August 25, 2019
[We] have come . . . to the city of the living God, . . . to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.1
The sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. The blood of Abel takes us back to the Genesis story about the conflict between two brothers. It speaks of division and injustice and violence and revenge and death. We are still hearing stories like this; every day we hear stories like this.
Our Scripture this morning points us toward the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word—a word from our wounded and resurrected Jesus who draws us into kinship through expressions of grace and compassion and faith and hope and healing and Love and Life. And this kind of kingdom, the letter of Hebrews says, cannot be shaken.
When we walk into a Church—a capital “C” Church which is the living body of Christ, there should be a balm in that Gilead. We have come to the balm of Gilead, which is healing, Divine Love. And that healing balm of Gilead makes communion with our living, loving God possible. That should move our hearts to thanks and praise, with reverence and awe for the grace we have received. To worship is to encounter God, to hear God's voice, to be transformed by it. True worship does not leave us as we are, rather, it makes us into a conduit for the grace we have received, so that we can carry that healing balm into our world, connecting one another to God’s Love.
St. Luke gives us an example:
While Jesus is teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath, a woman appears who has a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was unable to stand up straight. Jesus sees her, calls her over and tells her she is free from her ailment. And when Jesus lays his hands on her, immediately she stands up straight and began praising God.
This woman, this unnamed daughter of Abraham, hadn’t even asked for healing, but she experienced the compassionate touch of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the touch that upheld her, that filled her with grace, that healed her with the power of his Love. 2And she began praising God.
There is conflict and tension in this story—a certain religious leader thought the healing was at the wrong time, in the wrong place. Jesus counters with a Golden Rule kind of logic. Perhaps that Golden Rule logic helped the crowd to recognize their own face in the face of the woman, or in the voice of the synagogue leader’s objections. Because, then, the entire group of witnesses echoed the woman’s praise by rejoicing themselves. We don’t know the rest of the woman’s story, but in that moment, she becomes a conduit for that same grace. She offers praise for God’s good grace, and now, others rejoice, too. Love is contagious.
June 23, 2019
Today’s story is in all the synoptic Gospels, but we are reading it today through Saint Luke’s eyes—compassionate, healing, inclusive eyes. For Luke, it is the LOVE of God that heals us. For Luke, humility and hope are central characteristics of Christian living.
Jesus steps into Gentile territory and is met by a man of the city who lived in the tombs, among the dead and had demons. Demons. The man’s name, Legion, suggests thousands of demons as if the demons here represent the epitome of all that can be wrong, all that can come between God and God’s good creation.
Focus on the result of this man’s coming face to face with the LOVE of God and God’s MERCY. With one command from Jesus, the demons come out of the man—they exit out of this story. The demons leave and the man now sits at the feet of Jesus, clothed, and in his right mind. Saint Paul would say, clothed with Christ and he would call him a child of God. Henri Nouwen would call him a wounded healer. Note: the man, himself, is NOT a demon. The demons left. This man, now representing the very core of our common humanity, is NOT a demon. The demons left.
Demons like violence, hatred, extreme anger, revenge, fear, anxiety—they left. Demons like abuse of power, greed, lust, addiction—they left. Demons like projections onto others, blaming others, intolerance, extremism, excessive pride, self-deprecation—they left. Demons like apathy, they left. Apathy—I remember where I was kneeling the day that I said our corporate confession, and for the first time, heard, really heard the part about confessing the “things left undone.” Many, many times I knowingly confessed: “things done.” And then, suddenly taken aback as “things left undone” came into focus.
Brilliant theologians for a very long time have struggled to answer the question about the origin of evil. We are still asking the same question. It seems to me, though, that our Scripture points more toward the practical problems of evil and God’s response to it. So, my questions focus on God’s response. The Good News, after all, is all about God’s response to evil. I trust God’s response.
Evil is real and serious and comes in many forms. Some forms I’ve experienced myself, some I know only from paying attention to the experiences of others. It’s complicated. I’ve seen bad things happen to good people; I’ve seen good people do bad things; I’ve seen seemingly bad people turn out to be better people than I thought possible; I’ve seen seemingly good actions create a secondary-type-evil; I’ve seen the potential for evil rip through my own heart and soul.
But this child of God in Luke’s story is a holy scene that points to God’s response to evil. And the response, we see through Jesus, involves compassion and mercy. Somehow, Jesus sees past the demons, sees the core of this man’s humanity, sees our common human condition and isn’t ashamed to be in relationship with him.
