really “lost” -- perhaps both were.
In any case, the lens we’re going to use this morning might be a different take than the one most of us are familiar with. We’re more used to looking at the characters and finding yourself - are you the father who declares his son worthy, or the resentful brother, or the wandering son, or the absent mother, or the onlookers who watch this man spiral out from afar - or maybe even one of the people at the party, witnessing this joyful reunion.
This week, as we think about our “Good Enough” theme - we’re going to march right in to some places we as humans like to avoid as much as possible: fear and judgment.
So fun, right?
In the discussion group for sermon-writers with this series, there were some thoughts that laid the groundwork for this view - first the idea that the fear here is the fear of doing anything that might damage our ability to live fully, thus paralyzing ourselves from doing anything.
And judgment is about the judgment against ourselves that we are the cause for all of the problems. In other words, beating ourselves up when it doesn’t go to plan, thinking that we are the sole determining force behind our circumstances, especially when things go awry.
Now, this isn’t about not facing the consequences of our actions - or believing that we should go through life thinking that everything that happens to us isn’t our fault….because we do mess up and make mistakes and have to live with the ripple effect of our actions.
The difference here, though, is around judging ourselves as being unlovable and unworthy because we make mistakes or make unwise choices.
First of all, we usually consider fear to be a negative thing, right? We don’t want to go there - fear tells us that something is dangerous and unsafe (either physically or emotionally) and that we must eliminate the threat by running away or fighting it. I was listening this week to Kate Bowler’s Everything Happens podcast, where she talks with Hillary McBride, who is a therapist and researcher specializing in spirituality and trauma. She talks about fear and how we as humans live with it. She shares that the brain developed as a body survival organ - not the other way around. And that it’s important for us to change the narrative about fear so that we can give ourselves permission to go toward it so that we can have a different relationship with it. Fear is hardwired into our neurobiology, like swallowing or digestion. We can’t get rid of it. But when we can make friends with it, we can get curious and do things differently in a way that is not controlling us (as people desperate to get away from it, because let’s face it, most of us try to distance ourselves from uncomfortable emotions).
In the story here, it’s the Prodigal Son going towards his fear - dealing with the consequences of his actions he thought he might receive from his father - that turns out to be a blessing. He works through it and comes to a place where he’s reconciled himself to however things turn out. He doesn’t fight it…he doesn’t run away from it…but engages it and makes the choice to come home to dad. So often our fear can prevent us from fully engaging in the things that we need to address within our families, our friendships, our schools, our workplaces, the organizations we are a part of - even our churches! If there’s something that is causing us fear - we have to sit with what that is, be curious about it, engage it reflectively - and proceed. Because we’re never going to be healthier and more whole human beings if we don’t move toward our fears in a productive way -- and the same is true for any group of people.
But there’s also a lot of judgment in this story -- and not from the father…not even really from the older brother, though he’s clearly resentful. The judgment here comes from the Prodigal Son himself. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”
I am no longer worthy.
Now, certainly the younger son here made some bad money decisions, and some morally questionable ones as well. There was nothing to fall back on when the famine hit. But he was also willing to work, and hired himself out to make ends meet…in the midst of a society where he could work for a whole day and still not have enough to live on. So there were clearly forces beyond his control that contributed to him looking enviously at the scraps the pigs were eating.
What these confluence of events leads to, however, is him confronting his own sense of identity - his own worthiness and belovedness. The situation he finds himself in - which is partly his fault and partly that of his circumstances - leads himself to believe that he is unworthy of a relationship with his father - to be a person not deserving of his place in the family. He doesn’t measure up to the standard anymore because he’s hungry and alone and things didn’t go as he had planned. He believes himself to be a bad person…rather than a person who may have made some bad choices.
The father, of course, proclaims him loved, wanted, valued, and worthy.
Exploring the story through the lenses of fear and judgment made me think a bit about a quote from Brene Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfection. In it, she writes:
“Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. It’s a shield. Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from taking flight.” (p 56)
Perfectionism is really about fear - fear that we aren’t worthy unless we try to measure up to impossible standards. When we fail to meet those standards, as we inevitably do, it serves as proof that we’re really not worthy or loveable or valued. We wrap our identities up in what we produce or what we do - thinking that if others love the gift we gave, or admire the job we did, or compliment our actions -- then they are affirming our worth. All the while, we judge ourselves internally for not doing enough, not being enough, not living up to whatever image of a perfect life we dream of.
What I see in this story is that God cuts through all of that. The father doesn’t care about the stuff his younger son lost - or even the stuff his older son resented never really enjoying. The father wants - and restores - relationship. Love. God sees through the words we hurl at ourselves for not being enough. God holds the fear that paralyzes us from going forward. God steps in and says it’s not about what we do or don’t do that impacts God’s stance towards us - it is always love and God always deems us worthy. It is only through that grace that those wounds we carry are able to heal - the judgment silenced, the fear acknowledged, the sin forgiven.
The voices of fear and judgment run through our lives so strongly. But the truth of it is that we are worthy of God’s love just as we are, no matter what we’ve done - or not done. Fear can hold us back from embracing this because we believe we have to measure up to some impossible standard - and judgment keeps us there because we end up believing we’re somehow the problem when we can’t attain those unreachable goals. But the invitation here is that everyone is invited to the party. Everyone is good enough just as they are. There is no standard to reach - just a willingness to return home to that source of great love. It’s not about perfection - but about resting in a relationship that surrounds us in grace and mercy each and every day….and about God meeting us in that place.
So this week, think about going toward your fear, wherever that may be….letting go of that inner critic…trusting that God surrounds you in love no matter what happens. Find the space to rely on that grace that proclaims you worthy and good enough - and that draws you deeper into that source of God’s great love - because God rushes to meet us no matter where we are. Amen.
Scripture Luke 13: 1-9
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.
Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did."
Then he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, 'See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?'
He replied, 'Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’"
Leader: A Word of God that is still speaking, People: Thanks be to God.
