Wild Blessings

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Mark 1:9-15

ForestAre you ready?

9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

12And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Wild Blessings

You are the way, Holy One.

Through the night of doubt and sorrow

Through the valleys of fear and despair

Through the hours of waiting

Through all of that wilderness wandering

You are the way of peace, wholeness

Salvation.

You are the way to peaceful dreams

And the embodiment of God’s dream for humanity

Show us you again today, so that we might see the way

Amen.

I’ve always wondered about this part of the story.  This whole, “The Spirit drove him into the wilderness.”  The “him” being Jesus.

I’ve wondered about it because I wonder what exactly drove him there.  I mean, did the Holy Spirit lead him into the wilderness, like as in actually take him there on purpose?

Or rather, did the call of God upon him weigh so heavily that the very idea of being the Messiah caused Jesus to enter into this period of desert wandering…discernment?

You know, kind of like how when Jonah was asked to do the hard thing by God he went the total opposite direction, was that kind of Jesus’ first response, too?

Theologians and Biblical scholars have debated this for years.  How much, how often, and how fully did Jesus know who he was?

Did he first fully realize what God had in store for him, who he really was, at his baptism?  If so…well…it’s no wonder he ran into the wilderness.  Such a heavy burden, to embody God’s love for an ungrateful people…anyone would run away.

And yet, there’s something to be said for those wandering times in our lives, where we walk through the metaphorical wilderness, not knowing which way is up and which way is down.

As I grow older, as I meditate more, as I grow deeper spiritually, I have come to embrace the wilderness times in my life as being full of what I call wild blessings.

Now, remember previous sermons Beloved, do not confuse blessings with bliss.  So much of American Christianity does.  Blessing is not when you get what you want.  That’s bliss.  True blessing is when, regardless of what you want, you find you already have what you need, by God.

And because the wilderness times in our lives hold deep, wild blessings…even though they’re hard to see in the moment…it might be a natural next step for the Holy Spirit to intentionally lead Jesus into the wilderness because, well, he had to figure some things out.

And so in thinking of why Jesus had to head into the wilderness, whether running there in fear or being intentionally led there by the Holy Spirit, I have to think that:

He needed to wander the desert like Moses if he was going to learn to rely on God’s grace alone.  Recalling a lonely night in the wilderness would get him through Gethsemane.

He needed to spend some time with the wild animals, like Noah in that ark, if he was going to learn to rely on God’s grace alone.

He needed to be attended to by angels like Elijah if he was to find out how to rely on God’s grace alone.

Because, here’s the thing that so easily happens with God’s gifts of grace, love, forgiveness, and peace: we are tempted to make them conditional, to see them as conditional, to operate as if they are conditional.

For Valentines day I posted a poem on the Book of Face by the provocative Persian poet Hafiz.

In the 14th Century he penned:

Even after all this time
The Sun never says to the Earth
“You owe me”
And look what happens
With that kind of love
It lights up the whole sky

Leave it to the poet to say what needs to be said about the world, because we so easily become a transactional people.  Humanity is quid pro quo by nature, and so there is a desire to turn God into that “do for me and I’ll do for you” kind of being. A God who coerces love instead of coaxes it; coaxes it like we see Jesus coax it from the disciples, the world, from you and me.

In fact, in many circles of Christianity, we have already turned God’s work into a transaction. “Just say the believer’s prayer and be saved,” someone told me once in my own wilderness wandering period.

Huh…then it kind of seems like I’m saving myself, doesn’t it?  By saying the prayer.

Transactional.

And I wonder if Jesus was tempted to turn God’s work into a transaction, as in, I wonder if he was tempted to give grace and love only to the people who gave him grace and love.

Which leads me to this last part in Jesus wilderness wandering: Jesus wrestling with evil and temptation.  We may wonder what wild blessing might be had by contending with evil in this sort of way and I think that:

Jesus needed to really be tempted, to know what it felt like to want to give into a path other than God’s, to turn grace into a quid pro quo, to abandon coaxing love for coercive power, to rely on feats of strength rather than feats of the Divine heart…

He needed to be tempted so that he might know what temptation looks like.  He needed to wrestle with evil so that he could name it when he saw it.

These are the wild blessings, Beloved. The things only learned in those wilderness times of wandering. Today we accompany Jesus into the wilderness not to watch to see what he will do so much as to ponder what we do in our wilderness times.

Do we run from them? Give into them? Avoid them for safety and security? Or put one foot in front of the other learning to rely on grace, confident that we will learn from these wilderness times?

These wild blessings.

This last week our whole family was, once again, in the throws of sickness…like so many of you this winter.  Flu and pneumonia have left their mark on us.

And last Sunday as the boys were sick at home, I was running from services to go relieve Rhonda for a few hours so she could grade some exams before I had to head back here for evening services, and I was dropping in Harris Teeter for a hot second to get some milk.  And just as I was crossing the walk to head into the store, and oncoming car slows down and pulls up right next to me, almost running over my toes.

“Are you a priest?” the woman asked me as she took a drag of her cigarette.  She looked like she hadn’t slept in a month.

