Scripture Exodus 1:8-22
Exodus 1:8-22 (NRSV)
8 Now a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. 9 He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” 11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13 The Egyptians subjected the Israelites to hard servitude 14 and made their lives bitter with hard servitude in mortar and bricks and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.
15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.” 17 But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18 So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this and allowed the boys to live?” 19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” 20 So God dealt well with the midwives, and the people multiplied and became very strong. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22 Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every daughter live.”
Leader: A Word of God that is still speaking, People: Thanks be to God.
*Hymn - For One Great Peace (FWS 2185)
This thread I weave,
this step I dance,
this stone I carve,
this ball I bounce,
this nail I drive,
this pearl I string,
this flag I wave,
this note I sing.
This pot I shape,
this fire I light,
this fence I leap,
this bone I knit,
this seed I nurse,
this rift I mend,
this child I raise,
this earth I tend.
This check I write,
this march I join,
this faith I state,
this truth I sign,
this is small part,
in one small place,
of one heart's beat
for one great Peace.
[put artwork up]
In preparing for this week’s sermon, I came across this story - I saw it shared by the Mechanicsburg Presbyterian Church. I offer it today as we begin our exploration of the text:
Jacqueline Murekatete grew up on a farm in Rwanda. She was the second oldest of seven children. She and her family were members of the Tutsi tribe. In April 1994, Jacqueline, who was 9 years old at the time, was visiting with her grandmother as Hutu men armed with guns, machetes, and clubs descended on the village. Jacqueline and her grandmother moved from place to place, always in hiding. They eventually found a Hutu family who were hiding Tutsis. A week later they were discovered but by some miracle the men who found them gave a warning and left saying that they would be back. Eventually, her grandmother would take her to an orphanage run by Italian priests who decided to stay to protect the children at the risk of their own lives. While she was there, she was reunited with cousins who told her how her village and family was destroyed. Most of her family had been killed, including her grandmother. Eventually, in October of 1995, her uncle living in New York City was able to adopt her and fly her in as an asylum seeker.
What a beautiful and heartbreaking story of deliverance and survival as she escaped the horrors of genocide….of courage and bravery on the part of the Hutu family who resisted and chose to shelter fleeing Tutsis. Throughout history, we see examples of people who chose to protect and liberate at the risk of great personal danger - whether that be the Underground Railroad guiding formerly enslaved folks to freedom or Germans and others who housed Jews and other targeted people, or in this case, the Rwandan genocide.
In our story this morning, a new pharaoh rose to power in Egypt - one who didn’t have the same kind of relationship with Joseph - and by extension, Joseph’s family. Joseph, though he was sold into enslavement by his brothers, eventually found a position of power and security in Pharaoh’s household, and when there was a famine in the land - a famine so severe it impacted the land of Canaan and Joseph's family - all of his brothers and his father and servants and their families and children and livestock came to live in Egypt, where Joseph, out of his power and wealth, helped secure their livelihoods.
Once a new power was on the throne, however, all bets were off. The prosperity and proliferation of the Hebrew people became seen as a threat to Egyptian power. Fear and feelings of superiority led the pharaoh to enslave them, forcing them to build supply cities and dealing with them harshly in their labor. He pit the Egyptian people against the Hebrew people by setting task masters over them.
When this only served to make the Hebrews more numerous, he called in Shiphrah and Puah, and gave the command for genocide - kill the baby boys and let the baby girls live.
There’s a fascinating bit to this story - it’s unclear if Shiphrah and Puah are Egyptians or Hebrew women. The text can be translated either as Hebrew midwives or as Egyptian midwives to the Hebrews. Some scholarship argues that these two women were Egyptian - because it would have been natural for Hebrew women to disregard and disobey Pharaoh’s orders. Shiphrah and Puah - most likely “head midwives”, are addressed directly by the pharaoh with this command. But because of these two women and their fear of God, they did not do as they were told.
I have to wonder if part of this is also because these two women saw the humanity of the Hebrew people. The pharaoh, through his enslavement campaign, through fear and manipulation, had tried to dehumanize this whole group of people in the eyes of the Egyptians - trying to make them see that Hebrews are no better than laborers, beasts of burden, animals of the field. After all, that’s the lie that Shiphrah and Puah construct to cover their disobedience and throw back in Pharaoh’s face - that the Hebrew women are so strong in the field that they give birth before any one is there to help them, just like animals do.