Thoughts about an Imperfect Life and Faith
Ok, I’ll be honest - this is kind of a bummer of a scripture passage. At first glance it seems like the only good news here is that the tree has one more year to produce anything remotely resembling good fruit before the owner looks to cut it down. I mean - Jesus here gets news that Pilate had killed a whole bunch of Jewish Galileeans while they were worshiping God and had their blood mixed with their sacrificial lambs. And not to mention the people crushed to their deaths when the Tower of Siloam fell on them.
These are horrible, tragic situations that the crowds bring to Jesus’s attention - presumably to get him “to do” something about it. Condemn Pilate or start an angry revolution. Blame Roman structures for killing innocent people.
Instead, Jesus invites repentance and tells a story about a fig tree where the owner demands the gardener remove it because it isn’t producing anything worthy and instead the gardener intercedes on its behalf and manages to convince the owner to give it one more year to bear fruit. It feels like a strange response for Jesus to give to a crowd primed and ready for action.
I wonder though if that was, in fact, the point.
The political scene in Judea was tense. The people longed for sovereignty and the glory days of King David. The religious elite were trying to accommodate the Roman Empire so that the Jewish people would survive - or you had figures like Herod, who enjoyed a fair amount of power provided he could pay his tribute - taxes - to the Empire.
Galilee throughout Jewish history had been a place of political unrest - sometimes violent unrest. In Jesus’ day it wasn’t unusual for militant groups in Palestine to wage guerilla-style warfare on the Roman army - and the people had strong expectations that the Messiah was going to be a great military leader who would unite the people and show the Romans the door with a great army behind him. Jesus would not have been the first person that people would have looked to in this way - in the documentary from Jesus to Christ, Prof. Allen Callahan references the Jewish historian Josephus, who tells a number of stories about people who, as Prof. Callahan tells it, “some guy wakes up in the morning and he thinks he's the Messiah or something. Or he's a prophet and he gets a group of people to follow him. He says we're going to go out in the desert and we're going to an empty place. We're going to go out there and we're going to wait for God to do something for us. So a whole bunch of people may go with him, maybe thousands, go with him out to this deserted, unsecured place, and they wait for what Josephus calls "the tokens of their deliverance." And the Romans send a vicious police action out there and kill everybody.”
So when Jesus gets news of this most recent violent act on the part of the Romans, and he’s already accumulated this following around his teachings about God’s kingdom, there’s definitely an expectation on the part of the crowd that “now is the time! Jesus, you need to do something to respond and show these Romans that we can’t be bullied anymore! Let’s swing into action, or condemn their actions - bring that kingdom you’ve been talking about into reality right now” - that’s the energy that would have been in the air.
Jesus, however, doesn’t respond that way - he doesn’t use the news of these killings to instigate more violence. He doesn’t rally the troops or encourage the crowds to an uprising. He doesn’t cave in to the pressure of the crowds to *do something* - he instead urges the crowd to consider their own actions and motivations (perhaps -- repent or perish meaning turn away from violent ideations lest you find yourself in that same boat, or perhaps repent or perish meaning turning toward the way of peace and justice and God’s kingdom). Take a step back, he cautions. Pause and consider the state of your hearts. You’re reacting out of fear, false expectations, anger, hatred. Repent -- turn away from these things having a hold on you, acknowledge them and name them -- or perish if you engage without fully reflecting on what’s going on inside.
A reading like this gives some insight as to the story Jesus tells them next - about the owner and the fig tree and the gardener. The owner is angry that this fig tree is barren. It’s been barren for three years. Every year, he looks for fruit and there is none to be found (nevermind that it takes 3-5 years for fig trees to produce fruit and some immature fig trees produce fruit that never ripens). Clearly, the owner’s expectations aren’t in line with reality - and he demands that the gardener *do something* about that tree -- to cut it down.
The gardener knows the owner isn’t acting out of a right place within himself - that he’s placing unreasonable expectations on the tree, that the tree isn’t ready yet to bear fruit, that the tree needs more time. The owner only looks at the tree for what it can do and what it can give him -- figs -- and he doesn’t have the perspective the gardener has as to what is going on with the tree. He’s angry, he’s been worn down by seeing this tree do nothing for three years, he wonders if there’s a viable future for this tree - and so he acts out of that place in his request for the gardener to get rid of it. The gardener, instead of complying with the owner’s demands, offers a different path forward - offering the owner his own opportunity to repent and act out of a different place - which allows the gardner the time to do his job, tending to and nurturing the tree so it can be ready to one day bear fruit.
How often are we prompted, pressured, or cajoled into action when the wisest course is to sometimes take a step back and respond in a different way?
The gardener fertilizes the tree - enhances the soil and gives it nutrients to strengthen the plant instead of cutting it down like he was asked.
Jesus, when faced with news devastating to his people, tells the people to take a breath and not respond in haste.
There’s something meaningful to the ability to step back and engage from a critical distance rather than one of reactive franticness. There’s wisdom to be found in going slowly and deliberately when the world feels overwhelming, when everything feels urgent and important, when problem after situation keeps mounting or popping up and it all seems like just too much. There’s strength to be found in tending to and nurturing our roots with practices of rest, prayer, joy, and gratitude - so that when fruit is produced -- when there is action that needs taking -- it comes out of a sense of groundedness in who we are and who God has created us to be and there’s an alignment of our giftedness and the moment a response is called for.
This is true of us as people - and it is true of organizations as well.
I think of a story I read in Margaret Wheatley’s book Who Do We Choose To Be?, a book that talks about how one honestly engages reality with integrity. She recounts a story from a few years ago about the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which is the organization of sisters and nuns who lead various orders and chapters of women religious and how the Vatican tried to bring them out of autonomy under obedience to Vatican rule. As she tells it in the book, in 2012 the Vatican issued a doctrinal assessment and “Mandate for Implementation” - to which there was a huge response from Catholics both within this country and around the world. 800,000 emails and letters were sent to the LCWR and others to the Church hierarchy in support. She writes, “People treasured the nuns and their lives of dedicated service - some wrote of the gifts they had received from nuns in schools, hospitals, and service to the poor. The Vatican demands for orthodoxy dishonored all their contributions: their dedication to living a vowed life, doing Christ’s work, serving the poor and suffering. Instead, the measure of their good work was to be their compliance with orthodoxy.”
