kindred

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The 10 Commandments - Trading Shame for Empathy

This Week’s Sacred Story comes from Deuteronomy 5:1-21; 6:4-9, in which God reminds the people how far they’ve come, and gives them 10 Best Ways (10 Commandments) for life together. But it all points to love and promise.

art by Jim LePage

art by Jim LePage

“The Lord OUR God made a covenant with US at Horeb. Not with our ancestors did the Lord make this covenant, but with US, who are all of us HERE alive today. The Lord spoke with YOU face to face.” It seems incredibly important to the writer to convey that these verses known to us as the Ten Commandments, sometimes referred to as part of “The Law,” are more than ancient artifacts of faith. Over and over, it is emphasized that this Covenant is made between US; it is present and active and not confined to long-gone history, not defunct. Neither are these Old Testament commands cancelled out because of New Testament Jesus. A “Testament” is just another word for Covenant after all, and so it flows (albeit in different ways) throughout the witness of scripture and time. Jesus said that the role of Christ was not to cancel but fulfill the Law. and so the author of this sacred story invites us in; reminds us that this story is not just back then, it is also now.

I wonder which of these commandments seems easiest for you to keep…

I wonder which of these commandments seems hardest for you to keep...

There are times I’ve kind of figured that the 6th commandment is like the free space in bingo. I can probably just go ahead and credit myself for obeying this one commandment because while I get the occasional flare-up of rage, I probably wouldn’t take it to a violent murderous extreme and actually murder someone. It seems relatively easy to obey. But before I prematurely pat myself on the back, I am reminded of what Martin Luther wrote about the commandments. When explaining what this commandment means, Luther writes that “We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in their body, but help and support him in every physical need.” He articulates that our treatment of neighbor is an extension of our relationship with God. 

In the same breath that we are challenged to live into holy communion, we are first reminded of all the unearned generosity we have received. We are reminded that God has done far more than the bare minimum for us. We are created and called to be more than a bare minimum people - not only for our own sake, but for the sake of our neighbor and indeed all of creation. The commandments aren’t about us as much as they are about our relationships, empowering us to experience love, to give and receive love in community.  Luther understood this commandment to say that it’s not enough to just not murder, but to seek the well-being, wholeness, and livelihood of others.

As I recall that this sacred story is not just back then, it is also now...I am drawn to the words and ideas of Ibram Kendi, a black author and historian who proclaims that it’s not enough to simply not be racist, but that we must be anti-racist. The problem, he says with being “not racist” is that “it is a claim that signifies neutrality: ‘I am not a racist, but neither am I aggressively against racism.’ ”He adds: “One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist.” Perhaps this is what the 6th commandment sounds like in the United States in 2019. 

As I see my newsfeeds flooded primarily with accolades and awe for the brother of Botham Jean, a black man who was murdered while eating ice cream on the couch in his own home. Viral videos and commentators hail his young brother, Brandt, for speaking forgiveness and offering a hug to his family’s white murderer after her conviction and sentencing.  Meanwhile, there is little attention paid to the mother of the slain who does not rebuke the actions of her son and yet still cries out for unmet justice. Each response is valid and holy and complicated, but we are quick to uplift the one that best serves the status quo. I wonder if this is the 2019 incarnation of what it is to bear false witness against our neighbors, against our siblings of color who are not a monolith of experience that fits into a tidy rose-tinted headline, telling only the pieces of the narrative that we like or that don’t make us look or feel too bad. But we, especially white folks like myself, have an obligation to listen to the fullness of the pain and defiant hope which are often bound together in American blackness. To listen and not rebrand or correct the voices of oppression to better suit our liking. In a wider frame, perhaps this sacred command from back then, would also sound like not retweeting memes and articles that perpetuate false information or deny the dignity of another. 

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Moses reminds the people of God’s commandments in a sort of “farewell sermon.”  These are the statutes and ordinances they must learn and observe. On one hand they certainly fit into the category of Law, obligation, duty, requirement.  And yet, they are something more. In Godly Play these 10 ordinances are called the 10 Best Ways. They offer a way of life that is more than a list of rules, it is also a gift - a token of love from God who promises to show steadfast love to the thousandth generation!  A god who doesn’t just say, “well, I got you out of Egypt, best of luck to you.” No! Instead, God says, “look at how far we’ve come together! Now we’re here, and this is how we’re all gonna continue on...together”

I want to read you a short section of chapter 6 that the lectionary skips over, but one that I think is crucial to our really getting this.  Here are verses 1 - 3 :

“Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that the Lord your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, 2SO THAT you and your children and your children’s children may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, SO THAT your days may be long. 3Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, SO THAT it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.”

Those three verses are crucial for our understanding this covenant of relationship, this law as gift, SO THAT now we can hear the last  few verses in their fullness:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. 5You shall love theLORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.8Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Yes, the commandments set expectations and call us to accountability….. and they do so in community, in relationship - they are all about cultivating relationships, relationships marked by respect and love, trust and thoughtfulness. When we start to look at it this way, this opens up a new way to view and understand law.  It’s not just rules and regulations, that we have to interpret as stringent, shaming. So what’s the opposite of shame? Brene Brown, a professor at U of H, says that the opposite of shame is empathy. Rather than judgment (which exacerbates shame), empathy conveys a simple acknowledgment, “You’re not alone.” Empathy is connection; it’s a ladder out of the shame spiral.The commandments are the structure that enables freedom, love, community.  SO THAT now we can see that this way of life as a beautiful gift - not as an impossible unattainable measuring stick, but an anchor that brings us back to our center, to the covenantal promise of what life in God is to be when all is set right.

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Moses is addressing the next generation, and they’re being asked to take up the enduring saving story of God’s people.  And actually, this book of Deuteronomy is being written to generations later, living in exile, remembering the story and invited to take their place in this enduring story. The Word also addresses us, as we continue to share this sacred story now - in this place and time, among each other.  Despite the years between us, the sacred story continues. And so I wonder, what does it sound like today?

These commandments, this way of life, this relationship, this love - I don’t think it’s something we magically “get” because the preacher tells us so. It involves the community bearing them out over the years together.  It bears repeating - reminding each other of this covenant, of God’s love. We need to hear them again and again. We need to say them over and over. We learn them, know them, internalize them both by hearing them and by speaking them and by living them.  Teaching our children not only passes on the faith to another generation, but helps grown-ups articulate their own faith too. Between the busyness of meetings, deadlines, soccer practice and even the sometimes-exhaustive nature of relationship we need to hear of the gift of sabbath, of rest. As we’re inundated with ads that try and convince that we need one more thing to be happy and whole, we need the reminder that we are not reduced and resigned to the endless cycle of coveting.  Recite them when you are at home, and while you’re out and about; keep them in your heart wherever you go. When we know our story, God’s story, and we are able to consider our days in light of this story, we begin to see how the story grows larger - God’s promises extend farther, the tent grows wider, and the love given to us is far deeper and more profound, more transformative than we can recognize at the surface. Thanks be to God.

God Calls Moses - Exodus 1-3


This week’s sacred story comes from the book of Exodus where the story of God’s people continues in the land of Egypt. Under a horribly oppressive ruler, God calls Moses to lead the Israelite people out of slavery and into the promised land.

Grace and peace to you from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob - the God who draws us out of the water and claims us as their own. Amen.

The story of Moses and the Israelites’ journey out of Egypt is perhaps one of the most well-known stories of the Hebrew Bible. One of the remarkable things about this story is that it is known by biblical scholars and the unchurched alike. And maybe people don’t know this exact story with these exact people, but they KNOW this story in a way that goes deeper than simple knowledge of characters.

So many people know this story because it’s not just a story from the bible - It’s a story found throughout all of humankind - manifested within every generation.

Today’s sacred story is the story of an oppressed people under the ruthless leadership of a new king who doesn’t know them or their history but has a very clear idea of what their future will look like in service to his own agenda.

And of course, some people know this story better than others because they carry it with them in the form of generational trauma. Trauma passed down from their family members who were forced into slavery and brought to the colonized areas of North America. Generation after generation re-lived this old ancient story as a people whose history was disregarded and future re-written, not of their own accord, but out of the greed of colonialism and white supremacy.


Yeah. 


People KNOW this story.


And yet here we are today, engaging with this story again. We lean into this familiar story and we wonder together where God is at work and how our lives today intersect with this old old story.


A lot has happened in the story of God’s people since last week when we encountered the story of Jacob who wrestled with God. Jacob went on to have a rich life with 12 sons, one of who was named Joseph. There was some drama among the brothers - it must run in the family, I guess... - and Joseph was eventually sold into slavery. God went with Joseph though, and eventually Joseph found favor with Pharoah, and when an extreme drought came over the land of Egypt, it was Joseph who had the wisdom and knowledge to not only save his brothers and father but all of Egypt. Joseph became extremely well regarded in Egypt and had much influence with the kings. 


The beginning of our sacred story todays lets us know that the new king and ruler of Egypt did not know Joseph. He did not know the work of Joseph in that land for the people of Egypt, and did not understand the history of famine and struggle that the Hebrew people - the descendents of Jacob, now named Israel - had endured. This new ruler came to power with no knowledge of the Israelites. Only fear that they were bigger and stronger than he. This new king feared that the Israelites might one day come to know their strength and power and remove him from the throne. And so he acted mercilessly and ruthlessly to try and rid the Israelites of their strength and spirit. He worked them to death. He denied them access to reproductive healthcare services in hopes that their reproducing would slow down or that their unborn babies wouldn’t survive the messy trauma of childbirth. At one point he even instructed trained midwives to kill all male children born to a Hebrew family.

And yet...the Hebrew people remained.

It’s in the midst of all these attempts to squash out life that Moses is born. Thanks to the work of disobedient midwives who remained faithful to their true authority - the LORD - Moses survived his own birth, and then his mother, in act of desperate courage set him on the banks of the Nile River where he was sure to be found, by the right people.


Moses’ sister kept watch over her infant brother and when she saw Pharoh’s daughter pick the baby up she was there to ever so casually say: “oh...that looks like one the Hebrew’s baby’s...let ME go get a nurse for it, but then you can take him in as your own. You know...add to the royal family and such!”


Thanks be to God for the clever women in this story and throughout history who have worked to ensure the safety and prosperity of others.

And so Moses is raised in the house of Pharoh as a member of the royal Egyptian family. Moses never forgets his Hebrew identity though. At the peak of the Israelites oppression, Moses kills an Egyptian who was beating one of the enslaved Hebrew people, and fearing retaliation from Pharoh, Moses fled from Egypt and found a nice quiet life as a shepherd in a place called Midian.


Now I think we can all relate to this part of the story too. Isn’t it part of the quintessential American Dream to retire out in the country with a few sheep or dogs or horses and rest from years of work and sacrifice at a relentlessly stressful job?


I think Moses did an alright thing taking time to rest and hide out from people who more than likely wanted him dead. Seems fair.

But God wasn’t done with Moses yet.