In reality, Shiphrah and Puah come face to face with the humanity of the Hebrew people each time they assist at a birth. If you’ve ever been in the room with a pregnant person giving birth, you’d be hard pressed not to see the humanity in the midst of the labor struggle. Shiphrah and Puah would be in the thick of things, giving words of encouragement, breathing alongside the mother, giving physical support. They would be in the homes of the Hebrew families, watching the love and tenderness of welcoming new life into the world, watching the grief and pain with miscarriages or ended pregnancies.
Pharaoh’s attempt to dehumanize the Hebrew people failed with Shiphrah and Puah because of the ways they were willing to encounter the other and because of their sense of who God is - and this gave them the courage to stand up to Pharaoh and to live in a way that resisted his attempts to oppress the Hebrew people into submission and subservience.
One of the things I find fascinating about these two women - and indeed, the many unnamed women in this story who continued to choose birth and life even in the face of oppression - is that their resistance to systems of power isn’t necessarily direct confrontation. That comes later in Exodus, with Moses leading the people out. Their resistance is a quiet defiance, a cunning working within the system, a simple living an alternative witness to the accepted cultural narrative of power and dominance of the superiority of the Egyptian people.
“They Said No” by Lisle Gwynn Garity writes this about her artwork:
These midwives, these lowest-of-the-low-status-women who likely had no husbands, who were simply glorified servants, who, themselves, may have been deemed infertile and therefore useless to a family system, risk everything to say no.
Through this simple but mighty act, they change the course of history so that, many, many years later, another baby boy born into a dark world of genocide might also survive and flourish and grow up to redeem the world.
In this painting, these hands represent the women’s resistance. They are the hands that said no to a power-hungry ruler but yes to a God of justice—to a God who transforms a story of massacre into one of liberation. The impact of their actions, like the waters of the Nile, ripples out far beyond them.
I think about this as well from our opening story this morning - the family of Hutus who chose to harbor Jacqueline so that she might get to safety, who chose to say no and see the humanity of many Tutsi people so they might be saved. This family remains unnamed in what we heard, but because of their action, Jacqueline survived - and is a human rights activist and founder of the Genocide Surviors Foundation. Her work revolves around preventing genocide worldwide while also assisting other survivors in the areas of education, economic empowerment, health, and legal aid. One quiet act of resistance resulted in hope for others impacted by genocide - and puts forth a vision for a world where these kinds of atrocities driven by hate and bigotry do not exist.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to consider what’s happening in our world - in our country - today as an attempt by systems of power and dominance to continue to demonize “the other” - anyone who is different, anyone who doesn’t fit into the image of “normal” in some way shape or form. We see it in the laws that get passed, the rights that get taken away, the acts of violence that keep cropping up everywhere we look. We see this in subtle - and in not so subtle - ways, and in particular, we see the rise of extremism and while many people when directly confronted would not say that there is a group of people they hate, how this gets played out in our society right now is framing Black folks and other people of color, women, LGBTQ individuals and their families, disabled people, and children as less deserving of humanity than others.
Our faith calls all people God’s beloved children. People we don’t agree with, people who rub us the wrong way, people who look and act differently than us, people who the world tries to tell us we’re better than, people we may want to call unworthy. That’s the beauty of our faith that is threatening to people who want to hoard power and domination - because to dominate means that you are putting yourself or your group over that of another. There isn’t room for that in God’s kingdom. There isn’t room for that in the church. There isn’t room for that among people who seek to follow Jesus. That’s the vision of justice that Shiphrah and Puah in their act of resistance were birthing - saying no to co-operating worldly power and claiming better-than status…and saying yes to God…and in doing so, changing the course of history.
Shiphrah and Puah remind us to live lives of resistance to systems of power and domination and to live as people who answer to God. That may look like having curious conversations with people who have harmful ideologies. That may look like intentionally building a Spirit-filled community of radical love and care - like Mary Jane shared in her sermon a couple of weeks ago - going out of our way to welcome children or refugees, to do menial tasks for those who are feeling overwhelmed, to see beyond the surface needs of others around us and tend to the things that nourish one another. We are midwives of justice - our hands are Christ’s hands - as we partner with God to be examples of what God’s love on earth looks like in action.
May we choose to live as witnesses, to say yes to God’s path, to be ripples of justice echoing out into the world, to stand against the dehumanizing powers of this world - because we serve a God who gave up power and status and every privilege to live among us in the flesh, who resisted systems of power and domination in the way he taught and healed and ate with others, who loved us even unto death to demonstrate the depth of love, and who rose again in defiance of death itself. May we seek to always live the path of Jesus. Amen.