The way the nuns decided to respond was not reactionary, or fear based, or to rally the groundswell of support around them. Instead, they took a step back and took a values-based approach:
It took three years, but in the end - with a change of popes to help foster a more inclusive and trusting atmosphere, the LCWR was able to retain autonomy and continue in its work and mission empowering women in the Catholic church.
I admire their commitment to their values, to their practices that sustained them and gave them strength in the face of a powerful institution, to trusting the leading of the spirit rather than acting in haste (one way or another) to this call to conformity.
What, in your life, feels like a crisis to respond to now, that perhaps is an invitation to step back and ground yourself in prayer and spiritual practice? Or where can you nurture and fertilize your roots more fully, growing in strength so that when there is a moment in your life that calls for your response, you can do so from a source of groundedness in God’s love and courage?
Find the space in your life this week to be less reactionary - and more intentional. Even if you find yourself just doing business as usual, going on autopilot, stop for a minute -- and hop off the treadmill. Stop and observe what’s going on - and see if you can sense what God is doing for you and around you. Dig those roots deep - so that we may bear fruit for a hurting and broken world….and so that we may participate in God’s healing for ourselves and for others. Amen.
I wonder, too, if the crowds were demanding that Jesus *do something* against the Empire in response to these horrifically violent acts - and instead Jesus responds with this fig tree story (the owner demanding the gardener *do something* and the gardener choosing to show mercy to the tree - to tend and fertilize it - instead of something drastic).
How often are we prompted, pressured, cajoled into action when the wisest course is sometimes to take a step back and respond in a different way?
Scripture Luke 13: 31-35
At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, "Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you."
He said to them, "Go and tell that fox for me, 'Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.'
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, 'Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'"
A Word of God that is still speaking, Thanks be to God.
Thoughts about an Imperfect Life and Faith “So much is out of our control”
So to be honest, when I first read the worship guide for this morning as I was prepping for this week and saw the phrase, “herding chicks” I immediately thought of the popular saying “getting your ducks in a row” - which led me to one of my favorite internet memes:
I do not have ducks, They are not in a row. I have squirrels at a rave.
I mean, doesn’t life feel that way sometimes when we’re trying to get our stuff together? The kids, the chores, the partner, the job, the volunteer commitment, the bills, the friendships, the meals, the appointments, the whatever-it-is-we-may-have-neglected on the hamster wheel of obligations and deadlines swirling about our lives. There’s this implicit assumption that we’re supposed to manage that stuff pretty well, or at least, let the right things slide (the kitchen counters are optional and if you have a pint of ice cream for dinner and unvacuumed floors, well, that’s life). Almost forgetting to pay the insurance bill or letting the coffee date slip, tends to be a bit more frowned upon.
These are the things we’re supposed to be able to control and manage. The ducks we are supposed to have in a row.
But so much happens that is beyond our control - big things and small things - the diagnosis, the accident, the infertility, the storm, the war, the loss - we can’t even control how people behave or how they will respond to us - not even (or perhaps especially!) those who are closest to us.
How are we to respond when things happen that are beyond our control? You can’t manage grief or fit natural disasters on a timeline or predict the unpredictable.
It’s easy to ascribe those uncontrollable things to God - like if we aren’t the ones in charge, managing things as we would like, if our human need for control isn’t satisfied, well, then, someone else must be pulling the strings for it all to make sense. Or we talk about karma - some kind of cosmic balancing act to explain the bad things we have no control over. Either way, if we can’t control things, then surely God must be, down to each tiny little thing. It’s a way for many of us to try to make everything fit together, because let’s face it, it’s hard sometimes to admit that there is senseless suffering in the world. It makes us very uncomfortable.
I was listening this week to Emily McDowell on Kate Bowler’s podcast Everything Happens and she talks about this discomfort and the way we humans so often try to fix or solve or manage other people’s pain - or find a way to relate to it to make it about us - or try to minimize the other person’s painful experience. I don’t know if you know anything about Emily McDowell or not, but I first heard of her a few years ago with these amazingly honest greeting cards. Turns out, she created this line of greeting cards because after her cancer diagnosis, she found a lot of people in her life drifting away because they didn’t know what to say, or she would discover people wanting to connect but ultimately saying something unhelpful - like “Get Well Soon” when she didn’t know whether or not she would, actually, get well. Let me share a couple of these cards with you
[normal, lemons, hamster died - check out Emily McDowell's website!]
I look at Jesus in our scripture passage from this morning - Jesus who had all the divine power in the world, who performed wonders and miracles, who shared captivating stories, who proclaimed this liberating message of Jubilee and abundant life - and even he couldn’t control how people responded to him. Even he was surrounded by people, who in his hour of suffering, denied knowing him and drifted away. In this scene, I just imagine Jesus lifting up his hands in frustration as he speaks these words “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
I hear the longing in Jesus’s words - but also the recognition that he’s not in control of how people respond to him. He can offer his message, he can perform miraculous healings, he can teach the crowds along the sea or on the plain or in the mountain, but he had no control over what people would do in response. He didn’t have control over how the empire or religious elites would respond to him. He also chose not to be controlled by those things either.
It makes me consider that there are two invitations here - first of all, we have permission to admit that sometimes all we can do is just…let it go. Acknowledge that we don’t have control over the situation. Throw up our hands - in frustration, in surrender, in grief, in relief and like Elsa in Frozen…let it go. Jesus wants to gather and shelter the people - and yet he also knows the reality that what he offers will be rejected - and he accepts that….and he names it. There is power in just naming reality.
The second invitation is that we can turn to Jesus in these times - not because God controls the uncontrollable, but because God knows what it is like to experience life as one of us. The hurt, the pain, the betrayal, the suffering - the joys too - Jesus navigated those waters too. Jesus longs to be a shelter not so that we can be safe from harm and never have to worry about pain and suffering, but so that we can draw strength and courage to face the things that come our way.
I want to read a portion of one of the devotions here in the book - it’s titled “Being Honest about Disappointment” because let’s face it - disappointment and lack of control go hand in hand. I’ll start here on page 135.