 

A burning bush, of all things, appears near Mount Horeb where Moses had led his flock, and Moses is visited by an angel of the Lord in one of the flames. It's about that time that Moses realizes something pretty significant is happening and he turns to come closer to the bush. God calls to Moses from the bush and says: Come no closer! Remove your sandals! You’re on Holy Ground. What happens next is arguably one of the most significant exchanges in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. God says: I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. This is not just God identifying Godself in a six degrees of separation demonstration. This is God establishing for Moses the history of trust and relationship between God and God’s people from the beginning of time, and assuring Moses of the faithfulness still to come between God and God’s people.


God names the pain and suffering of the Israelites and then says: Moses, you are going to go back to the land of Egypt and liberate your people from under the hand of Pharoh. You will bring them out of oppression and into a land flowing with milk and honey where they will continue to prosper for the rest of their days.


And Moses: Oh, OKAY. Yeah, let me just go back to this place where people are actively looking to kill me, and tell all these other people who probably resent me for living as a member of the royal family when they knew I was born of their same bloodline, that I’ve come back to RESCUE THEM. Sure. That’ll go over great.


And God says: I know. It’s a lot. But I will be with you. And when they ask who has sent you to rescue them, you tell them that “I AM” has sent you, the God of their ancestors. The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob has sent you, Moses, to liberate the oppressed peoples.


And y’all that really is how it be sometimes!


The God of our ancestors, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob calls us out into the world to do things that sometimes we can’t even imagine. And over and over again God has called God’s people to stand in solidarity with the oppressed, to feed the hungry, help the poor, and love our neighbor. This is the story of our people and the story of our God who draws us out of the waters of our Baptism and calls US beloved and equips us for the work of liberating ourselves and one another from the oppressors of the world who tell us we aren’t enough or try to keep us down for fear of disrupting their status quo.


And here at +KINDRED we’re in the process of discernment through community meetings to help us create a rule of life for our ministry together. We’re discerning our shared vision and understanding of the identity of +KINDRED and +KINDRED’s ministry. In that work too is the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, calling us to faithfulness in our work with each other and in the city of Houston, calling us to be in solidarity with the oppressed and the marginalized because the table isn’t complete until we’re ALL there.


God calls us, and we answer knowing that “I AM” goes with us through it all.  


Jacob Wrestles

Genesis 32:9-13, 22-30

9 And Jacob said, "O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, 'Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good,' 10 I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies. 11 Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children. 12 Yet you have said, 'I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number.'" 13 So he spent that night there.

22 The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, "Let me go, for the day is breaking." But Jacob said, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." 27 So he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob." 28 Then the man said, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed." 29 Then Jacob asked him, "Please tell me your name." But he said, "Why is it that you ask my name?" And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved."

The Bible is not a series of disconnected stories.  It is a single narrative in which every story and every character points beyond itself to one who is greater. That’s why we engage the old old old story. Because there is a true and better Abraham and Sarah who and who wandered into wilderness, who turns weeping into laughter and creates a family that outnumbers the stars and even our imaginations. They had a son named Issac and then Issac and Rebekah have twins, Essau and Jacob that point beyond themselves to a true and better promise that pervades our darkest hours. 

Before they were even born, Rebekah could feel her sons wrestling, struggling, divided against one another in her womb. From the moment they were born, Jacob came out grabbing on to his older brother’s heel. His name Jacob actually means “he takes by the heel” reflecting both determination and perhaps even underhandedness, one who takes advantage of the vulnerability of another. And he lives into this name throughout his life. Once, when Esau came in from the field and was famished, he asked Jacob for something to eat. Jacob says, “give me your birthright first.” To which Essau replies, “are you kidding me right now? I’m starving. Who cares about birthrights?” And Jacob is like “swear it.” So Essau’s like “sure sure, whatever. Literally, where is the food?” Jacob gets the food but the damage is done and the resentment between the brothers beings to grow. Then! THEN! As old Issac lays on his deathbed and can’t really see anymore, he asks Esau to go out and hunt him up a hearty last supper. While Esau is out, Rebekah and Jacob get Jacob all dressed up in animal skins so that he smells and feels like his hairy older brother So he goes into his father’s room, and tricks him into giving Esau’s rightful blessing to Jacob. Essau comes in the room immediately after Jacob has left, he and his dad figure out what’s happened...and Esau is livid. Because now Jacob has the birthright (which means all the inheritance of land and herds and servants, etc.) and NOW he also has the blessing (which means the title of Lord and the position of power over the family). So Esau doesn’t just resent his brother anymore, he promises to destroy him. So if you didn’t already know the Bible is a soap opera, now you know. 

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After a significant time of separation, God is calling Jacob “back to his home country and his kindred.” This idea of kin-ship understands families as an expansive network.  They are more than our particular households, more than a blood relation we can trace. They are our larger people, the communities in which we are deeply known, for better or worse. Even in the Bible, families can be hard, relationships harmful and broken. Fear and distance can take the place where we once had trust, connection and even affection.

While Jacob prepares to re-engage the part of his family he knows is a broken mess (that...last he heard...had vowed to kill him)...while he struggles with HOW to prepare for such a reunion...he finds himself alone in the wilderness at night. A stranger appears and begins to physically wrestle with him in the darkness. Identities remain unclear. The language of the text reflects the confusion, making it difficult to decipher who is who in the scuffle. For a time they are essentially a cloud of dust and swirling humanity. The whole thing is more than a little mysterious.

And sometimes...it be like that. Life with God certainly is not free of struggle. Sometimes we create it for ourselves, sometimes it is thrust upon us. But it doesn’t go away just because God has promised us blessing. And neither does life with God mean rolling over or becoming a shell of who God has created us to be. Like Jacob, I think we can often find ourselves in the midst of struggle and wrestling and not immediately recognize that while we are wrestling with relationships, with life challenges and changes, ...we may also be wrestling with God at the same time. Where is God? why would God allow this? Is God really gonna bless this punk because of his persistent aggression? Who tricks his way to blessing? What does God want out of this? Out of me? These questions still come up for me every time there’s a transition in my life, but also when there’s a tragedy like the flooding this past week, or the fire at a friend’s church this past Friday. And it makes me remember all the times I’ve asked these questions and wrestled with them in the past. And they’re not bad questions to ask at all. 

But here’s the thing about wrestling...even as it is a struggle, it’s not like boxing where you strike and retreat. In the act of wrestling, bodies are almost constantly intertwined, arms and legs are wrapped around each other. Even when there is a struggle, your bodies are connected and held together. I wonder if we have forgotten how to wrestle? Not just fight. To hold on to one another even as we struggle against one another.

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I find it curious that Jacob already has the birthright, already has his Father’s ultimate blessing.  He is already blessed. And yet, here with this mysterious stranger he demands blessing again. What’s this about?. Does he not believe the first blessing is enough? That it Is true? That it doesn’t count in some way because of his flaws? That would be some relatable stuff. I think we all struggle to believe we are already sufficiently blessed. But indeed we are, each one of us, no matter what. We are each known, named and claimed by God as blessed, as beloved.

There is tremendous power in this naming of it, in saying it out loud, even if our heart isn’t quite sure. There is resurrection power in naming our struggle, our identity, and belovedness - in refusing to keep it silent or hidden. There is resurrection power in being known, being seen in our wholeness - with our fears and our wounds and our hopes and our strength. Perhaps this is why we see so much emphasis on names and their changing in the Bible. Abram and Sarai have their names changed to Abraham and Sarah...when God establishes a covenant and a promise with them, not just years later when that promise blesses them with a child. Our own name as a church has changed from Grace to KINDRED. 

It reflects much more than a change in spelling or branding, and it doesn’t really change WHO we are, but a shift in HOW we are who we are. It doesn’t make the present more valuable than the past, but acts as a signpost - marking where we have been and where we are going. Here, Jacob’s name is changed to Israel . Jacob’s body is marked as he will forever walk with a limp after the hip wound of this struggle. His soul is marked as he is given a new name...Israel. And while Jacob means “he takes,” this new name Israel means “he strives.”  It doesn’t seem much different. It seems as though it’s not actually much of a change, but an affirmation of the heart of who he is and who he has always truly been. But perhaps this identity and this nature takes on a new outlook as it defines not just his personal being but that of a nation, of a people, of God’s people, of the relationship that is promised.

Perhaps the giving of this name reflects the nature of the relationship of the people of God, who are called Israel, as being partners in the wrestling. Perhaps this points toward a God that does not define Godself by domination and subjugation, but by gracious generosity. Our God is the God of Abraham and Issac and Jacob, of the one who laughs and the pain in the heel. Perhaps these people and these promises point us to a greater truth and promise of who God is and what kinds of people God can use and who God blesses and who God chooses to be in everlasting relationship with - the perfectly imperfect….you...them, the ones who you think couldn’t possibly be redeemed...us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Abraham and Sarah - God's Faithfulness

This week’s sacred story comes from Genesis 18 and 21, where Abraham and Sarah are promised a child, yet again. We engage this story that is perhaps all too familiar to some of us, and wonder together about God’s faithfulness even during times of doubt and fear.

I grew up in a very “God helps those who help themselves” kind of world surrounded by the quintessential faith communities one might expect to find in the southern portion of the Bible Belt. I grew up in an ELCA Lutheran church, but most of my formative years were spent with my friends in attendance at their southern baptist and non-denominational churches in town. These were the places I first learned about God’s unending faithfulness and promise to provide for me and my life.

...if I did all the right things and immediately repented the second I found myself living a life of sin.

I remember so vividly the palpable discomfort I felt when the call went out during worship to come forward if you felt that the Lord was calling you to ask him into your life and heart. 

Because the things was: I knew that God had already called me Beloved. I knew that I’d been baptized as an infant, and that I was already a child of God, and that there was NOTHING I could do that would make that go away.

And yet...the doubt crept in. What if all that wasn’t enough? What if because I hadn’t done this specific thing, made the specific decision and said the specific prayer, I wasn’t ready to REALLY be a Christian and receive the promises of God’s faithfulness? 


What if?

Doubt and fear are found in our sacred story today too.

Abraham and Sarah are one of the first few families we are introduced to in the Bible following the stories of Adam and Eve, Noah, and his family. The story of Abraham and Sarah is one full of trials and tribulations and at the same time great joy and triumph. Their story is so important to us as people of faith not because of their perfect behavior or faithfulness, but because they were REAL people with real doubts and struggles even in the midst of God’s plans and promises.

Today’s story finds Abraham and Sarah in the home they have made for themselves as Abraham is healing from the circumcision God instructed him and all his household to have. 

God has promised to make of Abraham many great nations, that Abraham’s descendants will be as numerous as the stars of the sky, and that he will be a great ancestor. All of this, in the structures of a covenant where both Abraham and God had things to uphold on each of their ends.

Abraham was 75 years old when God first made these promises. He was 75 years old and had not lived anywhere other than his hometown of Haran. And yet when the voice of God spoke and promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations, Abraham listened. Abraham listened and he and his wife Sarah left his father’s house as God instructed. They were faithful to the covenant God made with them.

In today’s sacred story, Abraham and Sarah are at 99 years old and there have been lots of bumps along the way. Abraham and Sarah both do things that don’t honor their relationship with one another, or their relationship with others. Abraham gives his wife Sarah to other men TWICE telling them she is his sister, in an effort to make his life simpler, and y’all that just feels all kind of messed up!