Scripture Genesis 2:4b-25
A note about the scripture passage translation: I used Wilda Gafney's A Woman's Lectionary for the Whole Church: Year W to adapt the passage from The Message - hence the use of "it" as a pronoun in reference to the human and "side" as opposed to "rib."
Genesis 2:4b-25 (The Message, adapted)
This is the story of how it all started,
of Heaven and Earth when they were created.
5-7 At the time God made Earth and Heaven, before any grasses or shrubs had sprouted from the ground—God hadn’t yet sent rain on Earth, nor was there anyone around to work the ground (the whole Earth was watered by underground springs)—God formed the human out of dirt from the ground and blew into its nostrils the breath of life. The human came alive—a living soul!
8-9 Then God planted a garden in Eden, in the east. He put the human he had just made in it. God made all kinds of trees grow from the ground, trees beautiful to look at and good to eat. The Tree-of-Life was in the middle of the garden, also the Tree-of-Knowledge-of-Good-and-Evil.
10-14 A river flows out of Eden to water the garden and from there divides into four rivers. The first is named Pishon; it flows through Havilah where there is gold. The gold of this land is good. The land is also known for a sweet-scented resin and the onyx stone. The second river is named Gihon; it flows through the land of Cush. The third river is named Hiddekel and flows east of Assyria. The fourth river is the Euphrates.
15 God took the human and set it down in the Garden of Eden to work the ground and keep it in order.
16-17 God commanded the human, “You can eat from any tree in the garden, except from the Tree-of-Knowledge-of-Good-and-Evil. Don’t eat from it. The moment you eat from that tree, you’re dead.”
18-20 God said, “It’s not good for the human to be alone; I’ll make it a helper, a companion.” So God formed from the dirt of the ground all the animals of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the human to see what it would name them. Whatever the human called each living creature, that was its name. The human named the cattle, named the birds of the air, named the wild animals; but it didn’t find a suitable companion.
21-22 God put the human into a deep sleep. As it slept he removed one of its sides and replaced it with flesh. God then used the side that he had taken from the human to make a Woman and presented her to the human.
The human said,
“Finally! Bone of my bone,
flesh of my flesh!
Name her Woman
for she was made from a Man.”
Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and embraces his wife. They become one flesh.
The two of them, the Man and his woman, were naked, but they felt no shame.
Leader: A Word of God that is still speaking, People: Thanks be to God.
*Hymn - We are in God (from Music that Makes Community) - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dFenw5mEM3A&t=2s, start at 00:45, Natalie Renee Perkins
We’re starting our Faces of our Faith: Bold and Untold stories with the story of Adam and Eve. Now, you might be thinking, how is this a bold and untold story? Adam and Eve are two of The Most well-known characters in the Bible, right? This is a story we know. God makes Adam - the human, the human feels lonely, God creates creatures from the dust - like the human is made from - nothing fits, and so God takes a side of this mud-soil-earth creature to create this other being - and now the human isn’t one, but two - man and woman - and the human - now man - recognizes a suitable partner.
Maybe the story as you learned it - much as I learned it - involved ribs and Adam and Eve and an apple and a snake, some of which are in the story and some of which are not (spoiler, the fruit is never mentioned by name!). It probably also involved a flannel board and fig leaves. But here are some fun facts for you all before we take a closer look at this story:
Other than these fun little facts about this story - why include it in our Bold and Untold Faces of our Faith series?
To me, it’s because origin stories mean something. Watch just about any Marvel movie (or the questionably done Star Wars prequels - but you and I can have conversations about that later) and a large portion of the narrative deals with the why and how - why does this person have the superpower they do and how did they reconcile themselves to their abilities? What does it mean for how the rest of the world relates to them and their story? How did they become who they are today?
The story of Adam and Eve functions in the same way - it’s a story used to answer some of the fundamental questions of who we are as humans and why are we here and what is our relationship to God and to each other supposed to look like. We get this vision of a God who gets hands dirty in the rich soil, fashioning a human out of the humus and breathing into them the breath of life - a God who demonstrates a particular concern for the human’s well-being and who will go to great lengths to provide - food, companionship, enjoyment. In Genesis 1 we get a lot of “and God saw that it was good” after each step - and here, God notices that there is something not good - a lack of connection and relationship for the human - and so God continues to create. We see an intimacy with God and the land and each other - with the two humans showing a partnership of equals, a relationship that is mutually beneficial.