I don’t always know what letting go looks like - but it starts with acknowledgment of reality, the awareness that some things are beyond our control, the trust in God’s presence with us in the midst of - whatever it is we’re dealing with (like the disrupted work week due to illness, the shipping delays, the price of gas, the health crisis of a friend, the response of others when you share vulnerably about yourself, the sudden loss of a job), and the ability to show grace to yourself in the midst of it all. And in those moments, you’ll learn how to better extend that grace to others, to show up in their lives in ways that are less about a need to fix or control or solve - and more about deep presence and compassion and kindness in the midst of the unpredictability of life.
This week - find some ways to let go and show yourself some grace, to stop trying to control and manage things that aren’t yours to control, to name honestly the reality before you, and to find shelter in Jesus, who longs for you to gather under the shadow of his wing. May we find life and wholeness in this good enough space. Amen.
Scripture Luke 4:1-13
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
A Word of God that is still speaking, Thanks be to God.
Thoughts about an Imperfect Life and Faith “Ordinary lives can be holy.”
There’s a little ritual in our house that we taught Michael and now Genevieve is catching on to in her own cute little way.
Whenever we watch television and a commercial pops up, we say “boo, advertisements!”
It may be silly, but if you think about it, ads are designed to get you to want something or buy into something that you may not actually really need. Or, it presents you with a certain lifestyle that can be achieved - if only you subscribe to this service or purchase this product.
Want a carefree life of travel in your old age? Get there with our investment service.
Want to be popular? Drink this brand of beer.
Want your house to be perpetually clean? Or do you want to make cleaning fun? This brand of products will transform your life.
Want freedom and adventure? Just drive this car.
Ads don’t just sell us a product, they’re selling us a lifestyle. Values. Hopes and dreams. Oftentimes, these aspirations - belonging, predictability and security, spontaneity, freedom - are things that we are already yearning for. Hungry for. And whatever product or service is lifted up as providing us the key to finding what we’re looking for.
We find ourselves hungry for many things that we believe will bring us satisfaction.
In our story from scripture this morning, we see Jesus out in the wilderness - he was led there while he was full of the Holy Spirit and after his baptism by John. He spent 40 days having eaten nothing - and during that time was tempted by the devil - which wasn’t a bearded fellow dressed in red carrying a pitchfork as we commonly think of the devil or Satan, but rather a figure which in the Jewish tradition would have been understood as the “opponent” or “adversary” - a figure used to represent the forces that often make it difficult for human beings to submit to divine will. “The tester” might be a better understanding of how the devil operates here rather than modern conceptions of The Devil.
The devil comes and thinks Jesus would jump at the chance for instant fame and glory and to give in to the quick fix - he offers Jesus the things his heart wants. He’s hungry after all, with no food in the wilderness. Surely using his divine gift to turn a stone into bread would satisfy his belly. Having authority over all the kingdoms surely would have advanced Jesus’s purposes so much more easily than a ragtag band of misfit disciples and one-off healings and teaching in parables that were so often misunderstood. A chance to be saved from falling by angels in a spectacle that all Jerusalem would have seen? What a miraculous way to reveal his identity.
I mean - wouldn’t all these things have done wonders for the message that Jesus sent to proclaim?
What the devil offers here aren’t things that are bad in and of themselves.
But what the devil gets at is whether Jesus will serve himself - seek the fame and the glory with himself at the center - or if Jesus will serve God, using the ordinary and mundane to build a movement of peace, righteousness, and holiness in the everyday.
We all face our fair share of temptations - and I’m not talking about wanting that extra slice of cake for dessert...or even the temptation of buying those new kitchen cabinets that will make your Whole Life more organized (and I’m definitely not preaching to myself there at all…)
I’m talking about the temptations that we think would make our life perfect or more special or outwardly great or that would prop up the image of ourselves we want other people to see - the drive for more being a prime example of this that manifests itself in all aspects of our life, or the desire to fulfill and inflate my own ego needs over and above those of others - even God’s. It shows up in small and innocent ways - checking out the number of likes on your most recent social media post (and who liked it and who didn’t) thinking that it gives you a sense of belonging and community, believing if only you made more money it would solve all your problems or save your marriage or give you the freedom and security to pursue your desires, or wanting to be the best parent…or the best friend…or the best in your field…or the best teacher/therapist/lawyer/athlete…and receive all the recognition and praise and accolades for what you do.
Again - these things aren’t bad in and of themselves - but are you doing it for a false image of how you want others to see you - or does it come out of your authentic self?
I can look back on times in my life where I clearly operated out of the former rather than the latter - where I thought my work in church planting and the spiritual pioneering Ben and I were doing in developing faith communities in re-imagined ways was going to spark a revival within the greater church - that what we were doing and the way we were going about it would be heralded as models to follow, and that this - along with the work of other pastoral entrepreneurs - would be The Thing that would save United Methodism from decline.
I have long since let go of any illusions of greatness there.
Or I think about the pressure of social media - I read Nadia Bolz-Weber’s article from 6 months ago this week, and she talks about this reality that we find most prevalent on social media that really resonates with me - and it happens not just on Facebook or Twitter, but in the course of everyday conversation too - where it feels like you’re expected to constantly on top of every single injustice in the world - she puts it as the voices that say “if you aren’t talking about, doing something about, performatively posting about ___(fill in the blank)___then you are an irredeemably callous, privileged, bigot who IS PART OF THE PROBLEM”...which leaves her wondering: “am I doing enough, sacrificing enough, giving enough, saying enough about all the horrible things right now to think of myself as a good person and subsequently silence the accusing voice in my head? No. The answer is always no. No I am not. Nor could I. Because no matter what I do the goal of “enough” is just as far as when I started.”
The temptations are many - We are tempted by greatness. By self-importance. We’re tempted to internalize other people’s expectations and image of who we are - or maybe we’re tempted to disregard other people’s opinions entirely.
And yet what Jesus clung to in his trial in the wilderness, when he was tempted by greatness and shortcuts, was a complete certainty in who he was and what he was about…his place and purpose in God’s unfolding dream - and for him, that was good enough.
It makes me think about the story of Brother Lawrence who lived in the 17th century in France. Born into poverty, as a teenager he became a soldier and during that time in the army, as he fought in the Thirty Years war, he had a spiritual awakening. Upon leaving the army at the age of 26, he joined the monastery of the Discalced Carmelites where he found the holy in the ordinary work of cooking and cleaning.