And yet BOTH TIMES God intervenes and returns Sarah safely to Abraham and tells them to continue on their way.

Just two chapters before today’s text, Sarah grows weary of waiting for God’s promise of children to be fulfilled and instructs her husband Abraham to conceive a child with one of their enslaved women, Hagar. This is clearly an abuse of power on both Sarah and Abraham’s part. Hagar’s position as a slave makes it next to impossible for her to say no the request and demands of Abraham and Sarah, her employers and the people whom she depends entirely on for survival.

In this demand from Sarah, several relationships are fractured and the wholeness that God desires for all people is shattered. Sarah messes up, big time.

And God sees the pain inflicted on Hagar and has compassion on her. He asks her to return back to Sarah and Abraham - something that I still struggle with - but promises too that Hagar will have offspring more numerous than she can count and a relationship of trust is re-established between Hagar and the Lord.

Fear and doubt crept in and caused Sarah and Abraham to act in reprehensible ways, and yet God continues to journey with them and in infinite grace and mercy, the covenantal relationships she established at the beginning of time, continue.

And so here we are in today’s text. Three visitors have arrived at Sarah and Abraham’s tent and the voice of the Lord speaks through them to Abraham at 99 years old. And as Sarah prepares bread and yogurt for them, she listens and hears the same promise spoken from these visitors that she and Abraham have been living and working towards for literal decades. And she GUFFAWS. She laughs with years of pent up frustration, doubt, anger, and bitterness. She laughs in the kind of way that you might when things are SO bad that it’s laughable. Maybe she laughs so she doesn’t cry.


She laughs and the Lord hears her.


God hears Sarah’s laughter and with it all of the fear and doubt from years of frustration.

But God does not punish Sarah for her doubt. God acknowledges it, and God at long last fulfills the covenant that Abraham and Sarah will have a child. And this child is named Isaac, which in Hebrew means laughter, or, he laughs.

“God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.”


Sarah’s bitter filled laughter is turned to a laughter of surprise at the unending faithfulness of God.

God’s faithfulness and grace can be like that sometimes. Shocking. Unexpected. And yet, there when we seem as though there is nothing else left to hope for.

Thanks be to God that God doesn’t always help those who help themselves, but brings us back into a right relationship with God even when we try to help ourselves.

And thanks be to God that even in our fear and doubt, we always remain God’s Beloved.

Thanks be to God that there is nothing we can ever do that will separate us from that love.


Amen.

The Sacred Art of Rest - Jubilee

This week’s sermon was given by Vicar Morgan.

Our sacred story comes from Leviticus 25, where God tells Moses how he and the Israelites should balance work and rest in their lives, and we hear of a great jubilee in which all debts are paid, accounts settled, and people restored to their homes/families/farms.

It’s really fitting that this is the text for our last Sunday in “The Sacred Art of Rest” sermon series because it is a text about what comes after the rhythmic pattern and cycle of work. And rest. And work. And rest.

And so here we are in our own kind of jubilee week! Over the last four weeks we have been talking about and living our own patterns of work and rest, and understanding how we are called to works of various kinds and types and that it IS good and holy to work, but that we are also called to REST. 

We are called to take a Sabbath from the work that we are called to, because is not only good for us but it is in fact holy and necessary for us to live into the abundant life God has created us for.

And in this text today, God talks about a great, extended rest for God’s people, the land, and all of Creation. God told the Israelites through Moses that the land should have a sabbath year after 6 years of sowing, planting, and harvesting. And then God said, once the land has gone through seven cycles of work and rest, there will be a year of jubilee. 

God says that in this year of Jubilee NO ONE will work on their land.

She says:

There will be no clearing of last year’s harvest, just let it be. 

There will be no planting of a new crop, just let it be. 

There will be no moving or selling of livestock, just let them be.

Let it be.

This idea of letting the land rest is still practiced in many areas of agriculture today. This past May I took a class in seminary on ministry in rural settings and we spent a week in South Central Nebraska learning from members of rural congregations who were either farmers themselves or came from a family of farmers. We learned about the day to day work of owning and running a farm, and about the kind of crops they grew. 


Many of the farmers owned dozens of acres of land spaced out over several blocks, and each block was about 4 square acres. They told us that each block of land was used, planted, and tilled differently depending on the kind of crop they were growing and how much product they needed to harvest in order to make a profit, or at least, break even. 

Some of them had “no till” fields which meant that once the field was harvested, all of the leftover...”stuff,” the stalks, leaves, husks, etc. were left where they lie, instead of being cleared away. We were told that this was meant to give the land a chance to rest and allow the soil to retain some of its natural nutrients and soak up whatever extra the decomposing plant matter of last season’s crop leaves behind.

These fields are getting a season of sabbath where they can rest from the usual rhythm of till, plant, and harvest.

And also, it’s important to remember that this is only done with some of the fields, not all. While one or two fields rest and enjoy a no-till season, the rest of the fields are maintaining their regular cycle of: 

Till.

Plant. 

Harvest.

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And this weekend many of us have a break from our normal cycles of rest, work, and play with the Labor Day holiday. We know that Labor Day was started in the late 1800’s as a way of recognizing the working people who made things function in the United States - well...the white working people at least. But this Labor Day weekend I’m mindful of all the people in the service industry especially, who don’t have the privilege of a day of. I’m thinking about the sex workers who don’t get a day off from working for their living, and the people working for the infrastructures of our city, state, and country who work tirelessly to keep power grids running during the heat of summer and transit routes open as people vacation and travel. And I’m thinking and wondering...when is their sabbath year? When is their jubilee?


I’m thinking about everyone re-traumatized by the news of the shootings yesterday in Midland and Odessa. I’m thinking about the people in El Paso who 4.5 hours away from the Home Depot in Midland are still frozen by fear, thinking “oh God, not again...” and I’m wondering WHEN IS THEIR SABBATH YEAR. WHEN IS THEIR JUBILEE.

Tracy Single was a youth in our community who frequently attended MGP Youth Night dinners. She died by homicide on July 30th. Read a little bit about her in this incredible article written in Montrose’s “Outsmart” Magazine.  http://www.outsmartmagazine.com/2019/08/remembering-tracy-single/?fbclid=IwAR0T20ADzzVNRtqYpWRc24Nrvpd6okK1qjSdF5CPf69cHhZazl8kf-xMB9w

Tracy Single was a youth in our community who frequently attended MGP Youth Night dinners. She died by homicide on July 30th. Read a little bit about her in this incredible article written in Montrose’s “Outsmart” Magazine.
http://www.outsmartmagazine.com/2019/08/remembering-tracy-single/?fbclid=IwAR0T20ADzzVNRtqYpWRc24Nrvpd6okK1qjSdF5CPf69cHhZazl8kf-xMB9w

I’m thinking about our community right here. Still carrying the loss of Tracy Single, the 15th black trans woman who has been murdered in the United States in 2019. I’m thinking about our community right here where living off of what grows on the land isn’t a sabbath practice, but maybe a necessity. When is our sabbath year? When is our jubilee?

And I know y’all are tired, fam.

I know that in the cycle of work and rest it can sometimes seem like work wins most of our time and that it seems like there really is no rest for the weary.

And yet, the God of the Israelites who spoke a word of rest and jubilee is the same God who is with us today amidst all of the burdens and trials that weigh heavy on our hearts.

And God says: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Mt. 11:28-29)

And so receive this good news: you are good and worthy of rest. Rest in this time and in this place, with these people who know and care about you. Because here, as +KINDRED, this is our own kind of jubilee where we are kind to one another and treat each other with respect, and we rest from our work to be in fellowship with each other.

This jubilee doesn’t have to end with us here tonight, and I think the world could use it's own kind of jubilee right about now. Let’s carry out the spirit of jubilee with us as we go, proclaiming rest as radical and holy, and living into the abundant life that we are called to through the grace of Jesus Christ. Amen.


The Sacred Art of Rest - Balance

This week’s sacred story comes from Ecclesiates 3, which speaks of the designation of time for different things, God’s role in and out of time, and the promise that there is time enough for enjoyment, delight, dancing,…and rest. Oh, and it inspired this song by The Byrds. You’re welcome for the earworm.

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One of the most common barriers I hear (and, um, perpetuate)…that limits us…is this phrase... “I would love to, but I don’t have time.” Sometimes that’s our way of politely declining something we don’t really want to do anyway.  Sometimes, it seems to keep us from things that are important, but that we don’t know how to fit into our rhythm of life. Time. There never seems to be enough of it. And sometimes our worry over not using our time well enough or rightly, consumes us and takes up more time and energy. Sometimes we are so convinced that no amount of time will change things, and so we stop paying attention to it at all.

I wonder if time has become an idol for us? Has it become the thing to which we direct our ultimate attention? Holding power over us? Asserting ultimate authority and demanding complete submission? Dictating our lives? And…as we often try to do with any God, we are then prone to try and figure out how to control it, manipulate it, game the system to make it serve us.

But time is not God. And time itself cannot be anthropomorphized into friend or foe. Time is neutral. Time is just something that is. Here, in the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, we are reminded that God created the world with a sufficient amount of time. We are reminded that there the fear of shortage, even when it comes to time, is a lie. We are reminded that there IS enough – that there IS enough time for God’s purposes and God’s saving and redeeming work. We are reminded that God is both beyond time and within it.

There IS enough time in the world, but that doesn’t mean that NOW is the time for everything. There’s enough time, just maybe not for all the things at once.  In this text there is a division of time, a designated time for this and for that. All is possible, but perhaps just not all immediately. For me, that seems both frustrating but also…it seems to take some of the pressure off. There is a time to be busy, and also enough time for people “to be happy and enjoy themselves.” There is time enough to “eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil." To know that "whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it.” There is time enough for Sabbath rest. 

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We're spending these several weeks focusing on rest because it tends to sit on the more neglected end of our spectrum.  But rest is not inherently better than work. Work is good too, but rest is an appropriate and necessary partner. Each of these phrases in Ecclesiastes has a partner. The rhythm of creation is balance. A pendulum swinging. Back and forth, work and rest, rest and work. 

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Perhaps in order to have a better understanding of divine rest, we need a better understanding of divine work. We each have a particular way of work that we are created for and called to.  It is both ours and not ours. It is both tied to our personal giftedness and being, but not for our benefit alone. It is strengthened through careful cultivation and honing of skills, but still dependent on the Holy Spirit to take flight. Perhaps not all work is suited to all times and places, or doesn't reveal itself until the passing of time. Queen Esther was told by her uncle that perhaps she had become queen, and struggled through all she'd experienced and all she'd questioned, for such a time as this, for such a time as when her people stood on the edge of annihilation and needed a voice of power to advocate for them. 

I think often when we feel dissonant or disconnected from our work, or the way we fill our time, and our sense of meaning...we feel some kind of personal failure or shortcoming.  When it feels like we don't have enough time for all the things, it can be frustrating. Maybe the work before us doesn’t fit within our time because it’s not our work to do. Maybe it doesn’t seem to fit because we’ve occupied our available time with other things that aren’t our work to do. And God does not need you to feel guilty about letting others do their own work in its own time.