The final two verses indicate that this story served a specific purpose for those who would have heard it - why people leave homes for the sake of others (and while many times people think about this passage in terms of procreation, it is not actually mentioned in the story). But even more than this, our creation story points to our need for one another - and to be sure, marriage is one way of understanding this - but also our need for chosen family, deep friendships, investment in intergenerational relationships, choosing to see “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” as a recognition of the ways we are knit and held together, of a willingness to be in connection with each other that is mutual and interdependent.
This is a beautiful message and one of the core truths of our faith - that we are created with this deep need for each other. Nature alone isn’t enough. Animals alone aren’t enough. Even God alone isn’t enough. The story of Adam and Eve shows us that we have this sacred need to know and be known by others. It’s part of how God creates us to be in this world.
When we understand this about ourselves, about our innate and divinely-created desire for communion with others, we can both celebrate and affirm the places where we’ve found that kind of connection with others. Perhaps we experienced that in our family of origin - or perhaps we’ve had to find that sense of belonging beyond our biological relationships. Perhaps we’ve found friends that feel like an extension of our own soul, or we’ve had moments with strangers that give us glimpses into our shared humanity. We can find these moments of partnership, cooperation, solidarity while marching on the streets in demonstration, while serving at the soup kitchen, while lounging on the beach, or participating in worship. We may not find this connection with everyone all the time, but here as a church - as the body of Christ - as people who are trying to live as Jesus invites us to live with one another - we seek to embody and affirm and invite these kinds of connections with each other.
When you came into worship today, you received a strip of paper. On this paper, I invite you to write one word describing what you gain from being in community with others - well, one word or phrase.
We have these strips of blue and green and brown - reminding us of the ways that baptism claims us in community and the ways that we are formed from earth, connecting us with all of creation.
When you have written your word or phrase down, I invite you to come up and connect it to this chain here that we’ll have on the altar during our summer series.
Our Adam and Eve origin story reminds us of our deep need for one another - and to be a people who offer that kind of community and connection for others.
Father Richard Rohr, in one of this week’s meditations from the Center for Action and Contemplation writes this:
“Reality as communion” is the template and pattern for our entire universe, from atoms to galaxies, and certainly in human community.
We come to know who God is through exchanges of mutual knowing and loving. God’s basic method of communicating God’s self is not the “saved” individual, the rightly informed believer, or even a person with a career in ministry. God communicates primarily through the journey and bonding process that God initiates in community: in marriages, friendships, families, tribes, nations, schools, organizations, and churches who are seeking to participate in God’s love, maybe without even consciously knowing it.
Until and unless Christ is experienced as a living relationship between people, the gospel remains largely an abstraction. Until Christ is passed on personally through faithfulness and forgiveness toward another, through concrete bonds of union, I doubt whether he is passed on by words, sermons, institutions, or ideas.
Living in community means living in such a way that others can access me and influence my life. It means that I can get “out of myself” and serve the lives of others. Community is a world where kinship with each other is possible. By community I don’t mean primarily a special kind of structure, but a network of relationships.
If the Trinity reveals that God is relationship itself, then the goal of the spiritual journey is to discover and move toward connectedness on ever new levels. The contemplative mind enjoys union on all levels. We may begin by making little connections with nature and animals, and then grow into deeper connectedness with people. Finally, we can experience full connectedness as union with God and frankly everything.
Without connectedness and communion, we don’t exist fully as our truest selves. Becoming who we really are is a matter of learning how to become more and more deeply connected. No one can possibly go to heaven alone—or it would not be heaven when they got there.
May this week be a one of celebrating connections and community - as we understand and live more fully into our place of belonging with God, with creation, and also with one another. Amen.
Scripture 1 Kings 19:1-15; Luke 8:26-39
1 Kings 19:1-15 (New Revised Standard Version)
Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. 2 Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” 3 Then he was afraid;[a] he got up and fled for his life and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.
4 But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” 5 Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” 6 He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. He ate and drank and lay down again. 7 The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, or the journey will be too much for you.” 8 He got up and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. 9 At that place he came to a cave and spent the night there.
Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10 He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts, for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”
11 He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind, and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake, 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire, and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 14 He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts, for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” 15 Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram.
Luke 8:26-39 - First Nations Version
When they finished crossing, they came to the territory of the people of Honored in the End (Gadarenes), across the Lake of Circle of Nations (Sea of Galilee). As soon as he stepped from the canoe, a man from the village was there. This man had been tormented with evil spirits for a long time. His clothes had worn off him, and he was homeless, so he lived in the local burial grounds.