“Sort of,” I replied…it was too long to explain and I was in a rush. Any other day I probably would have said just a plain, “no”…but I had the collar on and there was no hiding it now.

“Yeah, well, my brother hung himself last week.  And a bunch of you all said he’s in hell.  Father…do you think my brother’s in hell?” she looked at me.  And I could see anger in her eyes and she took another drag of her cigarette.

“No. I don’t think your brother is in hell.  I think he must have been in some sort of hell here to want to hurt himself like that.  What is his name?  I’m so sorry…” I said.  And the line behind her got longer and longer down the stretch as cars waited for us to have this conversation, but none of them honked…as if they knew this needed to happen in the moment.

And she started to cry and said, “I don’t think he is either.  Not my baby brother. He was a good kid, he was just sick. Thank you.”

And she didn’t even say his name, she just slowly drove off.

And in the moment of rush and sickness, in that time when I felt like I was wandering in a haze of responsibilities and illness, here comes this other pilgrim, wandering through a wilderness of her own, and we met along the path.

I helped alleviate her pain.  She made me slow down.  And in the moment, a wild blessing was shared.

Do you see, Beloved?  In our wildnerness, in our wandering, in our rush, we must pay attention. We must take time to dig for the wild blessings.

You know, digging for these wild blessings in wilderness times, it’s one of the reasons that we have Lenten services on Wednesday nights here.  Yes, I know, you’re all very busy.  Very, very busy.  Another church obligation doesn’t sound like a wild blessing.

But sometimes you gotta slow down to speed up, Beloved.  And if you can’t take time to pray, you have to make time to pray, to discern the wild blessings of whatever wandering you’re going through.

It is not for nothing that we start out Lent wandering into the wilderness with Jesus.  As I said, this is practice.  This is the time we practice naming the wild blessings of wilderness wandering so that when we find ourselves in the wilderness of our teen years, in the wilderness of middle age, empty nesting, retirement, our final act.

Or, as we all are now, when we find ourselves once again in the wilderness of another school shooting which we must, must, learn from…

Lent is the time when we practice as a church so that we can do it in our own spiritual lives when we need it.

Because Lent always leads to Easter, which means that all wilderness wandering will be resurrection in the end. And we’ll get there eventually, but we have a ways to go.

In this way Lent, in and of itself, is a wild blessing my friends.  Accept the gracious gift.

Amen.

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Let’s Not Pretend It’s That Easy…

Matthew 6:1-6; 16-21

400349104_4d41ee819a_o[Jesus said to the disciples:] 1“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
2“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
5“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
16“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
19“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Let’s Not Pretend It’s That Easy…

Holy One,

This is a day meant to hold us

When we feel like dust

And a strong wind would scatter us.

This is a day meant to hold us

When the burden of our pain

Some we’ve caused, and some inflicted on us

Is too heavy for our tired shoulders to bear anymore.

This is a day meant to hold us

A sort of practice

For that last day when we fall into your arms

And you hold us at last.

Bless us this day.

Amen.

The Tennessee monastic Thomas Merton once said, “We are not tortured for our sins; we are tortured by our sins.”

Which is a good reminder for all of us, all of the Christian world, that Ash Wednesday is not about marking yourself up for all of your sins.

Your sins have already marked you up, Beloved.

So we don’t wear a cross tonight as a mark of humiliation. God does not require humiliation; the world requires humiliation as penance for wrong doing.  But God does not, so return to God this day, not out of judgment, but to relieve the judgment you already place on yourself.

You know, these marks of death that will be etched into your brows, these are not some sort of reminder for you that you must do better in life.  That tomorrow you must try harder.

Let’s not pretend it’s that easy. If it were, we’d all be on the constant road to self-improvement.

Instead I find myself, and I bet you do too, on a jerky roller coaster that seems to twist and turn and loop and loop, going backwards, and forwards, and I can’t tell if I’m making progress at all, let alone when it will end.

The work of God in this world is not to make bad people better…which is probably why Jesus invites us to practice our piety in quiet and secrecy.  We should give no illusions as to what our faith-life is doing to us.

No, God’s work in this world is not to make bad people better, it is to make dead people alive, Beloved.

And not just dead people, but also those dead places in your life where you’re scarred and tortured and beat up and tired, oh so tired.

The place of pain.  The place of perpetual illness.  The place of bad memories, bad decisions, bad actions, all those things that you carry around with you in your pocket of dust.

Today all of that is taken and marked on your forehead in the only symbol of redemption that a Christian knows: the cross.  And it is not a mark of shame, but a mark of hope, friend.

So if you’re going to fast, perhaps you should fast from having to be perfect.  Fast from having to have it all together.  Fast from beating yourself up.  Fast from doing it all.

And make room for redemption.  Make room in your life to be made alive again, by God.

Fast from thinking that sin defines your relationship with God.

Jesus did not assume the cross upon his shoulder as a way to say to humanity, “See what you’re causing me to do!  See what I have to do for you!”

No.  The story of God’s redemption is a love story.