When we talk about work in this way, work isn’t just a job or a career. Look at all the kinds of work listed in this text - peacemaking, dancing/rejoicing, warrior work, the work of gathering together. None of that is tied to a particular title or paycheck, but could be made evident in them.  We could also probably add this list - a time for seriousness and a time for playfulness, a time for community and a time for solitude, a time for cleaning and time for making a royal mess...of all the things. God gives us our work and our call to being, in due season. 

And since God is a God on the move, ever-living, ever-creating, the work that God has given us to be and do may also move and shift and change over time. This doesn’t necessarily mean we were doing the wrong thing before, it may just mean that is may no longer be where we are called. Balance is hardly ever a static thing – it requires adjustments…and a fair amount of core strength that is built over time.

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And it is periods of rest, of pause, that help us to make those shifts, both large and small. Rest helps us to navigate the time inbetween, whatever comes in the middle of the time to plant and the time to pluck up. Think about making a 90 degree turn when you're going 40mph, versus, from the position of a full stop. From a place of rest, our vision is clearer and we are better prepared to navigate whatever waits for us on this new road. 

There is a time to work and a time to rest, a time to wrestle and a time to heal. In August of 1619,  America falls into its original sin as the first slave ships arrived on these shores. Now, almost 400 years to the day, there is much healing to be done. Perhaps now is the time.  (Read more about the 1619 project here or here, a reading list, or “10 Books About Race To Read Instead Of Asking A Person Of Color To Explain Things To You”)

Healing can mean hard work too and tough rehabilitation, and sometimes it means giving yourself a break from work. It's not the same as sticking our heads in the sand, but a time of stillness to let the fruit of the work take root and develop within you. Then back to work.  Back and forth. Balance and rhythm. Perhaps the rest is the time in-between times, between war and peace, gathering and sending, mourning and dancing the full stop at which God can bring us to turn. 

I invite you to wonder, to rest for a moment, to be still and to listen and dwell in the presence and promise of God. And to ask of God: What is this the time for?  What time is it now? What is the work God has given you to do during this time? 

The Sacred Art of Rest - Retreat

This week’s sacred story comes from 1 Kings 19:1-18 where the prophet Elijah is on the run, burnt out, and God shows up…not in power, but in stillness and silence.

I grew up in the 80s and 90s. Between the Swamp of Sadness in Neverending Story, the Fire Swamp in The Princess Bride, and a surprise patch of quicksand in a 1994 live action version of The Jungle Book, as a kid I was pretty sure that I was going to die in a sinking pit of earth, swallowed up by muck. I was absolutely terrified by the thought of quicksand and had serious nightmares about it.  So….I thought I better research the stuff and how to survive should I ever find myself in such a situation. The best advice is the most counter-intuitive. While you may want to kick and scream...the more your struggle against it, the more you sink. Stillness it turns out, is your best defense.

In the midst of chaos or struggle, I often want to try and fight my way out. Those moments in life where it feels like I’m drowning…. often end up with me frantically flailing which only exhausts me further, and pulls me deeper into the muck. Sometimes it may seem as though the only way out is to work more or to fight harder. But the Sabbath reminds us that there is power in stillness. 

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There is a particular kind of stillness that we can only reach by getting away, being removed from the usual surroundings and coming into the wilderness spaces of the world and of our souls. Jesus was always doing this - going away from others, off by himself. After teaching to crowds, caring for those in need, a full slate of the hustle and bustle of being God incarnate, he’d’ routinely get away for awhile... into a boat, up on a mountain, or out in a garden - to pray, to just be, to have some time alone, to find stillness.

The prophet Elijah has spent years telling King Ahab to turn from his ways of worshiping other gods and thus leading the people of God astray. He has survived a drought alongside an old widow. And he just executed 450 prophets of the false God, Baal - which has the Queen pretty ticked off as she’s worked really hard to protect and promote them. Speaking truth to power over and over again, feeling the threat of danger or stress breathing down your neck constantly is exhausting and wearisome.  Bringing out truth in ourselves can be the same. It takes emotional and spiritual labor to be honest to ourselves about ourselves and that is real work too. Whatever work God has called us to do, if we our doing it faithfully, takes something of us that must be replenished and calls us to sabbath rest.

Sometimes we rest by choice and SOMETIMES, like Elijah, we rest by evacuation. When the wear of our work finds our immune systems weakened, and we physically just can’t go on. You know those times when you run yourself ragged and now you’ve got the flu, an ear infection, and food poisoning all at once. Sometimes sabbath claims us whether or not we planned on it. 

If you are diagnosed with depression, you know that sometimes all you can do is eat and go back to bed. Sometimes it feels like a struggle to even do that. And even when you find other people who have depression, you can still feel alone. Elijah, out in the wilderness, running for his life, feels very much road-weary and alone. But the story does not end here.

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When we’re exhausted, exasperated, fried and frazzled, and we don’t know where to start, we go back to the beginning. Elijah get a return to the basics - with the help of an angel he slowly finds health and grounding in the basic rhythm of rest, eat, sleep, repeat.  Do you notice how your eating and resting habits both reflect and impact the well-bering of your soul? When you’re not eating well - your whole being suffers or when you’re stressed, you stop making good choices about food. When you don’t get the recommended 7-8 hours of sleep, you feel like a shell of yourself, so you’re less effective and then you feel like you have to stay up late to get it all done? But here, in the Word of God, it says naps and snacks are holy, y’all. 

And when our physical needs are being met, we are better attuned to our spiritual needs. And so, AFTER regaining his strength through rest and food, Elijah sets his eyes on connecting with God. He hikes up the mount Horeb, also called mount Sinai, to the place where Moses communed with God generations ago. While waiting expectantly for God to appear, Elijah experiences several familiar forces - powerful wind, an earthquake, and then fire - all ways in which God has appeared and spoken before in history. But in my experiences of God, I may or may not see her in the exact same places and things, practices and texts, where we last encountered each other so clearly. I can go back to that hilltop where I remember feeling as though God were standing right next to me, or read a verse that has been balm to my soul in the past, and find that they don’t feel the same anymore. The mystery of it continues to astound me.  

And so even though God in the past had made God’s voice clear in these powerful elements of wind, and earthquake, and flame, for this moment, for this person...God is not there.  But then… there is stillness… and there is sheer silence. And in this silence, Elijah can hear the voice of God calling to him. 

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And there, Elijah can pour out his laments, his fears, and his weariness before God. He unloads the burden he feels like he has been carrying alone, lays it down.  And in this place, where Elijah has come to get away, he is drawn in. God doesn't dismiss all that troubles Elijah, but points to there being so much more than trouble in Elijah’s world. God reminds Elijah that even when it feels that way, he is not alone and all is not lost. Look, God says, there are a couple other kings, there is another prophet, and 7000 people who have not abandoned us. God lifts up other leaders who will help and who will pick up the work where Elijah can leave it off. 

In this wilderness silence, this Sabbath moment, where Elijah came in exhaustion, isolation and despair...he surprisingly finds strength, connection, and hope. There's no shame in needing to be refreshed and reminded. Renewal and remembrance are built into the rhythm of creation, and here in our ritual of worship. But still we can get so caught up in the work, that which God has called us to and that which we busy ourselves with, wear ourselves so thin…

Sabbath silence and restful retreat call to us.  In the stillness, we hear God’s loving voice declare that we are not alone.  Amen. 

The Sacred Art of Rest - A Sabbath Origin Story

This week’s sacred story comes from Genesis 2:1-3 (where God rests on the 7th day of creation and establishes the Sabbath as holy) and Mark 2:23-3:6 (where Jesus heals a man’s withered hand on the Sabbath).

Even when it’s blazing hot outside, I enjoy being out in creation and particularly working to tend creation.  I delight in drawing low to the ground, digging into the dirt of my garden, feeling its dry grit and soft richness, planting new life and pulling up the weeds that get in the way. I delight in having my chickens cluck around me scratching at the earth, doing their part to help me in this work. As the stringent scent of green and the sweet smell of earth fill my nostrils, it makes me feel aligned with creation in my inmost being. Clearing the ground to make room for growth and flourishing is so satisfying.  It’s a form of work that I find refreshing, almost meditative. But just because I enjoy this work and I do it unpaid in my “free time”, doesn’t necessarily mean it counts as Sabbath. Sabbath is what comes after - When I sit in my lawn chair in the shade as my sweat turns cool with the breeze, as I look out at the beauty of what is, and rest.

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The cycle of work then rest, work, rest is a rhythm built into the very fabric of creation by our Creator. It’s a rhythm our body and soul already knows, was created to know. This is how we are created…in the beginning. When God creates the heavens and the earth, the world and all that’s in it…it culminates in a holy day of rest. Sabbath. Not only for God, but for all of creation.

This part of our rhythm of life is so critical it becomes part of God’s Ten Commandments – to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy. It is codified into the structure that holds the People of God together. It becomes part of our Rule of Life to remind us who we are and where we come from…when we forget.

And sometimes, we over-emphasize the “rule” part of that equation.

Cleaning, cooking, even harvesting or shopping for things to eat is considered work.  Perhaps, in our time, we should also name the work of the mental load - the unclocked and unpaid, often invisible work and emotional labor (disproportionately done by women in our society) that is necessary to manage household life and relationships  - remembering family birthdays and the fact your need to get that card in the mail, researching which heartworm med is best for your pet, reminding your partner that the field trip permission slip is due today.  All this work - things that require rather than refresh us.

As we follow Jesus in today’s text, we see that even plucking a head of grain as you walk through the fields was considered “work” because technically it’s harvesting (I guess?) and thus a violation of Sabbath. The law of Sabbath exists for a reason, we need the enduring reminder. And this Rule of Life has held the people together for millennia, so it is good and right to want to hold it in regard. But such a fundamentalist misunderstanding of the law sets the Sabbath as constricting rather than liberating. It mistakes the heart of Sabbath. 

In Genesis, God rests on the seventh day OF creation. Rest doesn’t come AFTER creation, but is a part of it. Rest is the culmination of God’s work, the cherry on top. Thus, seven becomes a holy number that signifies complete-ness. The Sabbath is established as a consummation of completeness, wholeness, restoration. In the beginning, the keeping of this holy day is set not an obligation but a gift. It is not strictly a “we have to,” but “we get to.” We too are easily lured into a fixation on what rules must be kept in order to be “good.”  Sabbath…at its heart, reminds us that by God’s grace, we are already created “good” and that in God we are whole. Jesus witnesses to this truth as Jesus chooses relationship over rules, love over law every time. That’s the Gospel.

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And yet, our sin strives to keep us enslaved as we continue to condemn ourselves - telling ourselves everything we need to DO in order to feel complete and whole.  The Sabbath resets us, reminds us that our wholeness comes not from what we do but who we are, not how many tasks we complete, but in our identity – created and declared very good, beloved by God. The open space of Sabbath helps us to become aware – of what is good and beautiful and alive. It ground us to our proper place in creation - that we can indeed stop and yet the world will continue to turn, and asserts God’s rightful place as the one who sets the pace.