He’s the one you may have heard stories about peeling potatoes for the glory of God. “The Practice of the Presence of God” was compiled of his sayings, letters, and conversations with the other monks and was published after he died. One of his sayings:
"Nor is it needful that we should have great things to do. . . . We can do little things for God. I turn the cake that is frying on the pan for the love of Him; and that done, if there is nothing else to call me, I prostrate myself in worship before Him Who has given me grace to work. Afterwards I rise happier than a king."
It was said of him that he "forgot himself and was willing to lose himself for God, That he no longer thought of virtue or his salvation ... that he had always governed himself by love without interest.”
There’s grace in knowing who you are - your role, your limitations, your boundaries - in not giving in to the temptations to be something greater. That isn’t to say we don’t have dreams and visions - but it’s about what drives those aspirations - an interest in the self and our own image or for the sake of something greater? It’s about knowing what is ours to do - and what isn’t - and in trusting that God moves through all that we do, drawing things together for the unfolding of God’s purposes in the world. It’s about believing - down to our core - that God works in our ordinary lives - in the small selfless acts, in the moments we may not think are important, in the connections we foster, in the moments of silence we cultivate - all of it is vibrant with God breaking in to our existence over and over and over again - and that is what makes our lives holy…and that is what gives us the ability to be good enough - trusting that we do our part, we do what we are called and invited and challenged by God to do, and that God will be faithful in weaving our actions into the greater tapestry of peace and hope and justice in our world.
I want to close by sharing one of my favorite poems called Famous, by Naomi Shibab Nye - because for me it captures this idea of holiness being related to who we are in our fundamental core - people capable of connection and creating space in the midst of our everyday interactions for God to break in. She writes:
BY NAOMI SHIHAB NYE
The river is famous to the fish.
The loud voice is famous to silence,
which knew it would inherit the earth
before anybody said so.
The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds
watching him from the birdhouse.
The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.
The idea you carry close to your bosom
is famous to your bosom.
The boot is famous to the earth,
more famous than the dress shoe,
which is famous only to floors.
The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.
I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.
I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.
May we in this season lean into God’s movement in our lives, making the ordinary moments one of divine presence and holiness, trusting that our openness to the movement of the spirit makes our efforts “good enough” because God makes up the rest. May we not be tempted by perfection or grandiose ideas that serve ourselves, but may we be reminded of Jesus who took no shortcuts, who - even in all his divine power - used ordinary people to transform the world. May we find grace and hope in that truth this season. Amen.
Luke 9:28-43 (New Revised Standard Version)28Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said. 34While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
37On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. 38Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. 39Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. 40I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” 41Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” 42While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father.
43And all were astounded at the greatness of God.
If I’ve ever had a conversation with you about television or movies, there is something you will find out very quickly about me in the course of our discussion.
I cannot do violent movies.
I don’t mean action movies, where there is stylized violence and explosions and fight scenes - like what you would find in the Marvelverse or Star Wars or the Lord of the Rings.
I’m talking the gory stuff - the gratuitous stuff - the over-the-top-was-it-really-necessary-to-the-plot-to-show-that stuff. It’s the reason I will never watch Game of Thrones even though I read most of the books. Whenever Ben and I sit down in a rare moment to watch television, especially if it’s something that Ben has watched before and I haven’t, I close my eyes and make him tell me when it’s ok to open them again.
Because for me, once I see something like that, it gets burned into my brain. I don’t want to get desensitized to that kind of violence. It’s not something that’s easy to unsee. I’ve been watching this with Michael as well, as he watches movies with his friends; he’s extremely sensitive to scenes of peril - even scenes that as an adult I might label as innocuous. But he’s got a vivid imagination and even the assurance that it all works out in the end doesn’t bring him comfort in the moment.
Once you see something, it becomes really hard to unsee it, no matter how hard you try.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the past two years of the pandemic, and just how much it has revealed about our society. Almost two years ago, when the world stopped, it felt like the entire planet, from the wildlife creeping into cities to humans in their homes to the very sky itself, was catching a breath as we witnessed the terrible unfolding of this novel coronavirus creep into our consciousnesses. We saw hospitals fill up (several times over these two years, with waves and surges striking throughout our country). We saw millions of people on unemployment. We talked about the “new normal” with varying degrees of horror and uncertainty, wondering if this will ever end, and what life on the other side would look like.
There were moments of incredible beauty in this season as we witnessed the resilience of the human spirit - watching as Italian neighbors sang to each other in the midst of lockdown across their balconies. We saw people finding ways to connect with their loved ones, through new technology and hand-written letters and plastic sleeves designed for sanitized hugs. We saw meals cooked for sick friends, for healthcare workers, and parades for birthdays and graduations. We practiced gratitude, we started taking mental health seriously, we found meaningful ways to give and receive hope - and in the midst of the space - this great pause - some of us may even have caught a vision for what life might be like if we didn’t have the relentless hustle and pressure to perform…to succeed…to make ends meet…to feel like we’re just getting by.
Layer on to all of this what we’ve witnessed when it comes to racial tensions in our country - the brutal violence inflicted upon Black bodies and Asian-Americans that we just don’t hear about but can actually witness with cell phone camera footage. Or the continual silencing of Indigenous voices. Or the deep economic disparity between those who have enormous wealth - like how the top 1% wealthiest individuals in the US hold nearly a third of all wealth in the US - and those who work two jobs and are still unable to afford housing. Or how we are at a tipping point globally with how we address climate devastation - a crisis that impacts every single human being living on this planet.
There are things that we’ve seen this year that we cannot unsee; truths that we cannot unknow. And yet, we - as a society - are still desperately trying to get back to normal - back to our lives, back to business-as-usual, back to the daily grind, because at a systemic level, we want to forget how much these past couple years revealed about both the brokenness of our society and how much potential we have for something greater. I think many of us feel that pressure and are finding it difficult to implement the lessons we’ve learned about ourselves and the world during the pandemic as we get drawn back into the rhythm of unchecked progress.