March 03, 2019
Today, the last Sunday after Epiphany, we arrive at another transition point in our pilgrimage through the church calendar. Epiphany’s celebration of the glory of God concludes with the theme of transfiguration. Today, we see the glory of God in the face of Jesus. Today, we hear the voice of God telling us to pay attention.
November 18, 2018
Prayer is not easy. It is not easy to define because it is both simple and complex. If we think of it at either extreme, we will not understand prayer. It often is not easy to do, either. Or at least, it is not easy to recognize that we are praying. I am standing before you as one example of someone who once thought they didn’t know how to pray. I can tell you, though, the place I was standing when I learned otherwise.
Today, we have Hannah’s story about prayer that begs to be heard, begs to be understood. Hannah prays twice. In the first, we have a visual—we can only see her praying because she speaks no “words.” In the second, we hear her prayer— and it is a SONG.
In Hannah’s first prayer, this is what we see: a woman, alone, intentionally coming to the sanctuary, a safe place, to honestly present herself directly before her Lord. If we only stand at the entrance to watch Hannah, we like Eli, might not see a person in prayer. But if we are willing to go further in to look closer, to look into Hannah’s eyes, to look into her heart, we will see, we might even feel, we might even hear: an unspeakable distress, a bitter weeping, a great anxiety, a troubled self-image, a broken heart, a deep longing, a desperate sadness, a crushed aching and pleading spirit.
This is a picture of Hannah pouring out her heart to God, a prayer of petition and oblation. But no doubt, the picture captures some of our own silent prayers—yours and mine. I understand this prayer because I’ve been there myself, and I’ve been with fiends who have prayed without words, directly from their heart. I’m thinking you also understand this prayer for the same reasons.
In Hannah’s second prayer, time has passed, she has given birth to a new life, and she sings her prayer of adoration and praise and thanksgiving with gusto--“bursting with God-news!” . . . and “dancing her salvation,” is the way Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message Bible. I understand this prayer, too. I can also burst with God-news. I’ve seen some of you bursting with God-news.
Our lectionary places Hannah’s Song as our Response to her first prayer—we responded this morning with a powerful song about a God who embraces the world in Love, turns the world upside down, and invites us to see it as God intends it to be. It is a song that will later influence The Song of Mary, the Magnificat.
There is a part of Hannah’s story that I haven’t mentioned. We need to look again at Hannah’s first prayer. Eli, the priest, finally understands that Hannah is not drunk, but instead has been praying. Once understood, Eli sends Hannah on her way to go in peace, sends her out with a blessing and a prayer of his own that God will grant Hannah’s petition. Scripture tells us that Hannah turned to leave the sanctuary “. . . and her countenance was sad no longer.”
July 08, 2018
In our Gospel this morning, we have two very different state of affairs. The first results in NO life-giving power. The second results in EXTRAORDINARY life-giving power. Both situations are important to our understanding of the Gospel. So, we are going to think through them both--by starting in the middle.
Jesus sends the twelve disciples out on a journey to share his message with folks in other communities. He sends them out in pairs but tells them to take nothing except a staff and a pair of sandals.
Two things came to mind as I read Jesus’ instructions:
About a month ago, I caught a glimpse of a news clip on ABC: some popular televangelist said he needed a $54 million jet, so he could spread the gospel.
Secondly, I remembered a cartoon that a friend gave to me eight years ago. I still have it. It depicts Moses standing midway on Mt. Sinai with his staff in hand, speaking to the smoking mountaintop. Moses says, “I’m just saying if you had told me we’d be wandering in the desert for 40 years, I would have brought my comfortable shoes.”
A Falcon Jet and comfortable shoes ------------------------ a staff and sandals
But, we have something the first disciples didn’t have: we have experienced the faithfulness of God through Christ crucified and Christ risen. So, with this experience in mind, it should give us pause to be more understanding of the folks in Jesus’ hometown. I can easily put myself into their shoes. Actually, I have been in their shoes. Perhaps you have, too. Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus is saying in the synagogue—only that folks who heard it were “astounded” by what they heard. “Astounded”—they were shocked, surprised, filled with wonder, stunned, shaken—perhaps shaken to their core.
The Gospel tells us these hometown folks first recognized the wisdom and power in Jesus’ words, but then something happened to suck ALL the power right out of the moment. They chose to turn away, to deny the wisdom they had heard—perhaps out of fear of change, perhaps out of stubbornness to hang onto their own expectations, perhaps out of self-doubts, perhaps not having the courage to step into a path they didn’t fully understand. Perhaps it was the power of standing in this new kind of presence that was just too overwhelming at that moment—felt too new, too strong, too soon.