Some among us don’t dare to even dream of rest because it can be dangerous – their existence on the margins means that every moment must be concerned with survival, they must always be “on” or they are at risk of harm. Against all evidence to the contrary, God declares that your weariness does not go unseen, and that rest will come.

Some among us create our own cage. Studies show that workers in this country spend an average of half their day receiving and managing information rather than doing their actual jobs.Americans, on average, leave 90% of our vacation days unused. And that’s IF you’re even lucky enough to have paid time off.  We are a generation plagued by production and multi-tasking. It’s so much of our way of life that we even try to multi task our rest. Many of us continue working even when we’re not at work, even in the company of others we care about - checking messages, picking up this or that. Vacations become about checking off a to-do list of experiences, or what we can produce or present that is Insta-worthy.   We tell ourselves we’re just being good workers or good citizens trying to keep up with the news or “live our best life now,” but we are also addicted to the stimulation of work and information, to busyness, to the idea of maximizing ourselves so that we might actually be worth something as a person. It’s a drug that often functions as a coping mechanism to avoid the places our brains take us if allowed to be free.

I’m not here to point fingers as if I’m exempt.  I wrote this sermon over the weekend while out in the country with my family. I missed out on some things because of it.  And I can tell myself that it’s because this was just a particularly busy week that demanded other priorities during my regular hours (because like all addicts, I am well-practiced in the art of rationalizing my habit), but this happens almost every week.

We may think it’s not really that big of a deal, but our brain, our bodies know different.  Remember, we have Sabbath in our bones from the beginning. Research shows that we neurologically benefit from rest. Actually it shows that our bodies critically REQUIRE down time, idleness, doing nothing, even being “bored.” When we receive actual real rest, we’re more creative. The open space of idleness allows us to see the world in wider ways and make connections across creation we would otherwise miss. THAT’S where I often find God to be most evident and clear - when my brain has space to see and become aware of the great mysteries that surround me.  And while rest does not replace therapy and medication, complete rest does improve our mental health as we find better balance.

We didn’t develop these habits overnight and we won’t be able to reset them that quickly either. But perhaps we can begin to reclaim Sabbath moments, then Sabbath hours, until we can truly embrace a Sabbath day. I wanted to have a list of Sabbath practices to offer you today, but it didn’t get done, and then I had to let it go for the sake of Sabbath. So I encourage you to go google some things- practice deep breathing, visit parks, meditation centers, take a technology Sabbath and activate that “do not disturb button” on your devices. May God give you eyes to see that there IS space, however small, to start.

How do we break the habits we know aren’t good for us? While I think it’s good to be honest about what our lack of Sabbath rest costs us – in our relationships with others, in our own health, and in our relationship with the Divine…Jesus shows us that we are not changed by shame through obligation. We are transformed from the compulsion of endless work that leads to death by being reminded of the heart of God for us – for healing, for life, for resurrection.  This is what we come to be reminded of …in this table, in our song and in our silence, in this community. That even when others aim to exploit us, even when we work to destroy ourselves…God promises us life, reminds us that we are already created complete, valuable and beloved for who we are not just what we do. God restores us to wholeness, again and again. God invites us to find our rest in Godself. Our God is a God who rests. Sabbath is for me but not about me. It is about God and what God has declared for us and what God provides for us - the promise that there is enough, that we are enough. Enough now. Let it be. Amen.

Taste & See - Shared Tables

This week our sacred story comes from Luke 14:12-24, where Jesus teaches a parable about a banquet (spoiler: the invited guests send their regrets, so the host fills the banquet hall with the poor, sick, and outcast…and there’s room to spare).

I wonder…What was your table like growing up? Was there a little table in the kitchen? Just some stools pulled up to the counter? Was there a whole extra table in a formal room that was hardly used? Was your table a folding tv tray pulled up to the couch? Was your table decorated with a cute tablecloth and centerpiece? Was it buried under art projects or laundry? Who was at the table? And who wasn’t there? Family? Friends? Co-workers? Neighbors? Were you the house that seemed to always have extra people in it? Was your table a kind of sanctuary? A protected inner sanctum where you could get away from outside people and pressures? How did you feel when at that table? Was it a safe place where you felt at ease in your own skin? Cared for and deeply connected to others or isolated, even with company around you? Was it one more place where you had to put on a show or play peacekeeper or carefully manage tricky relationships?

We’ve seen the many ways in which God shows us that the table is a particularly powerful place – relationally, physically, spiritually. There was Elisha and the Widow, who in a time of drought and death, came together and found that there was always enough to create a new loaf of bread to  share. The prodigal father and son are reconciled with a feast. Jesus eats with Nicodemus - a tax collector, someone who nobody liked and was viewed as a sell out at the expense of his community. Jesus eats with the rule-following Pharisees, and continues teaching about God's love even when the meal is disrupted by “a woman in the city, who was a sinner”(luke 7:36-37), even when it freaked people out and put them on edge and earned him the worst reputation and led to people reading him for filth. Jesus shares fish and bread with crowds of hungry folks with nowhere else to go and then gathers up all the crumbs and scraps. Jesus didn’t always keep dinner conversation light or safe, but talked about the vulnerable and the controversial. Jesus ran into folks like Zacheus in the street, someone who often felt unseen, and was like “let’s get together...like soon...like now.” Jesus also went over to the well known homes of his friends like LazarusMartha and Mary where he could kick back a little and refresh himself, and stil...there was a piece of God being revealed there. 

The table is a location and an experience where God and God’s promises are particularly evident.  Particularly shared tables…

Shared tables are different than adjacent tables. It is different than relationship that is acknowledged but still kept afar, "separate but equal." Jesus removes the safe manageable distances we keep from one another. There’s a difference between being close and being connected.  That’s what makes shared tables so hard. 

That's the real real.  Even in this parable we know that extending invitations to a shared table, putting yourself out there can sometimes lead to rejection.  Shared tables can be hard, and we, like the first invitees to the parable banquet, make excuses. I am 100% among you. Sometimes it feels like we are so crunched for time, the thought of spending time on something that doesn't seem as obviously productive, or convenient, or self-beneficial, or even necessary...not only seems uncompelling but actively self-destructive.  And, to be fair, these concerns are valid and human.

It CAN be uncomfortable. We can’t completely control what happens. We can worry. What do I say? What do they even care? What if say something that reveals too much truth about myself - what will happen then? Shared tables are scary because the walls come down.

Jesus shared even with those who would betray him. Conversations in real time mean that sometimes someone will say something that hurts us, intentionally or not, but then we have the opportunity to not always let it pass by but to speak up and say something, to be a witness to God's image in us and put a beloved face and a sacred story to a stereotype, slur, or wound.  Conversations around the table in real time means that sometimes we can put our foot in our mouth, but also that we can learn to say we're sorry and learn to rebuild relationship. That's a spiritual skill that our world deeply needs.

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Tables are messy and crumby, places of bumbling and brokeness.  But through God, all of that can be true and at the same time the shared table can also be a blessing. Last week I quickly set up a time to get coffee with a friend because I just couldn’t go it alone anymore and I was desperate for a place I could let my facades go and just be a mess.  With biscuit crumbs stuck to the side of my face, I shared the weight I’ve been carrying with another. And after letting me pour myself out, without any hint of heroism or condescension or pity, they said...If we only have one pair of eyes on things, it’s a problem. But when we share it with a community, it becomes a dilemma, and communities can do dilemmas.

What does this parable show us about the sacred power of tables? When so much of our society reflects the idols of ego and extraction, the table holds revolutionary power to subvert that system of tit for tat, of establishing a person’s value based on their status, their economic power or their similarity to ourselves. Jesus changes the dynamic around the table from one that is transactional, one that is adjacent, to one that is integral.  Tables turn theory into practice, into experience. The theologian N.T. Wright points out that “when Jesus himself wanted to explain to the disciples what his forthcoming death was all about, he didn’t give them a theory, he gives them a meal.” Our tables reflect our theology. They are a witness to God’s kingdom and how we relate within it. They are a foretaste of the feast to come. Our tables are places where love is revealed, God’s love is tasted and seen. And that love changes us.  James Baldwin wrote that “love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and how we cannot live within. I use the word "love" here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace - not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”

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A table is at the center of our worship for a reason. We all eat from this shared altar table, God’s table, where ALL are welcome, and we don’t have to worry about bringing just the shiny happy parts of ourselves to this table or putting on a show.  Children, skeptics, sinners, and saints - ALL are welcome at God’s table. When I look around the room as I proclaim these words of welcome each time we gather for holy communion, I can tell by the look on your faces, what those words and that practices means deep down in your soul. 

How does that shape our shared tables beyond this moment and experience? How does it impact the way you view of each table you sit down to? In a home, or an office break room, or at family reunions, or the park bench, school cafeterias…

The master of the banquet sends messengers “out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and (they) bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” And the slave said, “Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.” There is still room. There is always room. 

This morning as I woke up to the news of domestic terrorist attacks in Dayton Ohio - 9 dead, 27 wounded...not 12 hours after the one in El Paso - 20 dead and at least 2 dozen injured with some uncounted that are too afraid to go to the hospital because of their immigration status, when there have been 251 mass shootings in 216 days in this country...so far.….as I was feeling numb, and hopeless, and terrified and bitter against the demon of white supremacy and our golden idol of violence and power...I just wanted to lay down and watch tv with a bowl of sugary cereal and my daughter curled up in my arms.  We finally got to catch up on a new TV DIsney movie where the line dividing people into heroes and villains is challenged. Near the end, one of the main characters says, “to make the world a better place, we’ll have to do it face to face.” It may sound like Disney cheese, but it also tracks with what Jesus is doing all throughout his life, even unto his death, and resurrection. Jesus sees those who might otherwise go unseen or unacknowledged, Jesus sees the image of God reflected in us even and especially through our brokenness, and invites us to share in the feast just as we are - together, nourishes us through a simple meal, and fortifies us for the road ahead. 

God invites us to taste and see - the Goodness of the Lord. And so I have an invitation for you. I want to invite you , to find one person, maybe someone you haven’t spent much time with before, maybe someone who has been at one of your adjacent tables, someone that you can share a table with this week. It might feel awkward or contrived, but it may just mean that we’re out of practice. Ask the the same questions we talk about here: where did you find joy this week? What has been hard? What are you celebrating? What keeps you up at night? You don’t have to have an agenda just find time to gather together and I promise the Holy Spirit will be there. Amen.

Taste & See - Bread

This week our Sacred Story comes from 1 Kings 17 and Luke 24 . It tells us about the prophet Elijah’s visit to a widowed women who was running out of food during a drought, and about the disciples first encounter with the resurrected Jesus over the breaking of the bread.

The sermon this week came from Vicar Morgan Gates.

Photo by  Wesual Click  on  Unsplash

The connection between food and relationships has been acknowledged and studied since just about the beginning of time. There’s just something about sharing food with one another that brings us closer than we were before, and here at +KINDRED, I think we understand that. Today’s sacred stories are examples of how the connection between relationships and food is seen and brings people into closer community - and communion - with each other and the divine.