I see this tension reflected so much in our Gospel text for this morning - a story known as the Transfiguration - where Jesus takes his closest disciples up the mountain to pray and before their very eyes, Jesus changes, dazzling white light, Moses and Elijah show up, they talk about what’s going to happen in Jerusalem - spoiler alert, it’s the crucifixion, and the disciples want to set up camp. A cloud descends, which terrifies the disciples, and a voice booms out “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.” They all walk down the mountain, tell no one what happened, watch Jesus get frustrated when a man asks him to cast a spirit out of his son and mentions that Jesus’ disciples were unable to do it, see Jesus heal the child in the midst of one of his episodes, and “all were astounded at the greatness of God.”
This happens a little more than a week after Peter realizes who Jesus is as the Messiah and after the disciples hear Jesus himself talking about his suffering, rejection, death before he rises again.
That’s some pretty spectacular stuff - yes, we have some hard truths about what will happen to Jesus - and we also have legends out of Jewish history appearing out of thin air, demons exorcized right in the midst of the crowds, and God’s literal voice echoing off the mountain - and still….the disciples miss the mark. They check out…they disengage…they see the fullness of who Jesus is before them and they struggle to make sense of what that means.
The rush back to the familiar is seductive, and although once you’ve seen something - really, truly, seen it - it’s hard to unsee….it’s far easier to pretend it never happened - to not speak of it, to not think of it, to not mention it, and pretend instead that everything is normal.
(If I had seen Encanto, I might at this point make reference to the song “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” but I haven’t, so I won’t).
Our Epiphany season started with Jesus proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor, and that what was foretold from Isaiah - release to the captives, the freedom of prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind - had been fulfilled with his presence. The season ends with this dazzling transfiguration and divine revelation, with the foreshadowing of the cross drawing nearer on the horizon.
We talk about mountaintop experiences - times that have changed our lives or moments of divine clarity and presence where we understand ourselves in who we are and all our belovedness and worth - and yet how many of us struggle putting those moments of clarity into practice in the midst of the mundane? How many of us get lured back into the comfort of familiar patterns of behavior and ways of being even when we know they aren’t healthy for us or good for the earth or what we ultimately yearn for - why is transformation so hard?
We live in that complex tension between the systems of the world - and our desire for their transformation - and how we carry ourselves and live the values of God’s reign in on own hearts as we, too, as creatures ever being transformed into the likeness of divine love incarnate - Christlike in our own uniquely formed ways. We, too, when confronted with the reality of our world - in all its harshness and all its beauty - when we have that clarity of vision it can be tempting to feel overwhelmed and fall back on familiar patterns of knowing and behaving - like the disciples - in order to avoid the pain, in order to avoid engagement, in order to avoid transformation.
Yet once the curtain is pulled back, once what was hidden becomes revealed, once we see - we cannot unsee - and we have a choice to live a life in light of that truth or pull back into one of falsehood.
It’s scary and daunting, because change is hard. It involves renegotiating priorities in our lives, it means dying to things in our lives that aren’t aligned with God’s hopes and dreams, it means shifting patterns of behavior and reevaluating relationships and changing our spending habits or our working habits. It means our own embracing the cross and staying present to our suffering - not in a gratuitous or abusive way - and to the suffering of others and of the world.
In the transfiguration, we see God’s glory and fullness - a vision of light and hope that dazzles our imaginations - and we also see the nearness and presence and accessibility of God in Christ. We see how close God draws near to humankind and all our suffering, which allows us to encounter God anew and empowers us to do likewise. We open ourselves to our own transfiguration, knowing that the change is slow, that it’s a journey where we companion each other along, and which gives us strength as we engage with the suffering we see, as we engage with the potential there is to be, as we enter into the transformation of our hearts and of our world.
We’ve seen a lot over the past couple of years. We can’t unsee it. We can’t unlearn the lessons we’ve discovered about ourselves, the world, the depth and meaning of human connection, the hope so many have of a world made new. We read the signs of the world around us and engage with it as Christ leads us, for we know he goes with us both on the mountaintop and in the valley, and may we keep our eyes open and choose the work of transformation, both in our lives and in our world. Amen.
Scripture Luke 6:27-38
Luke 6:27-38, New Revised Standard Version
27“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31Do to others as you would have them do to you. 32“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
37“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
About a month ago, somebody sent me a NYT opinion piece written by David Brooks - America is Falling Apart at the Seams - and it was the first thing that came to my mind when I read the scripture text for this morning. I tried to go back and reread the article to refresh my memory on the subject - maybe I need to get a digital subscription! But the article was very much an exploration of what we’re seeing unravel before our very eyes - trust in overarching institutions is eroding - and we see it play out in the social sphere with how we treat each other. There’s a reason you never read the comments section on an article posted on Facebook.
We’re so quick to label people as enemies in our world. The one who was rude to me on Facebook. The one who disagrees with me about vaccinations. The one who cut me off in traffic. The one who has a wrong stance about x, y, z issue. The organization who supports whatever organization I take offense to. The one who - you name it. And this is all on top of the interpersonal conflicts that crop up in all relationships - in our families and friendships and work-relationships - when people hurt and wound us, knowingly or not.
Liz Goodman, a UCC pastor in Massachusetts, had this to say in the Christian Century a couple weeks ago, reflecting on how the pandemic has exacerbated so much of this:
“Life used to be about ordinary, daily interactions that, in many ways, were mildly abrasive. You’re pulling out of a parking space, and someone mindlessly walks behind your car—so you stop and wave the person on, though you’re pressed for time. You’re waiting in line at the library, and someone comes up to ask a “quick question” of the librarian that makes your wait a little longer. All those mild abrasions made us, if not tough, then tolerant. Yielding to one another used to be woven into our days and lives to such a degree that we might barely have noticed doing it: ordinary grace.
But the pandemic and its social isolation have put us out of practice of bumping up against one another in regular ways. We’ve become so tender as to be almost intolerant, easily triggered by the slightest sleight. Kids in school are fighting, even with other kids they’ve known for years. Adults in public are unable to keep their composure even over issues with the lowest stakes. The trauma of the pandemic, where it hasn’t wrought death, crisis, or ever more pronounced precarity, has been sneaky for its slowness.”