God in Christ assumes the cross so that we will have no other impression in our minds but to know that God will go to death and back to be with us, to keep our sin from keeping us down, so that when we are in our final resting place, in that moment where we’ll breathe our last, we can be certain that the God who does beautiful things with dust in the creation story is not done with us when we return back to dust…

Hope.

Hope that in the end God’s not done with us, but also hope that in the here and now in those places that are dead in our lives that God is not done with us there, either.  That these things won’t define us.  That they won’t torture us anymore.

But let’s not pretend it’s that easy…none of this is easy.  It’s not easy to fast from our long-held habits. Nothing is easy about embracing your mortality, your flaws.  Every one of you, from the oldest to the youngest…even 10 day old Noah here, will receive the same mark on your brow because we are all in the same basket.  Nothing about mortality is easy; the fact that no matter what you achieve in life in the end we all go down to the dust.

And I preach all this on a night when more of our babies are killed in a school shooting.  Truly…truly…none of this is easy.

But, even at the grave we make our song.

So come, Beloved.  Be tortured no more by those sins. And do not fret about your mortality tonight.

Instead be smudged by the only symbol of love in the world that is heavy enough to bear any sin, any pain, and all mortality for you, and then be made alive again.

 

That’s Terrifying

<Listen along. It’s better that way. And you catch the side-stories…click here to do so!>

Are you ready?

wm-Transfiguration_of_Jesus_Armando_Alemdar_Ara

Painting by Armando Alemdar Ara

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up on a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.  Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbit (EDITORIAL: THIS SPELLING WAS A MISTAKE, BUT A FUN ONE TO SLIP INTO THE SERMON) it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. He did not know what to say for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

And as they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

That’s Terrifying

Pray with me:

That when glory comes,
we will open our eyes
to see it.

That when glory shows up,
we will let ourselves
be overcome
not by fear
but by the love
it bears.

That when glory shines,
we will bring it
back with us
all the way,
all the way,
all the way down

Amen.

<From Jan Richardson’s blessing for the Transfiguration>

“We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount…ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants.  We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living.”

These words by General Omar Bradley began the bald and beautiful New Mexican monastic, Richard Rohr’s Wednesday devotional.

It brought me to thinking about what we stand in awe of in these days, and why.

I am in awe of the SpaceX launch of the provocatively named Falcon Heavy which shot into space many things at supersonic speed, including a car…a first.  I wonder if privatizing space travel will increase our awe of the galaxy we are but a speck in, or will it make it into a tourist attraction not too different from a Jurassic Park.  I wonder.

We are in awe of nuclear power still, as the good General reminds us, or at least we can all agree that it is awe-some.  But I have a desire to view it only in the abstract, Beloved.  There are some things that I prefer to see from a distance…or not at all.

And yet sometimes you can’t unsee something that you’ve seen, which is what I’m sure Peter, James, and John felt at seeing this sight in today’s Gospel text.  If they wondered who Jesus was, it appears on full display in the story Mark tells us today.

Jesus appears on top of a mountain with Moses, the law-giver, and Elijah the prophet, telling them, in no uncertain terms, that Jesus is the one to fulfill the unfulfillable law; the one the prophets were pointing to.

It was a first for them.  Sure, others had come before Jesus saying they were the one.  And some would come after Jesus saying something similar.

But here, played out in real life, on the place as close to outer space these ancients would ever come, on the top of the mountain where in the Hebrew Scriptures God revealed everything, they see what they had hoped was true, for so long…

And they were awe-filled.  And they were terrified.

But why? Why were they terrified?

You know, growing up I was told by my school teachers…a parochial private school…to be in awe of God because God was so big and Tim, you are so so small, and God can, if God wants to, smash you.  Squash you.  So love God because if you don’t, well…you never know…

A friend just recently Tweeted at me on the Twitters, admitting that he hasn’t read the Bible in 15 years in a sort of protest.  Because he was certain, as a child, that God would surely smite him for all of his sin at any given moment, and he said that he just couldn’t read scripture anymore because that thought kept going through his mind.

I remember my brother, one time, was certain he had seen in the water drops on the shower curtain the word “devil,” and was terrified out of his mind.  It just so happened that his teacher had told them that the devil was out to get them in religion class that week…

Like the threat of nuclear war, this kind of terror can rip through people, perhaps it has ripped through you in subtle or not so subtle ways in the past.  Well meaning but ultimately trauma-inducing people can cause us to be terrified of God.

God the all powerful.  God the all judging.  God the all knowing, all seeing, all…terrifying.

A friend recently sent me a picture of a poster hanging in the nursery of a church he wasi_saw_that_god_bumper_bumper_bumper_sticker visiting.  The poster had in writing this phrase, “I saw that!” and it was signed, “God.”

I guess it’s a good thing nursery children can’t read because that kind of sentiment is, indeed, terrifying!

Is this the kind of God we see in Jesus?  The moralistic, scolding Santa Clause who sees you when you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake?  Be honest. Is that your God?  Such a God is a terrorist of the soul and psyche…and I cannot, in my 37th year of life, negotiate with terrorists anymore…

Are we in awe of God for what God might do to us?