When most people hear the story about Elijah and the widow they think it’s a miracle story, along the lines of the feeding of the 5,000. And they’re not really wrong to do so, I suppose. This story is miraculous because the land that the widowed woman lived in was experiencing a severe drought. Earlier in the chapter Elijah went to the King of that area, Ahab, and said: “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” Rivers have dried up, livestock are dying without grass to eat, and people are starving with no meat or crops from the drought ravaged fields to eat.

Photo by  redcharlie  on  Unsplash

Photo by redcharlie on Unsplash

 

This drought was affecting everyone, but was even harder on those who live on the margins. Those who don’t have resources stocked up and saved to sustain them during times of drought or poor harvests. That would likely mean anyone who wasn’t king Ahab or a part of the richer aristocracy. The widowed woman who fed Elijah was certainly living in the margins in those days because she had no male family member to offer her housing or any sort of social security.  She was cast out the edges of her town, and left to fend for herself.

And so it IS miraculous and amazing that the widowed woman’s oil and meal did not run out while Elijah was there and for many days afterward. I can imagine how relieved the widowed woman was that she and her son continued to have enough food to sustain them, and even a guest, when she had all but resigned herself to death by starvation.

I wonder how she felt each day when she woke up to find oil and meal enough for breakfast, and maybe a mid-day meal. I wonder how she and her household felt when they realized that the cakes made from that same oil and meal were enough to keep their stomachs full. I can imagine them sitting together and eating on the second or third day of Elijah’s visit, perhaps wondeirng aloud about when the drought would end, or if king Ahab would do anything to help his people who were suffering from the drought. I can imagine them creating a community amongst themselves over portions of bread just enough to sustain them.

 

Further on in this story we read that God tells Elijah to go back and see king Ahab. God leads and instructs Elijah on what to do and say to king Ahab, and eventually Ahab is removed as king and the drought ends with a terrific rain storm. It seems to me that Elijah could have just continued past the widowed woman’s town and directly to king Ahab to speed up this drought ending process. And so I wonder, why didn’t he? What was the point of this interaction with the widow?

 

I think this interaction between Elijah and the widow demonstrates community’s power to sustain us even when we are literally down to our last pieces of bread. That we can trust God to sustain us when it seems that everything else has been removed out from under us. We can trust God to provide for us, even though I’m not sure it will always show-up in a never ending supply of a couple food items, I think we can trust that God will always sustain us in community with one another. I think that we can trust God to sustain us for the night...and through the next day, relying on the community we find ourselves in.

 

In our other sacred story for today we heard about the disciples who were walking to a village called Emmaus - WITH THE RESURRECTED JESUS - but it wasn’t until they’d sat down to eat together that they realized they were in the presence of the divine. And so again, we’re left wondering about the connection of food and relationships and the way that community is cultivated in those spaces despite - or maybe in response to - situations and factors that seem like impossible barriers. The widowed woman didn’t have to share her meager food supplies, but she did so leaning into this opportunity for unlinkley community and trusting in God’s faithfulness to provide. The disciples, burdened with grief and anxiety about what the future would hold, created community with an assumed stranger to have the face of their Lord, Jesus Christ, revealed to them in the same way in which they last shared a meal with him - over the blessing and breaking of the bread.

Photo by  NeONBRAND  on  Unsplash

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

 

Food brings us together into community in even the most challenging of situations and allows us a moment of sustaining togetherness as we prepare for the journies ahead of us. It is a gift to share food in community with one another, and glimpse into the heavenly banquet yet to come. Amen.

 

 

 

 

Taste & See - Wilderness Food

Numbers 11:4-9

4 The rabble among them had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept again, and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! 5We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; 6but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.’

7 Now the manna was like coriander seed, and its colour was like the colour of gum resin. 8The people went around and gathered it, ground it in mills or beat it in mortars, then boiled it in pots and made cakes of it; and the taste of it was like the taste of cakes baked with oil. 9When the dew fell on the camp in the night, the manna would fall with it.

Luke 4:1-12

4Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ 4Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” ’

5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’8Jesus answered him, ‘It is written,
“Worship the Lord your God,
   and serve only him.” ’

9 Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you,
   to protect you”, 
11and
“On their hands they will bear you up,
   so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’ 
12Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’

When our family spent a few years living on the family farm, we had a handful of chickens that we kept in the yard.  They were sweet and followed us around like dogs, and it was nice for our toddler daughter to have a part of farm life that she could contribute to – loving on them and feeding them was easy and accessible for a small child. When they grew old enough, they began laying eggs and we would get about an egg from each one each day.  Yard eggs are so much more delicious than most of what you find in a grocery store. These egg yolks were bright yellow and that’s the good stuff that makes them actually have flavor! I suddenly began to love eggs because for once they actually tasted like something! But, even a handful of chickens, laying about an egg a day means you have 4 or 5 eggs a day and around 2.5 dozen eggs per week. That starts to add up. I was looking up recipes that would make use of our egg abundance – custards and casseroles and omelettes…clearly I have not forgotten these skills. But after awhile, even those rich delicious eggs I’d loved…began to feel exhausting. After a year or two like this, I honestly didn’t like eggs much anymore. Please, anything but nutritional, rich in vitamins and proteins, incredible edible eggs again. Please. 

Eventually, our flock dwindled and our lives would bring us back home to Houston. Eventually, I found myself craving bacon and eggs every now and then. But now, I’d just have to buy them from the store. Except now, I began to dislike eggs for a whole new reason.  Now that I knew how yummy an egg could really be, when a chicken was happy and healthy, the grocery-store eggs tasted like bland imitations. Now I longed for the days that drove me nuts in the past, when I had more backyard bounty than I knew what to do with. So now, we’re trying to find a balance. Now we have a handful of chickens at home in the city. And we’re trying to manage their bounty better than we did before – giving more away to neighbors or family and letting our growing daughter make a little extra money by selling the eggs to friends.

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It’s fascinating to me how time affects our memory and our perspective. Now that the Israelites are out on their own in the wilderness, they think back on the food they had in the empire of Egypt with longing – meat, fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic. It honestly sounds amazing, especially when compared to simple grains day after day.  Time and again, they grumble and lament their situation, complaining to Moses, impatient and sure that they will die out here and that it would have been better stay in Egypt, even if they were slaves. Somehow, at a distance, the cost of a life of slavery seems less than any other. I doubt that they have forgotten or romanticized the pain and death that goes hand and hand with empire – a system of power and comfort for some which can only exist through exploited labor. And yet, at least in some twisted way it seems safer, easier – because at least there we know the system, we know the danger. Our brain may convince us that we are exercising educated choice, instead of recognizing how the abuse of empire has conditioned us to believe we need it to survive. As human beings, we will pick certainty over freedom every time. You can take the people out of Egypt, but it takes much longer to take the Egypt out of the people.

In the wilderness, the food may be different, but it is always enough. In fact it is often more than enough, so that God must tell the people to only take enough for what they need each day. In the wilderness, the people must come to realize they are no longer subject to a system that insists they work endlessly, always moving and making with no time for rest. In the wilderness where the people must learn to trust God and God’s care over the hollow promises of empire, the food does not require exploitative labor or monolith monocultures that pillage the earth’s nutrients. In the wilderness, we relearn that under God’s banner, food is not an exhaustive commodity, but a sustainable practice. That God cares about what we put into our bodies and why. 

When I think about how this takes shape in the world around me, I am conscious of places known as food deserts - less affluent neighborhoods where grocery stores are scarce if not entirely absent. As a result fresh produce and quality food is not accessible to the poor. Yet somehow, there is always room for a store that carries sugary over-processed items that resemble food - snack cakes, and chips, and syrupy sodas. The capitalist empire still claims that fresh is for the ones we choose, and that some people aren’t worth the trouble because the bottom dollar matters more than people. It says we don’t mind if poor folks get sick with heart disease or diabetes due to poor nutrition, that’s not our problem. This system says that only lives we care about are the ones with money, with power.

But in this world I also see wilderness spaces that are being reclaimed from empire. Several years ago you began to hear about urban foraging where people learn how to live and eat from what grows around them in parks or even . You discover how much there really is to eat all around us. Lots of plants considered weeds are edible and good for salads. There are plentiful pecans and hickory in the fall. There’s a fig tree on a public esplanade just down the road. And then there are folks who plant that front section of their yard closest to the sidewalk with tomatoes and peppers and other fresh foods, so that anyone passing by who needs it, can have some. Communities are organizing to form gardens together in those very same food desserts that the empire has abandoned. 

Those ideas might seem extreme for you. Maybe not. But the question of how to faithfully care for creation and one another through our practices with food points us to these questions - Is it sustainable or does it have invisible costs somewhere? Does it connect people or isolate them? Does it extend life or exploit it?

 It’s not that God doesn’t want us to enjoy delicious food, or that God is satisfied with us merely subsisting on bland bare minimum. Manna wasn’t all the people would eat forever and ever, God was bringing them to a place flowing with sweet milk and rich honey after all…. 

But sometimes that gourmet meal has a higher cost than we recognize or remember. 

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The Gospel tells us that God transforms even wilderness food to gourmet delight - the places and items discarded and written off by power and influencers.  It’s the Good News of nose to tail cooking, that makes use or entire butched animal, not just the most marketable cuts. I have, like others, have fallen prey to the lie that eating local and seasonal is difficult and expensive.  But it really doesn’t have to be. This meal for 40 people cost $45 and every last bite is seasonal and sourced from Canino’s Farmers Market on Airline. It does take a bit more effort – but that effort is primarily just learning what’s in season and spending a little bit more energy thinking of a recipe that would utilize what I have rather than resenting what I don’t. Cooking and eating this way is simply a tradition and a skill we have forgotten. In Houston, there’s a magnificent restaurant called Indigo that doesn’t just rebrand food that would have been staples for slaves and poor black people but makes a transformative statement about stereotypes and soul food through its menu.

Even our food can tell a story of redemption. We reject the abundant mirage of empire and give witness to God and God’s rich abundance and faithfulness and care by honoring what we do have, what God has given us. 

Naked Unashamed: Sex

Ruth 3:6-11

6So she went down to the threshing-floor and did just as her mother-in-law had instructed her. When Boaz had eaten and drunk, and he was in a contented mood, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain. Then she came quietly and uncovered his feet, and lay down. At midnight the man was startled and turned over, and there, lying at his feet, was a woman! He said, ‘Who are you?’ And she answered, ‘I am Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin.’ He said, ‘May you be blessed by the Lord, my daughter; this last instance of your loyalty is better than the first; you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich. And now, my daughter, do not be afraid; I will do for you all that you ask, for all the assembly of my people know that you are a worthy woman.

Ruth 4:9-17

Then Boaz said to the elders and all the people, ‘Today you are witnesses that I have acquired from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to Chilion and Mahlon. I have also acquired Ruth the Moabite, the wife of Mahlon, to be my wife, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance, in order that the name of the dead may not be cut off from his kindred and from the gate of his native place; today you are witnesses.’ Then all the people who were at the gate, along with the elders, said, ‘We are witnesses. May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you produce children in Ephrathah and bestow a name in Bethlehem; and, through the children that the Lord will give you by this young woman, may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah.’

So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son. Then the women said to Naomi, ‘Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.’ Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. The women of the neighbourhood gave him a name, saying, ‘A son has been born to Naomi.’ They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.