When the man saw Creator Sets Free (Jesus), he fell to the ground in front of him. The evil spirit cried out through the man, “Creator Sets Free (Jesus), Son of the One Above Us All, what do you want with me? I beg you not to torment me!” He said this because Creator Sets Free (Jesus) had ordered the evil spirit to leave the man. In the past this evil spirit had often taken hold of the man, so the villagers had kept the man bound with chains and under close watch. But the man had broken the chains, and the evil spirit had forced him out into the desert. Creator Sets Free (Jesus) asked, “What is your name?” “Many Soldiers,” he answered, because thousands of spirits had entered into him. They begged him not to send them into the deep dark pit of the world below. There was a large herd of pigs feeding on a nearby mountainside, so the spirits begged him to permit them to enter the pigs. When he gave them permission, the evil spirits left the man and entered into the herd of pigs. Then the whole herd stampeded down the mountainside headlong into the lake and drowned. The ones who were watching over the pigs were scared to death and ran away. They went to the nearby village and told them everything that had happened. As word spread, people came from the villages and the countryside to see for themselves. There they found the man whom the evil spirits had come out of, sitting quietly at the feet of Creator Sets Free (Jesus). He was clothed and in his right mind. This filled the hearts of the people there with awe and fear. The ones who had seen what happened told the people how the man with evil spirits had been set free. Then the people from the territory of Honored in the End (Gadarenes) begged Creator Sets Free (Jesus) to go away from their land. As Creator Sets Free (Jesus) entered the canoe to return to the other side, the man who had been set free from the evil spirits begged him to take him along. Creator Sets Free (Jesus) would not permit it and said to the man, “Return home to your family and friends.” He told the man, “Tell them all the powerful things the Great Spirit has done for you.” The man went his way and told his story in the villages, telling everyone the great things Creator Sets Free (Jesus) had done for him.
Leader: A Word of God that is still speaking, People: Thanks be to God.
We’ve heard about the Great Resignation - how since 2021 over 47 million American workers have voluntarily left their jobs and how there seem to be a shortage of workers across industries, everything from childcare to fast food joints to gas stations to construction to healthcare. Many are quick to point to the impact of the pandemic - and while COVID-19 has been an important factor, an article from the Harvard Business Review suggests in addition, what we’re seeing is consistent with a trend that started over a decade ago - that if we were to look at a graph mapping the percentage of the workforce that voluntarily leaves their job, the recent numbers don’t seem quite so out of line.
They suggest this: [quote from the article]
In our view, five factors, exacerbated by the pandemic, have combined to yield the changes that we’re living through in today’s labor market. We call these factors the Five Rs: retirement, relocation, reconsideration, reshuffling, and reluctance. Workers are retiring in greater numbers but aren’t relocating in large numbers; they’re reconsidering their work-life balance and care roles; they’re making localized switches among industries, or reshuffling, rather than exiting the labor market entirely; and, because of pandemic-related fears, they’re demonstrating a reluctance to return to in-person jobs.
The first and the third - retirement and reconsideration - get at the heart of what the pandemic has caused for many people. According to the article, folks are retiring earlier because they want to spend more time with loved ones and focus on things beyond work and felt that they could do so because of property values and the stock market, and older folks retired because of COVID risks. For those in the reconsideration category - burnout was a major factor, particularly among women, who still disproportionately carry the burden of family care. Women have been affected more than men, and younger age groups more than older ones.
Many have been forced to reconsider the role that work plays in their lives because of burnout, low support, and workers deciding that low pay or scrambling to make ends meet was not good for their overall mental health and well-being.
We’re living in a society where so many people are at the end of their rope. Burnout and exhaustion and overwhelm are a way of life for so many people - and I can’t help but think of mental health and wholeness as I read these two stories from scripture - one from the Hebrew scriptures about a prophet running for his life and one from the Gospels about a man in mental torment.
We may not be fleeing the vengeance of a wrathful and powerful queen - and we may not be plagued by actual demons, but many of us surely feel like we are at the mercy of forces beyond ourselves, forces that we may feel are trapping us, pursuing us, waiting for us to stop so they can overwhelm us. It can be easy to feel like there’s Legion - Many Soldiers - within us, as, in the words of Dan Clendenin at Journey with Jesus, “we’re all a mysterious mixture of powerful influences that we did not choose — nature, nurture, geography, and culture.”
And maybe, in the midst of all the chaos and confusion, God can feel like one of those mysterious forces too, as God also pursues and seeks after us.