Or are we in awe of God for what God has done for us?  That God, who can do anything, who loves us, and would rather die than let us think otherwise?

When those disciples spied Christ in this transfiguring way, I have no doubt they were terrified, but I think they were terrified, awe struck, because it was hitting home to them that God does, indeed, keep God’s promises.

I believe they were terrified because if God keeps God’s promises, then the world was about to turn.  Things were going to change.

And not only that, but they, themselves, could be changed in the face of such awesome grace.

Our own blessed Martin Luther had this lovely and head-scratching saying that the Christian, “Suffers the grace of God upon themselves.”  It seems odd to think of suffering God’s grace…we don’t usually think of grace and suffering together.

But think about it, friend, think of how often you actually hate grace because you’d much rather make up for your sins.  You’d rather make up for them through apologies and letters and texts and flowers and dinners and tortured nights where you silently scream into the darkness how sorry you are because of this or that, and how you’ll never forget, and you think that by never forgetting you’ll somehow, eventually, make up for the wrong you’ve done…I’ve done…

And if God was terrible in the many ways that I was taught implicitly or explicitly that God was terrible, and vengeful, and always watching…well, perhaps your agony and flowers and notes would get you somewhere.

But instead of all of that, we get the God seen in Jesus who forgives, and who would rather die than leave us thinking that God wants terrible vengeance upon humanity.

Instead God desires love…long-suffering love.

A love so terrible that it will even forgive you for that thing that you think you can never be forgiven for.  That thing you still carry deep in your pocket of hurt and shame.  That thing.

And imagine, for just a moment, how awesome that is.

When thinking of how God is terrifying, or about how we fear God, I tend to like C.S. Lewis’s take on it in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

When wondering if Aslan the lion is safe, the helpful beavers remind Lucy, Peter, and the others that Aslan is not safe at all.  No, Aslan isn’t safe, but Aslan is good.

Beloved, God is not safe in the way we might think of safe: risk-free, easy, no sacrifice…but God is good.  God is so terribly good that you can do nothing outside of God’s redemption, you can do nothing to cause God’s long-suffering love to leave you.

So, you can stop being afraid of some God who smites people for their sin.  You are so small, Beloved, but remember that God, too, became so small to remind us that God loves the little things…

And you can stop screaming into the night.  You can put down the shame and the hurt and the pain.  You can stop killing yourself and start living, by God.

Because such an awesome scene, such a truth that you can’t unsee today along with Peter, James, and John, that God fulfills promises, especially the promise to forgive you, yes you, and me, and all of us, again and again is…well…

That’s terrifying.

In the best kind of way.

Amen.

Sometimes the Church is More the Tomb for Jesus’ Dead Body than the Alive Body of Christ

d417e4c04a5eb75c12f3dae88eccb18a--original-sin-daily-devotionalThe logic of the church year is something that I think escapes many Christians, and I can’t help but believe that if the followers of Christ would better internalize the meaning and symbolism of the seasons of the church, their faith would deepen immensely.

Such a move would probably run the morning devotional business out of business, and perhaps the Christian landscape would be better for it.

Sometimes I wonder…

But we’re nearing the end of the season between Epiphany and Lent, normally called “Time after Epiphany” or “Ordinary Time,” and the scripture readings these past Sunday mornings have all been inviting us to ask the same question: “Who is Jesus?”

The Sunday that kicks off this “time between times” is the Sunday of Jesus baptism by John in the Jordan where it is revealed that Jesus is God’s beloved messiah.  And immediately after that revelation, Jesus runs into the wilderness, into the desert, wrestling with just what kind of Messiah he’s going to be.

Will he be a domineering, oppressive Messiah who joins hands with evil?  Or would he be God’s Messiah who gives up his power for the sake of others?

And every Sunday after that baptism we get a story of Jesus calling people around him, a miracle story where everyone is astonished, an exorcism where the crowds scratch their heads and wonder who this new teacher is and what this new teaching (with authority) means, or a healing story where dying people are made well and restored to wholeness.

For six, seven, and sometimes eight weeks the church mulls this question over in their collective minds along with everyone else in the story: who is this Jesus guy, who can do all of these things?

And then, on the last Sunday of the season (this coming Sunday), we arrive at the Transfiguration, where we get a definitive answer to this question we’ve been asking over and over again.

And the whole scene happens on top of a mountain, that place where God has throughout scripture been revealed (think of Sinai and Moses), which is an indication to the reader/hearer that they should pay attention because something cool is going to happen.

Wait. Let me back up. Read it first by clicking here.  Then we can continue.

Ok, so we have this scene where Jesus, like some model in a Tide commercial, appears in glowing bleached robes flanked by Moses and Elijah, and only the “inner circle” of Jesus’ disciples are able to witness it.cMQy4xY8_400x400

What does this all mean?

Well, on the one hand we have Moses, the Law-giver.  On the other hand we have Elijah, the Prophet supreme.  And in the middle we have Jesus, dressed in new robes (which early Christians would have seen as a baptismal robe), between the two.