We’ve spent the last few weeks reflecting on our original blessing- that we were created in the beginning...naked and were unashamed. We have faithfully explored God’s place and work within the witness of the Bible and its implications for our own personal expressions and experiences of intimacy, desire, and pleasure. We have parsed out distinctions between that which is destructive or distractive or hollowing, and that which builds connection, knowing, honesty, vulnerability, love, generosity, shalom, and life-giving wholeness.  And now, we conclude our series with a consideration of the intersections of God and the Gospel and sex. 

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The story of Ruth and Naomi and Boaz takes place in the middle of the wisdom writings of the Bible. It is rich with meaning and a turning point in the story of God’s people. A little bit of backstory. Naomi and her husband together have two sons and they grow up and both get married. Tragedy strikes and Naomi’s husbands dies, as well as her sons, leaving her a widow and her daughters in law without husbands as well. All this means that not only are they heartbroken... their only means of housing, provisions, and safety are gone. They are widows with nothing and so they have to go into survival mode. Securing survival for one person is hard enough, but three at the same time is even more difficult. The daughters-in-law have no legal obligation or even moral to Naomi and she tells them to go seek out their own well being apart from her. So one of the young women leaves back to her home country to find some way to live. It’s just more practical. And yet, Ruth chooses loyalty to Naomi, a woman she does not technically owe anything to and whom might actually slow her down. This is where we read the commitment verses used often in both Jewish and Christian weddings: where you go, I will go...your people will be my people and your God will be my God. Ruth chooses to live her life next to Naomi. 

But now, they have to figure out what kind of life that will be. Much of Jewish law dictates the importance of protecting and caring for those who are vulnerable. It prescribes a means by which such vulnerable women would be cared for. It says that the dead husband’s next of kin (a brother or cousin or other even distant relative) would take them for his own responsibility.  And so Naomi makes moves to get Ruth in front of her well-off relative Boaz, by getting her a job working in one of his fields. And so these women must migrate to survive, they take on the work of generations of immigrants, laborers in our farms and fields. They are foreigners in this new land, but not just any foreigners either. Ruth is from Moab. She’s a Moabite and female – and at the time there was this xenophobic stereotype of that such women are lude, promiscuous, and so unworthy of a place at any decent table. The virgin/whore complex goes way back. But Ruth is neither virgin nor whore, she is Ruth and she part of God’s redeeming work in the world. 

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Over time, Naomi advises Ruth to strategically keep her visible and desirable to Boaz, making sure she’ll get noticed by him. After they’ve built some rapport, trust even, possibly something resembling flirtation... Naomi tells Ruth its time to take action. In the midst of the harvest season - a time of hard work and yet a relative lightheartedness...Ruth goes to the threshing floor (a place where women were certainly not allowed to be), in the middle of the night, after the men had been drinking. And then she lies with him. We’ll get to some of these  problematic details in a bit. 

For now, we have to understand that the biblical text is full of double entendre that is clearly intended to reflect sexuality. The harvest setting points to fertility. The word “feet” is a common Jewish euphemism for genetalia so when she uncovers his “feet”...she’s not checking out his pedicure. To lie down, especially to lie down with another is a phrase that is the literary equivalent to the scene in a movie where two people with ragged breath and eyes focused intensely on one another simply close the bedroom door in front of the camera while the screen fades to black and we all just assume what happened next. 

 In a similar way, much of the language’s double meaning points to the heart of this encounter. There is vulnerability. The word “uncover” is the same as revelation. There is a deep knowing shared between these two people, and that knowing is physical, relational, existential. Boaz says to Ruth that “you have not gone after young men”, He feels seen, known, and embraced with heart and body. He also gives voice to seeing, knowing, and valuing Ruth as “a worthy woman.” He doesn’t bestow this title on her but acknowledges that it was already there. And yet, saying it out loud creates a more equitable balance between them. 

But our story does not end there. We skipped forward a bit in our reading to when these two eventually get married and what that union means. But in between the threshing floor and the marriage reception, it’s Boaz’ turn to use his power and privilege to . He’s actually NOT the first-up next of kin. There’s actually a closer family member that would be eligible and essentially gets first dibs.  So Boaz does a little jig to convince the ACTUAL next of kin that marrying Ruth and taking on Naomi might be too much trouble, but it’s their decision to make. It’s a scene out of every movie ever where the kids conspire and convince prospective home buyers that house is devastatingly haunted, but you know a great location, totally available for sale, we totally don’t mind letting it go…..

Boaz basically Beetlejuices the next of kin so he can step in as next of next of kin. And it works. 

As mature people of faith, we have to acknowledge the ways in which this sacred story IS problematic. We don’t hear much about how RUTH actually feels and thinks about this plan and encounter – perhaps she truly loves Boaz, perhaps she is acting out of love and loyalty for her mother-in-law, perhaps those are all overly-romanticized interpretations and perhaps she is just trying to survive.  There is a vast imbalance of power in the relationship between Boaz and Ruth, that makes this entire situation dangerous. On the threshing floor, sex and sexuality are used as tools of deception and manipulation for the sake of necessity. But that still does not cast shame on Naomi or Ruth, but on the reflection of an unjust society that leaves the vulnerable with few choices but to hustle for their most basic needs. 

And yet, even these problematic parts are the story are true to life. Sometimes sex lets us down. Sometimes it isn’t as magical as they told us it would be. Sometimes people of faith have told us that if we follow all their sex rules…we’ll be satisfied, and sometimes that’s just not true.  Sometimes sex is reduced and used as a means of power and even harm. Sometimes we mistakenly place our hope in the thing itself rather than what it points to, only to be disappointed when it does not automatically fix broken relationships. 

And yet…sex can also be a means of liberation, of redemption. And yet it can connect people across gender and race and nationality. And yet it has a purpose and place beyond procreation. And yet a thing that can sometimes be reduced to an object or tool can also be elevated to a gift and blessing. 

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For Ruth and Naomi, it is what saves them from destitution and starvation. For us, the coming together of Ruth and Boaz also has salvific power. Through sex, Ruth will become the grandmother of David, who...through sex, begets a line of descendants that leads to Jesus. Sexuality is the means by which not just two foreign and vulnerable women are saved but in which redemption is born for the whole world, for the ends of the earth and through the end of time. 

Perhaps this grants us the grace to find peace in our nakedness - in being seen, known and loved - by ourselves as much as by others. Oh that we would have that same blessing in our relationships - unashamed of the intimacy, desire, pleasure, and sex that not just produces offspring but that give us life - in heart, body, and soul as a reflection of God’s gospel promise that we might have life and life abundant. That we would see and know and love God in our wholeness, including our sexuality. That the redemptive and revolutionary love of God might be revealed in all corners of our lives, but especially those that we thought were beyond the reach of divine love. This is our prayer and our hope and it is the good news of the kingdom of God which is at hand. Amen. 

Naked and Unashamed: Desire

Song of Solomon 5: 2-8

2 I slept, but my heart was awake.
Listen! my beloved is knocking.
‘Open to me, my sister, my love,
   my dove, my perfect one;
for my head is wet with dew,
   my locks with the drops of the night.’ 
3 I had put off my garment;
   how could I put it on again?
I had bathed my feet;
   how could I soil them? 
4 My beloved thrust his hand into the opening,
   and my inmost being yearned for him. 
5 I arose to open to my beloved,
   and my hands dripped with myrrh,
my fingers with liquid myrrh,
   upon the handles of the bolt. 
6 I opened to my beloved,
   but my beloved had turned and was gone.
My soul failed me when he spoke.
I sought him, but did not find him;
   I called him, but he gave no answer. 
7 Making their rounds in the city
   the sentinels found me;
they beat me, they wounded me,
   they took away my mantle,
   those sentinels of the walls. 
8 I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem,
   if you find my beloved,
tell him this:
   I am faint with love. 

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We continue our sermon series, “Naked & Unashamed,” that reflects on what it means to be both faithful and sexual beings. Last week we talked about intimacy – how it is modeled in the relational nature of a triune God and how it goes beyond the bedroom to a deeper expression and experience of knowing, and connection, and love.  This week we’re taking a look at desire.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit this week on what it means to desire and how we experience desire. Is desire a longing? A yearning? Wanting? Anticipation? Hoping? Is it the irresistibility of something deep within our being? Is it triggered by seeing someone so yummy that is stirs up something powerful within us? Is it an irresistible craving that applies the same to both my desire for barbecue AND my desire for my beloved? Maybe….but those DO seem different, or at least that they SHOULD be different. And what’s the difference between lust and libido anyway? Desire seems to be reflective of our wants, but is more than a superficial fix can quench. It taps into a hunger deep in our bellies.

What does that look like in the world? To me, it looks a lot like Beyoncé and Jay-Z singing “Drunk in Love” at the Grammy’s in 2014 (for reference). The lyrics and the performance demonstrate a deep desire for the other where they just can’t keep their eyes, fingers, bodies off of each other. Can’t keep you eyes of my fatty, daddy. I want you. Na naaa. Watching this incredible moment live and then hearing all the criticism of it being too steamy  or “tacky,” “immoral,” in the days that followed (mostly by pearl-clutching white folks)...I was so confounded. Were they watching the same show I was? Because I just saw two grown folks with self-confidence and agency make the marriage relationship look sexier and honestly more desirable than I’ve ever seen. They modeled a “can’t wait to get you home” desire that is healthy, and good, and holy.

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In this biblical text from the Song of Solomon, we see in our sacred stories a place for desire.  It’s a fairly short book of the bible and pretty readable, so I’d encourage you to read the whole thing this week as we’ll be looking at it again next Sunday. In these verses we see a femme lover describe her longing for her mate. It is a desire so great that she says “her inmost being yearns for him.” She seeks after him through the streets of the city, and calls for him.  She tells her friends that in his absence she is faint with love. And in the context of the whole book, which is primarily written in a woman’s voice, we are also shown that desire is neither exclusively male nor female, but that ALL of God’s creation is designed with desire. These two go back and forth describing one another and their bodies and their beauty and desirability in ways that would cause those pearl-clutching moralists to blush. “Your lips are like crimson thread, and your mouth is lovely. Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate behind your veil. Your neck is like the tower of David, built in courses; on it hang a thousand bucklers, all of them shields of warriors. Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle, the feed among the lilies (4:3-5).” “His legs are alabaster columns, set upon bases of gold. His appearance is like Lebanon, choice as the cedars.  His speech is most sweet, and he is altogether desirable (5:15-16).” If you need some erotic love letter inspiration, the Bible has you covered.

But we also see that this desire is not a fleeting sentiment, one that would be easily squelched by inconvenience or even adversity. You see, in the setting of this song and the time and culture it’s written in, women were not allowed to be out in the street by themselves and most certainly not at nighttime. I’m sure these policies were sold to the people as necessary in order to protect a woman’s safety. And yet, knowing this, this femme lover goes out anyway…to seek the object of her desire, the one whom her soul loves. And it means that when the soldiers find her in violation of these rules and expectations, she is beaten and wounded. Sacred desire is more than capable of crossing the lines of convention. We see God’s blessing, God’s declaration that that which the world rejects and restricts is still good and holy.