Our natural impulse is to step away, disengage from the relationship. If it was a personal offense, we’re tempted to hold a grudge. Or retaliate in some way. Boycott -- or, nowadays, cancel. We get into fight, flight, freeze, or fawn mode.
This ugliness in our society transcends political party. It transcends ideology. It even transcends religious affiliation.
And into that mess come Jesus’ words:
But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.
30Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.
31Do to others as you would have them do to you.
36Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
37“Do not judge, and you will not be judged;
do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.
Forgive, and you will be forgiven;
38give, and it will be given to you.
All these commands hinge upon how we understand one word: love. Love your enemies.
The word in Greek used here is “agape” which gets translated as love - but it’s not romantic love, or platonic love, or warm-fuzzy love. It’s not about liking someone else or your emotional state towards them. It oftentimes is described as “unconditional love” or “love without strings attached” but even that doesn't wholly get at the meaning.
Agape love means more like “whole-hearted, unreserved, unconditional desire for the well-being of the other.” (https://www.holytextures.com/2013/01/luke-6-27-38-year-c-epiphany-7-february-18-february-24-sermon.html)
The beautiful thing about this is that there’s no calculation of costs or benefit, no expectation of receiving anything from them, no end goal for our benefit, no transaction - only desiring well-being for the other for their own good.
You don’t have to like the other person. You don’t have to agree with them or approve of their behaviors - you may find what they stand for grates your bones - but agape for your enemies isn’t about what they can give you, it’s about desiring wholeness for them. And if you agape your enemies, the ways you express and respond to them will also be an outflowing of your desire for their wholeness and well-being.
It also means you can be hurt…you can be angry…you can be wounded and decide that you can’t be in relationship with someone anymore…and still practice agape with them - you can still desire and act out of a place where you want the best and wholeness for them.
Now, forgiving someone who cut you off on the highway is different than forgiving the friend who betrayed your trust - and neither one might fully fit the definition of “enemy” in the same way that Jesus used it - those who try to actively harm and oppress you, like masters and soldiers in his day. Even so, what Jesus offers is a path forward involving wholeness for all people - enemies included - in exposing and naming harm.
But forgiveness doesn’t mean all is suddenly rosy and well. It’s not about pretending the offense didn’t happen, that you aren’t angry or sad or hurt about the harm done. It’s not about allowing yourself to be abused or mistreated - which is often how these verses are used, especially when it comes to domestic abuse. Forgiveness doesn’t always mean the relationship is restored and back to “normal”.
Forgiveness also isn’t a band-aid to instantly fix whatever is wrong. Forgiveness isn’t a guaranteed ticket to make everything better - forgiveness comes after confession and repentance - it’s not something to give if someone hasn’t actually done the work to change patterns of behavior or to acknowledge the harm they have caused.
Forgiveness also doesn’t come overnight. It’s messy and non-linear and, to be honest, it’s driven by the one who has been harmed. The journey to get to a place of forgiveness is hard and takes work.
But taken in the context of agape love - forgiveness doesn’t have to been we continue in relationship with someone. It doesn’t mean we have to be buddies or like them - it means we get to a place where we desire their well-being, and we release our hold on that spot of woundedness. It may come when we are able to see their actions as a result of the other person’s woundedness or when we are able to have compassion on what led to their actions. It doesn’t excuse the harm or whatever they’ve done, but it transforms how we see them and places them in perspective.
Debie Thomas at Journey with Jesus writes this: “To choose forgiveness is to release myself from the tyranny of bitterness. To give up my frenzied longing to be understood and vindicated by anyone other than God. To refuse the seductive lie that revenge will make me feel better. To cast my hunger for justice deep into God’s heart, because justice belongs to God, and only God can secure it.
I wonder if we're often squeamish about forgiveness because we misunderstand the nature of unconditional love. Foregrounding God's all-embracing love doesn't for one second require us to relativize evil. If it did, God's love would be cruel and weak, not compassionate and strong. But where we humans make love and judgment mutually exclusive — where we cry out for revenge, retribution, and punishment — God holds out for restorative justice. A kind of justice we can barely imagine. A kind of justice that has the power to heal both the oppressed and the oppressor.”
Forgiveness - as well as the other actions Jesus lists here - isn’t about a doormat faith or about retaliation through kindness…but about exposing reality in a way that calls others into account - and about inviting others to become better versions of themselves. It’s about seeing people as God sees them - and releasing their hold on you into that space, and offering that agape love - love that isn’t linked to your own personal opinion of them.
It happens in small ways in small spaces so that we can be ready for the more challenging acts of forgiveness we will be called upon to wrestle through in the course of our lifetimes.
And maybe, as we learn more and more to see the divine in the other, the “better-self” that resides within those who harm us, perhaps others will learn to see themselves that way too - and learn to also extend well-being to those around them as well.
May we find ways this week to offer that agape love to those around us - especially to our enemies. Amen.
Scripture Psalm 1; Luke 6:17-26
Psalm 1 (New Revised Standard Version)
Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law they meditate day and night.
They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.
The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.
Luke 6:17-26 (New Revised Standard Version)
17 He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. 18 They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19 And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
“But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
“Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
Who is blessed - and who is not?
There’s a lot of cultural baggage around the word “blessed” - particularly in how it relates to our own personal ideas of success - how we measure up in our careers or social norms or family values or education). Money and stuff tend to be the metrics we most naturally default to, perhaps because they are the most quantifiable and easily comparable.
Both our passages challenge those assumptions in that we are invited to see - both ourselves and others - as God sees instead of how we tend to look at others - and these two texts invite us into a different understanding of the word “blessed” - even a different understanding of the word “happy” - and call us to step into a different way of being and living in the world - one that is measured by God’s economy and not our own.
As a reminder, at the heart of God’s economy as Luke tells us in his gospel, is the Year of Jubilee - the year of the Lord’s favor - when the oppressed go free, captives are released, debts are forgiven, land rights are restored - it’s a year of celebration and trust in God’s provision for all God’s people - rich and poor alike. It is a Sabbath year above all Sabbath years, where the even the land was not intentionally cultivated and people relied on stored supplies, on the natural production of the land, and on gleaning.
Such a year where the ideal was this radical redistribution of resources, would have certainly been good news to the poor and marginalized - and uncomfortable at best to those who held power.