Elijah is a man on the run. He’s just won an epic throwdown with Queen Jezebel’s prophets of Baal after a display of God’s power and might that ended with the people of Israel rounding up all those other prophets and slaughtering them and that brought about a heavy rain that ended the severe famine in the land. Jezebel was none too pleased about what Elijah’s words and actions had instigated, and so he fled to the wilderness, fearing for his life. He finds a bush and exhausted, worn out, burnt out, he collapses there, begs for God to take his life because he’s had enough, and falls asleep.
In that place, God doesn’t speak divine words of wisdom. God doesn’t encourage or compliment or try to cheer him up. God meets Elijah with food. With water. With rest. Sustenance for the long journey ahead that for 40 days and 40 nights takes Elijah to Mount Horeb, the mountain of God. God again meets Elijah here with a question - “What are you doing here?” Elijah answers, God passes by, God asks the question again, and again Elijah answers - and in response this time, God gives Elijah instructions for what to do next.
I’m struck by the provision and nurture God gifts Elijah while he’s in the wilderness. God doesn’t try to steer Elijah back on track, but companions him out into the wilderness, giving him strength to get to where he needs to be until Elijah is able to hear what God has for him next. God helps restore Elijah to a place, walking with him in his fear, holding space for him when he had had enough of it all, providing the well of silence and a gentle whisper that allowed for clarity and restoration to bring Elijah back to his prophetic role. God says, “Yeah, you’ve had enough. Eat something. Take some naps. Take some time in the wilderness. The world will still be on fire when you get back - but after you hear my voice you’ll know you’re not alone.”
Contrast this story a bit with that of the demoniac that Jesus encounters. This man was so far from himself - filthy, naked, violent, exiled to live homeless in the burial grounds. Jesus wasn’t looking for this man; he was there when he arrived on the other side of the lake. The man, however, speaks words that were from the evil spirit within him “Creator Sets Free (Jesus), Son of the One Above Us All, what do you want with me? I beg you not to torment me!” He pushes Jesus away. But Jesus, undeterred, asks the name of the spirit - and receives the name “Many Soldiers” - “Legions” and acquiesces to the request to be sent into the pigs. It’s the stampeding pigs that drown themselves in the lake that scare the herders, who go tell the villagers what happened. When the villagers come to see, the man is now clothed and sitting by Jesus. They are filled with awe and fear but it wasn’t until the villagers get the full scoop from the eye-witness pig herders that they beg Jesus to leave. The healed man wants to go with Jesus, but Jesus tells him to return to his friends and family - his community - and share what has happened to him. And so a shunned outsider becomes an insider at the feet of Jesus, disclosing the mysteries and workings of God’s message of hope and healing.
In this case, Jesus sees the man as whole, separate from the demons that plague him. He engages with those spirits, understanding that what ailed the man was not who he truly was. He sees beyond the surface - beyond the nakedness, beyond the dirt and the scars, the violence and aggression, and restores the man to himself. Restores the man to community and relationship.
Also - and there’s a whole alternate reading of this text as political satire that I just read about last night and that made me seriously consider ditching everything I had prepared and read straight from what Diana Butler Bass wrote on this piece - but one piece that stood out to me was the whole name of the demons being “Legion” - a reference, of course, to the Roman empire - and as we think about human beings in relationship to empire and what expectations get placed on us, our bodies, our dreams as a result of oppressive forces demanding our allegiance and claims laid on our identities that cause us to place our sense of self-worth and source of meaning in what the empire can provide and that can be a source of deterioration and destruction as we become occupied by being a good productive citizen as opposed to the truth of ourselves as beloved children of God -- a powerful tool of empire is to undermine mental health and well-being. As I said, there’s a whole sermon in there as well.
In both our texts today, we see the divine encounter in the midst of the noise. In the swirl of natural forces, God isn’t there, but in the gentle whisper. With the varied voices of Legion, Jesus’s voice shines through. God meets us in the midst of overwhelm, in the places where we’ve had enough and want to throw up our hands and toss it all to the wind, in the cacophony of demands that have their hold over us - God meets us, God strengthens and nurtures us, God feeds us - and lets us rest, and God accompanies us on the next part of our journey. We find sustenance - body and spirit - in what God provides.
Our mental health and well being is just as important as our physical health and just as important as our spiritual health. To be sure, Christ is not a substitute for a therapist or a counselor or medication - but God’s healing spirit moves and meets us in those spaces just as powerfully, offering resurrection life in the barren places in our spirits. In the midst of the mess and chaos, we are reminded, too, of God’s ever loving, steadfast presence, the companionship of the one who will never leave nor forsake us, who will always seek after our hearts to bring us back to life, who, in the words of Isaiah 43, says to us, "Do not fear, I am with you. You are mine. I have called you by name. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you." Those are powerful words as we navigate through the sheer volume that life throws at us.