And the staging in this scene is no accident! Because Jesus, sandwiched between the law-giver and the prophet, will be the bridge for the mindful Jewish reader/hearer, the early Christian, between God’s holiness and God’s righteousness, the law and the prophets. Jesus stands are the perfecter of the law and the one the prophets pointed to.

Or, as we might say today, Jesus stands as God’s Son, the one you’ve been waiting for to make things right in this world.

So now, after weeks of asking the question (along with everyone else in the story), the Gospels have included us in Jesus’ inner circle and we get a revelation of just who Jesus is…if there was any doubt in your mind.

And notice what the reaction of the disciples is: they are afraid.  Terrified.

And I don’t think they’re afraid because of what they’re seeing, although the scene was probably surprising.

I think they’re terrified because of what it means.

It means things are actually going to have to change.  It means that God does keep God’s promises, which is a kind of love that they’re just not accustomed to (and neither are you, Beloved).  It means that sins can be forgiven, that the lowly can be blessed, that the powerful are actually weak and the weak are actually full of power.

It means that the law is perfected in Jesus and that the prophets were right all along.

And that is terrifying…it is always terrifying when it hits home that things actually have to change.

So the church year forces us to ask this question over and over again for a number of weeks, and then provides us with an answer.  And then where do we go?

We go headfirst into Lent, the season of wilderness wandering, which is exactly where Jesus went after he first truly learned definitively who he was.

He had to figure out just what he was going to do with that information.  Would he be tempted to use it for worldly glory, domination, and power?  Would Jesus side with the oppressor against the oppressed, demand everyone be subjects of his will, and prove his power through feats of strength?

Or would he, at the terrifying call of God, give it all up for the sake of God’s children?

And that’s what Lent causes us to ponder, too. Because we have to wrestle a bit, Beloved.  And we need to do so every year, on the calendar.

Because Christianity has not always done this whole “being Christian” thing very well.  The church has sometimes been the tomb where the dead body of Christ was laid instead of embodying the alive body of Christ.

And it fails to be Christ for the world when it fails to wrestle with what it will do with the revelation of who Jesus is. The church becomes a tomb when it sides with oppressors over the oppressed, demands subjugation over freedom, and tries through feats of strength to force itself upon the world.

And we as individual Christians fail to be Christ when we fail to wrestle, too, and just give in to glory, domination, and power. Too often the good news of who Christ is dies within us, too.

But there is a different way.  We need a spiritual housecleaning, making space to wrestle with it all.  That’s what an observed Lent will do for us.

The church year invites us this weekend to catch a glimpse of who Jesus is and then calls us to enter into a wilderness wandering where we’ll have to wrestle with what we’ll do with the information.

So…what will we do? Will we give in to the terrifying change, the spiritual wrestling that Christ through the church year calls us to?

What will you do?

On Getting Your Voice Back

<Feel free to listen along.  You can do so by clicking here.  The whole sermon is about voice, after all.>

Are you ready?

mic[Jesus and his disciples] went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught.22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

On Getting Your Voice Back

OK, here’s how this is going to work. I’m going to pray and then, when I’m done with the prayer, you’re going to say “Amen,” deal?

Pray with me:

Silence those things in us that need silencing, God.

Heal the things in us that need healing.

Enliven that voice that you’ve given us to speak a word of truth.

And give us the courage to speak it today.

Amen.

There are some Sundays where we have so much going on, where God is speaking in so many different ways, that the sermon, by necessity, needs to be shorter.

This is one of those days.  Yes, I see the look of relief on your faces and the feigned disappointment.  Here’s the thing: I’ll make it short if you promise not to read the bulletin, deal?

I’m harping on speaking, on responses today, because this Gospel text we’ve been gifted with is all about voice, your voice, our voice, and getting our voice back when it’s been stolen away.

Jesus shows up on the scene, and last week we saw him as the one who steals your agenda and introduces you to a Godly agenda.  But this week instead of stealing something, we find Jesus giving something back.

See, this tortured man who had an unclean spirit in him…and what that means, we’re not quite sure.  In a world of psychology, in a world where we understand so much more about human biology, sometimes it’s difficult to discern just what scene we’re being presented with.

But this tortured man has this unclean spirit in him who says to Jesus, “What will you have with us, Jesus?!” to which Jesus, in his actions, replies, “A lot.” And he casts it out of him.

And what I want to hone in on is the reality that, as long as this unclean spirit was in this individual, the individual effectively had no voice.

There was this other power holding sway in his life, and it apparently spoke for him in so many ways, and in his first act of healing Jesus shows an amazing thing: he’s all about giving people their God-given voice back.

And it brought me to reflect on the many many ways that voices are stolen in this world, Beloved.

I mean, think of the #metoo movement, and what a voice is being given back to victims of sexual assault.  I have to think that their God-given voice that says “This is my body, not your property, not your poker chip,” is being raised up as the unclean spirit of sexual predation is being exorcised from the room.