What is clear though, is the faithfulness of Jesus reaching out to the hometown folks, and they do NOT reach back.
February 04, 2018
If you read the Gospels like I read them, by putting yourself into the story and imagining what it would be like, what it would feel like, to BE one of its characters, then, the Gospel of Mark can be daunting in its quick, sharp movements from scene to scene. You might want to say to Mark something like: wait a minute, slow down a bit so my heart can catch up with my feet.
We haven’t made it through chapter one yet, but already, John the Baptist has shocked us awake by telling us that someone else will be plunging us, not into water, but plunging us in the Holy Spirit. We have stood by the river Jordan as witnesses of Jesus’ baptism, and if we were listening, we’ve heard a heavenly voice proclaiming a heavenly vision. In the space of two verses, we have been whisked away to spend 40 days in the wilderness with Jesus. We’ve heard the bad news that John the Baptist has been arrested, and we’ve heard Jesus tell us that He brings Good News. In a flash, we’ve witnessed Jesus’ calling four disciples to follow him, and we’ve seen how quickly they respond without question. We’ve followed Jesus and his companions to Capernaum and sat with others, in awe, as Jesus, we are told, speaks with authority.
There is a sense of urgency in Mark’s writing. And chances are, if we don’t take the 50 minutes it requires to read the whole Gospel of Mark in one sitting, we will misunderstand this sense of urgency as a rushing through too much too soon. If on the other hand, we know the rest of the story, and we take the time to pause at key moments, we will better glean the sense of an urgent need for faithfulness. We will be able to see the quickness in Mark’s steps, not as a rush through life, but rather as an urgent need for our faithfulness to a life filled with service to one another, with Jesus at our center.
There are two scenarios in this morning’s section of Chapter 1 that gives us a much-needed pause to allow our hearts to catch up with our feet.
The first pause involves touch; the second involves prayer.
Simon’s mother-in-law is in bed with a fever, and Jesus touches her hand with his hand, and she suddenly becomes a model of faithfulness to service. Imagine that, a hand touching another hand, and someone unexpectedly has the strength to be of service to others. Pause to picture the other stories in the Gospels that speak of healing by touch. Pause to picture yourself reaching out to take Jesus’ hand into your own hand. Pause to remember when someone in your community reached out to touch you, and the touch gave you strength you didn’t know you had. Pause to remember someone you know who needs a loving touch.
There are myriad ways to touch one another.
December 24, 2017
Mary, an ordinary young woman, chose to be obedient to the Spirit of God. To the surprising initiative of God, Mary said, “Yes.”
Mary said “yes” to the awful realization of being vulnerable.
Mary said “yes” to being courageous in the awful face of fear.
Mary said “yes” to God’s wondrous intent to dwell in human flesh.
Mary said “yes” to being held in God’s wonderous Grace while she set out on her journey.
Mary’s calling went something like this:
God sends someone named Gabriel to say to Mary: “The Lord is with you.” This is a blessing, is it not? To say that the Lord is with you is a blessing. But we also know that throughout biblical history, being blessed can be as painful as it is peaceful. To be blessed is to be used by God to bless the world. That is our constant calling—to bless the world, to bless the world in our own unique way.
Mary is thoroughly shaken by the holy presence, and she wonders what it all means for her. We can sense both fear and awe, intertwined, in her first reaction. There is a Hebrew word that has no equivalent in our English language that describes such an experience. For us, our language implies two separate experiences, you either experience fear or you experience awe. But the Hebrew term, yirah, combines both to describe one experience. Moses’ experience at the burning bush, in the presence of God, might be one example. Another example of yirah is my own experience standing at more than 10,000 feet above sea level looking across the Western Highlands of Guatemala. It was toward the end of my 10-day pilgrimage, and I had traveled almost 500 miles with a prayer on my lips: Lord, I want to see with the eyes of my heart, so I can see the hope in my life’s purpose. I did see with the eyes of my heart, and it hurt. I did see the hope in my purpose, and it shook me to my core.
“Do not be afraid,” the messenger said to Mary. I think Mary was experiencing yirah. And in her heart she knows to savor yirah, to recognize the type of fear she feels and to work with it, lean into it knowing that she is touching sacred ground within. “Perfect love casts out fear” we are told. Perfect love casts out fear. And perfect love, drawn from our very center, blesses the world.