In simpler terms, “you are not alone, and this will not last forever.”
As you navigate this coming week - as you look at priorities and to-do lists, as you consider the weight of the news, as you wonder how you’re going to make it through all the demands that summer on Chebeague can bring, as you sit with life sometimes at full-on screech mode, remember to breathe. To stop and find the gentle whisper of God to renew your spirit. To let Jesus speak through the legion of things that lay claim to you and banish them for a time to restore and ground you. Stop to rest. Eat, sleep, nap, take a break from your phone or the news; everything will still be there when you are ready to re-engage. But maybe find a different path forward. Reevaluate and find a more life-giving rhythm. Resist being what is expected of you this summer…this season… Let Jesus meet you in the chaos of the world…let him restore your sense of clarity and purpose…and be released to witness the healing and resurrection power of Christ - who breaks all that is death-dealing in this world, and who restores us to life. Amen.
2022.06.12 - Trinity Sunday
Many of the thoughts and ideas from this week's sermon come from enfleshed's commentary on the passage. Many thanks for their work!
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31, John 16:12-15
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?
2On the heights, beside the way,
at the crossroads she takes her stand;
3beside the gates in front of the town,
at the entrance of the portals she cries out:
4“To you, O people, I call,
and my cry is to all that live.
22The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of long ago.
23Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
24When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
25Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth--
26when he had not yet made earth and fields,
or the world’s first bits of soil.
27When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
28when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
29when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth, 30then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
31rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race.
John 16:12-15 - First Nations Version
12“There are many more things I want to say to you, but your hearts are not strong enough to hear them now. 13When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will be the one to tell you. He will be your one true spirit guide and will lead you down the path of truth. He will fully represent me and will tell you only what I have told him. The Spirit will show you what is coming on the road ahead. 14He will honor me by making known to you everything I have shown him. 15All that I am and all that I have comes from the Father. He has not held back one thing from me, and the Spirit will not hold back anything from you.
Leader: A Word of God that is still speaking, People: Thanks be to God.
*Hymn - Come, Join the Dance of Trinity (words insert needed)
One of the things I’m enjoying the most these days about being a parent is watching my kids create things. Genevieve is only just discovering this idea that she can manipulate the environment around her - pour water over dirt to create mud that she can shape, shovel sand into mounds, put crayons and markers to paper to leave colorful marks - but Michael is turning into quite the pro. We have a box in our house of random things - toilet paper tubes, bottle caps, egg cartons and cereal boxes, strips of cloth, plastic meat trays (clean, of course!) - anything that can potentially be repurposed makes its way into what we call “Michael’s Maker Box.” Between that and the unlimited access to the craft supply bin of stretchy string, popsicle sticks, duct tape, paper and more, I am constantly amazed by what he can put together. Musical instruments, elaborate paper airplanes, houses for his 3D printer animal figurines from school, a bow and arrow set (he decided that since Mom and Dad won’t let him have play weapons, he will make his own). He’s constantly doodling, fashioning something out of clay, cutting paper or cardboard - and it’s fascinating to watch him playfully create and delight in his projects.
Today is Trinity Sunday - a day that in our liturgical calendar we set aside to talk about this doctrine that was finalized in the 4th century at the Council of Nicea as early Christians debated and fought about how to understand God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit and the relationship between them. One God, three distinct persons, all coequal, coeternal, and of the same substance, sharing the same essence. If you followed the link to the video in the enewsletter, you are all caught up on how not to understand the doctrine of the Trinity and the major heresies that cropped up trying to explain how the Trinity works - and if you didn’t see it yesterday, I’ll show it after service, it’s a 4 minute video, very amusing and highly informative.
I love these texts for Trinity Sunday - the Proverbs text in particular, but also Psalm 8, which this morning we allowed to shape our prayer of confession and the John passage which shows this dynamic interrelationship between God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Mother, Child, Womb. Lover, Beloved, Love.
In our Proverbs passage about Wisdom - Sophia in Greek, Chokmah in Hebrew, there are some notes in translation where scholars disagree - where the New Revised Standard Version translates “rejoicing”, a viable alternative translation - and arguably more appropriate translation - is “playing.” Likewise “master worker” could instead be “child” or “nursling.” So I want to read that part of the passage again substituting those words, seeing how that might invite us to a different way of experiencing the text and provide a different image of God to us today:
27When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
28when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
29when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth, 30then I was beside him, like a child;
and I was daily his delight,
playing before him always,
31playing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race.