Think of all the ways that religion takes people’s voices.  It quiets questions too often.  It hides and conceals abuse.  It tells spouses to stay with their partners amidst the bruises and the beatings: physical, emotional, psychological.  It tries to out-yell science to the detriment of human flourishing.  Sometimes I feel like part of my ministry is saving people from “being saved,” because the Jesus they’ve been introduced to sounds too much like a 1950’s televangelist and not enough like the radical, mystical, street wanderer of the ancient world.

Think of the ways we silence the voices of the oppressed and the margins.  It is not for no reason that the Voting Rights Act came into being.  We forget our history too often.

Or we harken back to our history too often, longing for the days of yore, silencing the voices of the prophets that scream for progress.

Abuse takes our voice.

Neglect takes our voice.

Fear takes our voice.

Prejudice takes the voices of people on the margins.

Racism takes the voices of people in the minority.

And if we’re being totally honest people, stairs…a simple thing like a flight of stairs…can silence the voice of the one who can’t use their legs.

It is easy to view stairs as helpful when your knees work.  But when they don’t, well, your voice can’t get in the upper room…

Mental illness can take our voice.  The voices that encourage us to hurt ourselves can sometimes be so loud we’ll do anything, including that, to silence them.

That is not your voice, Beloved.

And little Avery today.  My sister: you are being baptized in the waters of a faith that, at it’s best, will remind you of God’s voice to work for justice and peace in this world where the voice of fame and fortune and prejudice will yell at you to follow other things.  Be strong, sister!

God gives you today wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and might, a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord, a spirit of joy…the world will try to silence that voice…

But the God seen in Jesus is the one who gives the voice back to the voiceless.

In the Jesus story we hear that even the booming voice of death doesn’t have the last word in life.  The empty tomb wasn’t silent that resurrection morning.  Instead it told the story of a God who loves you enough to go through hell and back.

Loves you enough to claim you as a child.

Loves you enough to say, unequivocally, that those other voices, those other demons, that try to speak for you cannot and will not define you in the presence of Jesus.

Who loves you enough to give you your voice back when those things have taken it away.

Today Jesus invites us to witness this wonderful event of the man with an unclean spirit getting his voice back.  He tells that screaming demon to be silent in the face of the truth that God is on the scene in the world, which means that voices of evil and oppression have nothing worthwhile to say.

Today Jesus gives you your voice back.  Whatever has taken it: abuse, neglect, prejudice, racism, fear, phobia, your #metoo moment, whatever it is, today it is given back to you, by God.

And at that all of God’s people can say Amen!

 

 

The One Where Jesus Yells

<Sermons are meant to be heard…and yelled.  Listen along here.>

Mark 1:14-20

Are you ready?

26231050_10100626086988859_7224312371467653480_n14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
16As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

The One Where Jesus Yells

Pray with me:

We fish for so many things Lord

Money and power and compliments

We have a need to be correct

We have a need to be needed

Remind us of your fishing purposes Lord

Catch us again today

And we will be your people

Amen.

Good morning!

It’s good to be back with you after the see-saw reality I’ve been living through this last week.  The warmth of the people and the sun in Nicaragua was met nicely by a warm welcome back by the people here in the states, but the sun decided to stay in Nicaragua…

More on what I was doing down there later this year.  It was wonderful and beautiful and profound.  Nica culture suits me just fine in many ways.  They drink their coffee strong and with lots of sugar.  They add the suffix “ish” to every meeting time…”We’ll start at 3ish,” they might say about an afternoon gathering.  The “ish” stands for “within two hours.”  No lie, our 2pm departure festival started at 4:00, with people slowly gathering over the next two hours.  The party doesn’t start until everyone arrives…and so often we labor under the idea here that the party starts at 2, so everyone arrive.  This, surely, would drive most of you nuts.

When we were out in the campo, or the mountains of Nicaragua, installing water filters into homes…more on that another day…we came to the home of the oldest inhabitant of Nacascolo.  Her name is Sylvia, and at 87 she is well past the normal life expectancy of the hard-living mountain Nica people.

She’s significant for many reasons, not the least of which because she is the person who donated the land that the health-center sits upon.  When the small group of us who were installing the filter in her daughter Estrella’s house thanked for her for legacy, a voice came from the hunched, frail body that could no longer stand, and who had tumors covering her arms and legs, “We should not pretend,” she said, “that we own any farms on this earth. Our only farm is in heaven.”

The land, it seems, was never hers anyway…at least not in her estimation.  She just gave to the community what was theirs.

That moment my breath and my soul were stolen away.  Like the poem in your bulletin:

Every evening it’s the same:  Put the key in the deadbolt, turn and lock:  Check the windows; put out the dog; leave a light on…

All these routines to feel safe and fall asleep in peace.

But some night in the midst of my security, you will tip-toe into the house:  rearranging the furniture so I will stub my soul when I burst out of my cocooned rest.

Cracking the combination of my heart you ransack all my fears and stuff them into your pocket.  Then softly whistling “come, thou long-expected Jesus” you slip out leaving the door standing wide open that I might follow you into the kingdom. 