This theme of Jesus’ ministry is in the background as we see Jesus standing on the plain among the people - the crowds and his disciples - and he’s healing diseases and unclean spirits and power is just flowing out of him - and then he turns to look up at his disciples and gives this teaching of blessings and woes that are a lot like what we see in the Beatitudes, except they pretty explicitly deal with the materiality of the world. Where Matthew talks about blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness and blessed are the poor in spirit, Luke expressly says blessed are the hungry and blessed are the poor. No qualifiers. And, Luke adds some “woes” that Matthew doesn’t deal with.
“Blessed are you who are poor, hungry, sad, and expendable. Woe to you who are rich, full, happy, and popular.” (Debie Thomas)
Pretty cut and dry, doesn’t it seem? Maybe a little harsh, especially for those who find themselves called out by Jesus.
I wonder if Jesus in this moment had been moved by compassion by all those who had gathered around him. The passage tells us of a group of people who had traveled from all over who had traveled to see him, to hear a word of hope, to be healed from what ailed them. This is a massive group of hurting people (enfleshed), some of whom may have expended all they had to come and receive what Jesus had to offer. Those who had gathered around him were suffering - and Jesus turns to them and says that what they are experiencing - their poverty, their suffering, their hunger, their social status - isn’t how it is meant to be - that they shouldn’t have to endure these things that the barriers they face aren’t right - that God is close to them in these moments and that in this great era of God’s kingdom, in this Jubilee year, things will be made whole.
Jesus’s words point out this great reversal of power, and that when we live out the values of God here on earth, we will change whole systems and ways of being. This reversal comes all throughout scripture, as God is constantly paying attention to who is oppressed and harmed and who is profiting at their expense and through the prophets (and Jesus) calling forth a future where the oppressed, exploited, suffering, can thrive and be free.
It kind of makes us ask the question - well, where are we in God’s economy? Are we more blessed or are the woes meant for us? What reversals are at stake for us?
Truth be told, for many of us the answer might be both - we may be privileged in some places in our society because of our gender or skin color, but marginalized in others because of our economic status or social location. We may have privilege through our education and marginalized because of our sexual orientation. We can experience unfairness and suffering and injustice AND have places where we enjoy more power and privilege than others. In this, we can find ourselves both invited to receive blessing and be challenged by what that reversal - what “woe” - means for us?
I love how enfleshed invites us to consider some questions - they write, “What if we choose that reversal instead of waiting for it to come- what if we choose to join the blessed, giving up our power by choice? What if we choose to not simply act out of charity but work instead to radically shift the system we benefit from? Or if we are the ones God promises are blessed, what does it mean for us to believe that God doesn’t just promise crumbs or handouts but a total reversal of that which keeps us down? How does claiming our own blessedness empower us to survive, to thrive, to keep believing that God is working with and for us for something better?”
The commentary continues:
“Sometimes we all need to be reminded that suffering at the hands of injustice, oppression, or normalized destructive systems deserves compassion and companionship. There are so many ways that we face unnecessary barriers each day that keep us from thriving: Public transportation doesn’t come to our side of town because of racism, we live in food deserts, we get misgendered everywhere we go, we can’t get in to see a doctor because it’s too expensive or because they’re all overbooked, we get talked over at work because of sexism, we are overworked and under paid, and the list goes on. There are very few experiences of suffering and pain that are not somehow linked to larger systems of evil that someone else is profiting from. This text reminds us that God’s response is compassion, is support, and is a reminder of what should and shouldn’t and will one day be. Together, we are encouraged to recognize one another’s pain, respond to it with physical manifestations of love and resources, and remind one another, tenderly and compassionately, that feelings of frustration or weariness or impatience are welcome. God, too, feels those things with and through all who suffer.”
Or as Rev. Dr. Monica Coleman puts it, “the community of God is living in this opposite way that inverts, or turns on its head, all of our expectations. To live out the community of God is not to reflect things as they are but to live as things ought to be.”
Each of you this morning should have a stone with you should have brought with you to worship. I invite you to hold your stone in one hand, and cover it with your other hand…..feel the weight of the stone in your hand…the warmth of your skin warming its surface….
…imagine that warmth and that weight is God’s love and presence…and as you imagine that presence, that peace…that love…bring to your mind someone who is struggling right now - perhaps someone who is wrestling with the healthcare system and wondering how to pay for their medical bills….or someone who is trying to figure out housing…maybe someone who is just feeling sidelined by friends and family and wondering if anyone really cares about them…maybe someone who doesn’t know what is next for them…and as you hold the stone, as you experience the warmth and love of God’s presence…imagine that blessing - that presence and nearness of God - being transferred to that person, and that they too are surrounded by God’s love. Say a silent blessing for that person - a reminder that God is near to those who are hurting…that God has compassion on the suffering and the struggling…that God’s community has a place for them…and imagine that blessing being carried by the stone in your hand.
After worship - give that blessed stone to someone - maybe someone in the congregation or someone in your home or at your workplace - who could use the blessing that you put into the stone.
Through it all, we have the presence of the one who holds us all together, who carries each of us and draws us deeper into grace and mercy as we learn to live as members of God’s community together…and we have the gift of each other - to learn from and grow with as people blessed and challenged to live into a more faithful reflection of life in God’s reign.
I want to leave you with this reflection on Jesus’s upside down kingdom written by Frederick Buechner. He writes this: “The world says, ‘Mind your own business,’ and Jesus says, ‘There is no such thing as your own business.’ The world says, ‘Follow the wisest course and be a success,’ and Jesus says, ‘Follow me and be crucified.’ The world says, ‘Drive carefully — the life you save may be your own’ — and Jesus says, ‘Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.’ The world says, ‘Law and order,’ and Jesus says, ‘Love.’ The world says, ‘Get’ and Jesus says, ‘Give.’ In terms of the world's sanity, Jesus is crazy as a coot, and anybody who thinks he can follow him without being a little crazy too is laboring less under a cross than under a delusion."
May the God who gives and takes away, offers comfort and challenge, grant us the grace to sit with woe, and learn the meaning of blessing. (Debie Thomas). Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and five year old son and 2 year old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.