Wisdom has been there from the beginning. She’s there crying out for people to take notice of her, claiming her place as one playing, working, building, delighting in the world that is, helping it take shape, right on the front of the scene - dancing between God and God’s creation.
Catherine Keller, one of my seminary professors and noted process theologian, shares that Wisdom points us toward a God that creates with less “Intelligent Design” and more “Creative Wisdom.”
And I can imagine, much like watching a child at play or move to music or leap to catch floating bubbles the delight God has and pleasure God takes in creation and creativity and the Creative Wisdom dazzling us all.
Or as William P. Brown, presbyterian minister, theologian, and author has said, “Play requires partnership, and Wisdom has two partners: God and creation.”
For me this is a reminder that even though we talk about God as eternal and unchanging, there is, within God, a movement and dance. A relationship. Creative force cannot come out of a static being. Perhaps it’s more reasonable to talk not about God as never changing, but that God’s nature does not change - and that nature is one of an eternal dance as we see described this morning in three persons - perichoresis - (peri = around, choresis = dance) and in this divine circle dance I envision God shaping the universe, shaping the earth, shaping us the joy and abandon like one might see a child immersed in their work - and we see Wisdom dancing among us all, moving and inviting us to engage in that work as well. That we, too, in relationship and partnership with her and with God can be about that work of delight and creation, bringing about the world around us marked by that same delight and hope? What if that was the approach we took to engaging the challenges and problems of this world - to lean into our creative ability to discover new solutions, different ways of looking at things, finding the hope and life in the midst of struggle and death?
We don’t need any reminders about how hard and heavy the world is for many people these days. You may be one of those folks - I know there are days for me that I experience that weariness - and I grieve the hardship and pain that so many of us and our non-human kin know so deeply. Yet I am also reminded that we are in connection to a God who has seen it all - the devastation of the earth, the ways humans can hurt and wound each other, the way we separate ourselves from God…even the ways we turn against our own selves. Yet the dance suggests that Wisdom believes there are possibilities still among us - she still persists in calling to us, she invites us again and again into the dance, invites us to heed her call, invites us to follow her lead. For when we do, we are drawn into the mystery of the Three in One God who longs for us to delight in ourselves and the world around us in the same way God does.
But it takes time and practice and intention to do this - if it didn’t, Wisdom wouldn’t have to cry out for our attention! Wisdom comes to pursue us even as we find ourselves drawn in a thousand different directions. Wisdom doesn’t come easily - but comes as we search beneath the surface of things, as we discover connections around us and within ourselves and our bodies, naming the reality around us - pointing us back to God.
And so what if this week, we took the time to make pursuit of Wisdom a daily practice? This is, after all, what we’ve been learning about in our Council meetings together - a practice of discernment, of paying attention, of noting what happens within our hearts and minds and bodies as we receive the world around us, and sorting out the way Spirit is moving us to respond. It is about paying attention to what our bodies are telling us (like when we experience emotion or when we’re actually tired and need a rest), or our gut intuition about a situation, or deciding to clear space in our lives for listening to the voices of those whose life experience is vastly different than our own. It could be a practice of learning how to ask really good questions as opposed to responding with advice or our own experience when talking with a friend. Or even sharing “I’m going to pause and think about this before I speak” and taking the time to seek Wisdom in the midst of it. It could be spending five minutes in silence, barefoot on the ground to connect with God and self and the earth.
I believe our lives - our communities - even our churches - would look vastly different if we took the time to intentionally pursue Wisdom - discernment. Because in that space, as we open ourselves to the God in whom we live and move and have our being - we’ll discover again the divine dance that leads us into places of life and flourishing, grace and peace, hope and justice.
God’s own being is dance -- Wisdom is a part of that -- and we, being made in God’s image -- well, we are just made for the dance, aren’t we? Dancing with God, with one another, and with all of creation. The dance is one that binds us together and knits us into a community where we’re inviting others to dance along with us.
May we - like enthusiastic children engrossed in a creative endeavor - be so focused on pursuing this life within God’s circle dance, so deeply paying attention to the leading of the Spirit with our dance partner Jesus, hearing the love of God as our only tune, so that we as co-creators with God, can bring forth a world made new for ourselves and for those around us. Amen.
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?”
2022.04.10 Good Enough Palm Sunday
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.
2022.04.03 Good Enough Lent 5
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.
2022.03.27 Good Enough Lent 4
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.
2022.03.20 - Good Enough Lent 3
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.
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.