Think about Mary’s awesome experience. She is being invited into a radical, life-transforming experience to have a part in the fulfillment of God’s saving purpose in history. Through tangible, physical realities of her life, the kingdom of God would become a tangible reality in this world.
October 08, 2017
One of my favorite little books is Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak. I have underlines on almost every page. Some of those underlined sections also have handwritten notes in the margins—some with question marks, some with exclamation points. Some of those pages also have a little sticky tab to mark its special place. Some of those sticky tabs have an asterisk penciled on its visible edge to highlight its importance even more. And in the front of the book, I have in my own handwriting, paraphrased a couple of insights from its pages that I want to remember: First, we are led to truth by our weaknesses as well as our strengths.[i] And second, self-care is good stewardship of the gift you were put on earth to offer to others.[ii]
The gift we were put on earth to offer others. Every single one of us has a special gift, sometimes hidden like a buried treasure, that requires digging out. Palmer says that being good stewards of that gift means a life-long journey of listening to our true self--that person God created us to be, the image of God at the center of our being--and to be willing to give it the care it requires, not only for ourselves but for the many others whose lives we touch. Sometimes, that might mean turning around when we find ourselves out of sync with it. Sometimes, it isn’t easy to turn. We must ask ourselves tough questions like: Who am I, the really, real me? And where am I in relation to God, to myself, and to others?
Palmer would say that this is all done in community. Allowing ourselves to be led to truth, intentionally being good stewards of our God-given selves, and purposefully living out our lives in the company of God and others—touching others, allowing others to touch us—that is how we build a community with a shared future, and leadership is a shared responsibility.
We do leadership when we care enough about something to want to make a difference. We do leadership when we have a passion for a particular future. We do leadership when we feel compelled to change a situation for the better. Leadership is not just for some of us, it is our common destiny.
What I mean by destiny comes from another book. I have it underlined, tabbed and asterisked--you can tell a lot about who I am by borrowing my books. It is Rule #29 from Shams of Tabriz’s 40 Rules of Love. Perhaps you haven’t heard of Shams. He mentored Rumi, the 13th-century Sufi poet who is loved by many faith traditions.
[i] Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak, page 22.
[ii] Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak, page 30.
September 03, 2017
In our church cycle of time, today we are at the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, “Ordinary” time or “Counted” time we sometimes call it, with 12 more weeks before we reach Advent, and our church calendar begins again. I’ve been curious about that. At first, I questioned why we intentionally celebrated the essential ups and downs by name—Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Good Friday, Easter—why we celebrated receiving the Holy Spirit, by name, calling it Pentecost, and then, walked through the rest of the calendar—half a year—simply counting the weeks and calling it ordinary. Are our lives not continually transformed by the Holy Spirit, breathed into us at Pentecost, and yet, we count the weeks and call it ordinary?
But our Gospel reading this morning reminds us of the whole story. In the midst of our counted time, God draws our attention into an essential reminder, a teachable moment that has the power to keep us on our way. In just eight verses, we hear Jesus teaching his disciples about life’s journey. Jesus is teaching them about the road to Jerusalem, about the road through Jerusalem, about the road that leads to New Life.
July 23, 2017
Psalm 139 is one of my favorite prayers in the Psalter. It declares a complete trust in God’s care, petitions God for help, and sings praises to God. It speaks of an intimate relationship with our all-knowing, always present God. The part we heard today is the prayer that my journey group often prays together before we work on interpreting our dreams. We pray this Psalm because only God knows all there is to know about us, and our dreams, even our nightmares, we believe, are messages to help us recognize what we need to change in our innermost self—a slow, thoughtful, mysterious process of transformation that never ends.
There is a part of Psalm 139 that we did not hear this morning because it is left out of our Sunday lectionary. Without buffer or warning, right in the middle of its praise, it turns to profound cursing: “O that you would kill the wicked, O God. . . I hate them with perfect hatred.” [i] A simplistic reading of this, or any Scripture for that matter, has caused all kinds of problems. But we want to read for depth. Just like my journey group, we want to glean the innermost meaning of God’s word. So, we want to pay attention to what is missing in our reading, we want to pay attention to the tough stuff. I couldn’t always do that—I flat out skipped the cursing parts because I didn’t know what to do with them. But then, I experienced the Psalms.
[i] Psalm 139: 19—21.