Come, Lord Jesus!

How much of our time and energy is spent keeping our things safe?  And here, from a proud, strong Nica elder covered in blankets in the midday heat because she just can’t seem to get warm, I hear the deep truth: we are not meant to live safely, Beloved.  None of it is ours anyway.

Without a bit of romanticism I tell you that Jesus showed up in that moment whistling a tune we all recognized deep in our bones, but didn’t want to hear, especially us Gringos what with our over-packed roller bags totally unsuited for the mountains of Nicaragua…

Because we like our things, we like our ways, we like thinking we have the freedom to do whatever we want in this world, to own whatever we want in this world, and to own as much as we want of everything.  We even like thinking that our culture is the best and right culture; that what we have is the best.

But for the Jesus follower, none of that is actually true, and that day Jesus tip-toed through that little room with mud walls and dirt floors and stubbed our souls…

See, Sylvia could have put all sorts of demands upon the land.  She could have demanded all sorts of strings be attached, all sorts of plaques be nailed to the walls.  She could have asked for naming rights or a supervisory role.  Do you know how many plaques have anchored things to churches?  In my previous congregation we had a little chapel that was about has hostile to someone with mobility issues as any chapel could be, and the space could have been used so much better as a different type of room…

But there were plaques on the pews, so Lord knows we couldn’t touch them.  Even though the people were long dead and their families no longer came to the church, what if they came back one day?  From the dead?!

But instead, with little fanfare, she saw that her people needed a medical center, and she had land that wasn’t hers anyway, and so the dirt was the community’s to be used by the community.  And they could have it.

And what of your dirt, Beloved?

I mentioned this in my Friday Faith Prints this week, but this little Gospel scene we’re gifted with this morning is a little misleading.  You may get the impression that Jesus was just lazily strolling along, sees these fisherpeople and calls out, “Hey!  Hey, you there!  Interested in a new job?”

But the Greek here is in the imperative form, which means that Jesus wasn’t asking them to follow him, he was yelling at them to do so.  Screaming, even.  He was rearranging the furniture of their soul.  They went to sleep the night before with their future locked up tight, with their role secure, their profession known, and then Jesus comes through and kicks over the tables of their hearts and commands a new direction, a new realization, a new reality.

You know, in these Sundays between Christmas and the start of Lent, the focus of all of the Gospel readings are on revealing who Jesus is.  The star tells us he’s the one that welcomes the foreigner.  His baptism proclaims him as the savior of the people.  Last week we learned that he’s the one who has a suspect background but knows us intimately.

And this week?  Jesus, like a thief in the night, will take our agendas, take our long-held and long-defended beliefs, our professional sensibilities, our schemes, and rearrange it all in an instant, with simple phrases like:

“Follow me.”

“I will make you fish for people.”

And even,

“We should not pretend to own any farm here on earth. Our only farm is in heaven.”

Didn’t think Jesus would show up as an old woman in the mountains of Nicaragua, did you? That makes two of us…

And Jesus yells all of this because he knows we like to follow the political news to reinforce our beliefs, that we like to fish for compliments and money and promotions, and that we love to own things and believe we can own as much as we want and it doesn’t affect our very beings.

He yells it because it’s hard to hear in this world through all the stuff banging around in our heads and hearts from the never-ending news cycle, the non-stop onslaught of advertisements, and the nearly-constant refrain that proclaims a different news, definitely not good, that we are defined by who we know, what we do, how much we own, and how much is in the bank.

But Jesus proclaims a good news that says that in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ we are defined by a God who will go through hell, literally, to show us that our routines of safety, our things, our agendas and schemes, aren’t necessary in a world governed by God’s love.

As the prolific pastor of Riverside Church in New York City, William Sloane Coffin, so rightly proclaimed, “Love is not powerless, but it seeks to empower, not overpower.”

So all those things that we’ve designed to overpower the feelings of inadequacy inside of us, all of those titles and promotions we’ve sought out to overpower others around us, all of those snide comments we’ve made to overpower the terrible things we think about ourselves, our bank accounts we use to overpower the feelings of fear that we won’t have enough, all of that will never do what we want it to.  You no longer have to fear fear, Beloved.

Instead we must, as Jesus will with his life, death and resurrection, as Sylvia has in her gift, empower.  Empower the people around us, by God.  Empower the lowly to be proud and the proud to be humble.  Empower the rich to give of their riches and the poor to share from their poverty.  Empower the lost and forsaken to claim their worth, and empower those who think they’re on top to take their rightful place standing with those at the bottom.

Because in God’s economy of love Jesus comes as a thief in the night to take away titles, to kick our possessions and professions out of our hands and hearts, and reorient our very lives from fishing for security to being caught in the freeing love of a Christ who reminds us that in this life nothing: not things, not land, not even death, has a firm grasp on us.

So we can let it all go.

Today Jesus yells at us to follow him. Not follow fear, not fish for fame, not fish for fortune, not follow our agendas, but the Godly path of love. In that room where Sylvia’s voice was barely above a whisper, I heard the same sort of yelling as my soul was kicked around.

So here’s the question of the day: Do you hear it?

On Calling Some Things Inside Us to be Silent

DSC06333-1“What do you think about demons?” he asked me.

Honestly, I was just trying to drink coffee.  I was not trying to get into a theological debate and dissect demonology with someone I didn’t know.

But the question hung in the air…”What do you think about demons?”

Honestly, I don’t know what to think about demons.  Giving evil too much power and say in the world is dangerous, especially if you believe, as Christians do, that every Sunday we celebrate the “feast of victory of our Lord” rendering anything other than love and wholeness ultimately impotent in the face of a God who won’t even let death have the final say in this existence.

And yet, well, I’ve seen evil.  I know evil systems, and have even heard evil within myself in times when my shadow-self took the wheel.

A friend of mine named her depression.  It told her terrible things, untrue things, and she needed to name it so she could say, “Knock it off, Deidre” when it got out of hand.

The man I met in Colorado, Wit, who I’ve spoken of in sermons and written about.  He was certainly wrestling with something evil inside of him that told him to count his ribs every morning…and still that wasn’t enough.  Every bone needed to be seen through that thin skin he wore like an over-sized trench coat.

Do I think there are demons trying to infect people like viruses?  I can’t say that’s in my worldview.  My friend and colleague in Papua New Guinea is currently on a crusade to save that country from outdated belief systems that include witches, because they end up killing young girls, accusing them of being demons and spreading disease.

That’s an example of how careless talk about demons/devils can lead to terrible atrocities.

And yet I know evil is real, and it feels like evil sometimes has legs: running from, dodging, avoiding, escaping…

This Sunday’s Gospel lesson has Jesus being revealed as a powerful teacher, one who can even cast out demons.

It’s Mark 1:21-28, by the way.  Go ahead and read it before you go on…it won’t take long.

Jesus calls this unclean spirit inside the man to be silent.  Silent in the face of holy truth.  And he casts it out.

Now, I don’t know how the ancient world saw mental illness past the reality that they didn’t know what that is.  Are these healing stories Jesus healing people with mental illness?  Maybe.  That is certainly one way to think about it.

But I want us to be very careful here, and I want to be very clear: mental illness is not evil.

It is frustrating and it lies to us, but people who live with mental illness are not evil.

In some ways we all deal with some sort of mental illness, something the church has to get better at talking about because so many of us feel alone in our depression, our anxiety, our disorders.

You are not alone, Beloved.

Our plastic brains and hormone cocktails will sometimes work against our health and well-being, but that doesn’t make us evil…just not whole yet, not well.

And really, in this life, none of us are wholly whole.

But sometimes those chemicals in our brains will tell us to participate in evil systems and do harmful things: like hurt ourselves, withhold food or binge on food, put a gun to our head, or hurt others.

That certainly counteracts God’s good intention for ourselves, our bodies, and our world.

I looked at the man and said, “I’ve wrestled with evil before.  That doesn’t answer your question in full, but that’s as much power as I’m willing to give the topic.”

The Lutheran Church does have a rite of exorcism.  I’ve never been called on to do it, at least not privately, but every Sunday there is a baptism we do it publicly…you just don’t realize it.

Every time we renounce “the ways that draw us from God,” and renounce “the devil and all empty promises,” we do a mini-exorcism on all the ways those systems of evil are at work in our bodies, our community, and our world.

After all, that’s what evil regularly offers us: empty promises.

Empty promises like:

“Food will comfort you in the way you need to be comforted, promise.”

“I promise being thin will make you who you’re meant to be…and you’re not there yet,.”

“They’re better off without you, promise.”

“I promise, no one will miss you.”

“Black and brown people aren’t trustworthy…promise.”

“No one loves you. Promise.”

“You don’t have a drug problem. Promise.”

“You don’t have a sex problem. Promise.”

“You’re really not good at life…promise.”

“Gay people are perverts…promise.”

Those are lies. Lies that create systems that oppress and wound and keep people from being whole in God.

We renounce all these empty promises on Sunday, and instead rely on the full promises of a God who is the All in All, the comforter of those who sorrow, the healer of the sick, the one who makes us whole, the bridge over the gap worn between factions of humanity.  A God who loves us as we are…sick, well, or somewhere in between.

I may not know what to think about demons, but I know enough about God to know that there is more goodness in God’s world than there is evil…evil often just has a better marketing strategy.  As Desmond Tutu so rightly said, “Goodness is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate.”

So, Beloved, wherever you are where you’re reading this, do a small renunciation.  Renounce those empty promises echoing in your own life. Call them to be silent in the face of the holy truth of God’s love! Renounce the forces that defy God in this world.  Call them to be silent! Silent in the face of the holy truth of God’s goodness!

Look to love and goodness and know that when Jesus casts out the unclean spirit in this Sunday’s texts, we as a church invite all other unclean spirits to get out of town with it.

See you in church.

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P.S. A great book on this is Reviving Old Scratch by Richard Beck. In fact, maybe we’ll read this book together sometime…