At the same time, I think it is also healthy and good and holy to ask…what is the object of our desire? Is it satisfaction, peace, connection, wholeness, joy? Or is it something else?  Is it something self-serving at the expense of another? Is it something I’m using to distract or numb myself from some other hurt or need? Is this life-giving desire or destructive desire? There are beautiful biblical expressions of desire but also experiences of desire that are destructive - desiring a person or a drug or approval, or perfection, or…anything…so much so that we get lost.

The subject of this text must wrestle and discern the nature of her desire as well.  She has to decide if this desire is worth getting out of bed and violating curfew. Is it worth the trouble? Is the danger I face a healthy warning or an oppressive limitation of the divine? This work of discernment, of understanding and seeking clarity is hard.  And it is messy. I feel like every tool or measurement I can offer and know to be true can also be contradicted.

And there are other texts in the bible that warn us AGAINST desires of the flesh.  Galatians 5:16-21 reads:

16 Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.17For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. 18But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. 19Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

I’m going to zero in on the very first work of the flesh to push for a little more clarity.  Fornication. The original Greek word used there is porneia, which is often translated as either fornication or sexual immorality.  The problem with the later translation is that morality changes across time and place, and the gospel isn’t about morality ANYWAY or a mere achievement of “good behavior.” So what’s the true meaning at the heart of this idea of fornication? It’s not that sex is inherently bad, nor does it exclusively refer to sex outside of marriage, nor just a sense of general promiscuity, not even prostitution on a wholesale level. But in a broader sense it signifies sex which breaks relationship. It actually points to a wide range of definitions and meanings including adultery, incest, and specifically temple prostitution – a bodily gift reduced to a ritualized object in service to another God. And in all instances, from the Hebrew equivalent to the New Testament Greek, the word often translated as fornication refers most poignantly to a kind of idolatry – anything besides God which claims ultimate authority over our lives and decisions.  

So how do we sort through good and holy desire and that which is perhaps not? It’s not in separating the desire of our bodies from a desire of our hearts or souls – because Jesus shows us they can’t really be separated anyway. But perhaps we can distinguish…does this desire consume or create? Does it bring about wholeness and shalom, divine peace? Does it point us toward God and the divine or ourselves or anywhere else?

And this, this life-giving kind of desire is reflective of God’s own desire for us. As we read about how passionately these lovers in the Song of Solomon yearn after one another, in the fullness of their being, their bodies and all - we catch a glimpse of how passionately God longs for us - for our livelihood and our well-being, and our life. God takes this kind of deep delight in us.  And how is this shown in scripture? Through two unwed hot-and-heavy dark-skinned lovers. God longs for us to see ourselves as beautifully as lovers see one another. In Matthew 23:37, Jesus says, “how I long to draw you close. how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” Even with God, desire does not remove the need for consent, for willingness.  Rather healthy and holy desire requires it.

And we are created in the image of this kind of God. A God who is reflected in desire, who experiences desire, and who fuels our own desire. God invites us to long for and yearn for God and God’s kingdom with a similar unquenchable, deep-in-our-belly, can-not-wait kind of fervor and passion.  Let it be so. Amen.

Naked and Unashamed: Intimacy

This week launches our “Naked & Unashamed” Sermon Series. Our sacred story comes from John 17:20-26 and 1 Samuel 18: 1-4, where we talk what God’s three-in-one nature, asexual folks, and the relationship between two men in the bible and what all that reveals about the sacred gift of intimacy. You can watch the sermon on our facebook page here.

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On this “Trinity Sunday” we dwell and wrestle with the sacred mystery of that which is one, being multiple, and the multiple, one.  God is three in One…what some call the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Yahweh, Jesus, and Sophia; the divine parent, liberator, and advocate; the creator, redeemer, and sustainer. God is these three identities, and yet one identity.  These three…being so deeply connected and interwoven so as to be indivisible.  I in you and you in me and us in them.  This is the nature of who God is – relational, but in a particularly intimate way – a way marked by deep connection and knowing and love.

Each of us in created in the image of God and so we are created in this intimate nature of God, reflecting this divine dance between distinction and connection, between ourselves and the other.  Jesus prays that as they and the rest of the Godhead are one (IN one another), that we might be one with God and with one another.  It’s a reciprocal rhythm and a depth of knowing.

So as we begin to think about what it means and looks like to be faithful AND sexual beings, let us first consider a biblical and sacred understanding of intimacy. Often the word “intimacy” is mistakenly reduced to a euphemism for sex.  We use phrases like “someone with whom we’ve been intimate,” but it’s so much more than that. What we see through God’s own self is a kind of intimacy that goes beyond any surface level sensation. It is this experience and expression of being connected, known, and loved – up close, in our fullness.

I wonder….when you think about this kind of intimacy, what do you picture? What comes to mind?

God’s own intimacy helps me to see intimacy as what happens when we sluff off all the extra layers at the end of the day. It’s THAT kind of knowing and sharing. It’s revealing something so true to who we are that exhibits trust and care. It’s standing next to each other at the sink and being a part of the rituals that others don’t get to see – how they shave, that little way they breathe funny right before they sneeze.   It’s in exchanging a look and knowing exactly what it means without any words. Intimacy comes in the seemingly small moments of conversation, where we share and are attentive to the ins and out of each other’s day. Certainly there is intimacy in sharing our naked bodies, but that is only part of this relational gift. It’s such an exciting part of the beginning of a relationship, to discover the raw and unpolished intricacies of a person and know it is a privilege to be honored and cherished. This privilege can be easily taken for granted after a time too, and like many treasures we must anchor ourselves to remember it is a gift. This intimacy is where we feel safe enough to be imperfect, to let loose, to be ourselves. Sometimes that means the ones we hold closest also see our roughest attributes - our impatience, our temper, our criticism, and all our vices. If intimacy has been nurtured, our partner can allow us to be human, but also hold us to and call us back to the best parts of ourselves. And isn’t this all exactly what God is for us?

All these things require and establish trust as we open up parts of ourselves we might otherwise keep only for ourselves. We bare our heart and our truth before another, and hope it will be received with love. This holy intimacy is reflected in noticing and appreciating the little things that make us what we are, that make our lives what they are. This is a divine sense of intimacy where our asexual siblings have something to teach us…that it’s not just about the bedroom…that meaningful sacred knowing and connection and love (can be a part of, but) is actually so much bigger than our physicality. 

I wonder….when you think about this kind of intimacy, what do you picture? What comes to mind?

It made me think of what we see in the bible between David and Jonathan. David is just a young shepherd boy turned warrior who will one day God will make King of Israel, replacing Saul, Jonathan’s dad. Jonathan is a prince turned prophet who God will call to walk alongside David. Their connection is so profound that is says “the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David.” Jonathan loves David so deeply, that he makes a covenant commitment to be together even when it means rejection by his family. He lays down any and all artifice before David, the symbols of power and protection – his robe, his armor, and entrusts them to David’s care and makes David’s well-being as important as his own.  The intimacy shared between these two men shows us holy and soulful connection, covenant commitment, sacrifice, compassion, and concern. Their relationship will be strong enough that Jonathan will one day be able to hold David accountable to the harm he causes to Uriah and Bathsheba. Their intimacy will be the foundation that enables David to see his truth reflected back to him and be moved and changed again toward healing and life.

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We know all too well that intimacy can be violated and our trust and our bodies abused – when this knowing and connection is used against us; when someone puts their own desires ABOVE another’s  instead of alongside; when it is not marked by love but extraction. This harm can be emotional as well as physical. God’s identity of intimacy is marked by reciprocal connection, profound knowing, and especially humility in love. Therefore, the manipulative abuse of intimacy is not of God. In her recent book “Shameless: a Sexual Reformation,” Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber makes a claim that in forming a Christian ethic and practice of sexuality “we must be guided by more than just the absence of ‘no’ and the absence of harm…we must also bring concern to our consent and mutuality. Concern moves us closer to the heart of Jesus’ own ethic: love God and our neighbor as ourselves. It requires us to act on another’s behalf. It reframes the choice entirely outside of our own self-interest in a way that consent and mutuality alone do not.  Concern means taking notice of how our sexual behavior affects ourselves and each other.”

This is how God loves us. God sees me fully and still loves me and is deeply concerned about my wholeness. And yours too. God’s identity of intimacy helps me to recognize and prioritize a holy intimacy for myself – knowing myself/who I am, facing my flaws and my scars, owning my desires and gifts, and claiming my identity as good, beautiful, and beloved as God has declared me to be.  Recognizing God’s intimate nature, helps me to become aware of how God’s love is expressed and experienced in and through intimacy shared with others - in partners, families, friends, parents, and marriage.

I wonder…when have you felt seen, known, and loved for it? God is there.

I wonder…where do you see the multiple becoming one? God is in it.

May you dwell in the fullness of God’s intimate love for you. May you recognize the extension of God’s love through you to others. May you be one as God is one.  Amen.

Sin doesn’t win and doesn’t own you... and there’s no going back

This week’s sacred story comes from Romans 6:1-16, where the people of God wrestle with how to make sense of ultimate grace and freedom as well as the reality of brokenness. Read the full text here.

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I wonder…How would you live if the weight of all the broken parts of you had fallen away? If you no longer had to carry fear or shame or guilt? Can you imagine it?

If someone loved you so perfectly?  In all the ways you long to be loved?  If someone loved you so much that they gave their entire life for you? 

Receiving that kind of love and generosity….What would that change in you?  What would that change in how you interact with others? What would that change in how you move through the world?

This is the breadth and length, and height and depth of the love of God.  The apostle Paul will write of this to the Ephesians. Ephesians 3:16-19 says:

I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.  I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

We can’t quite comprehend a love this expansive, certainly not on our own, not without the Spirit of God to reveal it to us over and over again.

But I find we don’t need much help imagining or comprehending the brokenness of ourselves and the world. And without God, we will get stuck there, trapped, dwelling not in hope, but in the expansive and seemingly ultimate power of sin. It seems reasonable to buy into the illusion that is constantly before us that the world’s crap is just too powerful, too pervasive, that it’s too late, that there’s no overcoming it, no point to even try. Without God, we are slaves to sin, to this kind of outlook. We’re talking about sin that isn’t just a bad deed, an act that harms and separates …it’s our communal condition. It’s an overarching cloud throughout creation that makes everything foggy and dismal. Sin isn’t just that you took that thing from the corner store or said that nasty thing, it’s the system and the lies that make us believe that’s just the way it is, but it’s not really THAT bad. It eats at our souls.

Sin is a cruel taskmaster, keeping us bound. Telling us what we can’t do, what we can’t be, lies to make us think that that the broken bits are all there is, that there’s no other way, that we shouldn’t even bother to escape.

In the death of Christ, it is not only Jesus who dies, but the power of this condition of sin that claims to own us. Notice that Paul does not say that sin is dead but that we have died to it (Romans 6: 2). Sin still exists, but it belongs in the world from which we have been freed. And as Christ rises from death and all the ways of death into new life, so too is a new way of being given life in us. Our baptism washes us once and for all in Christ’s death and resurrection and creates a new way of being in us, a new dynamic between us and God and the world.

It’s not a divine “I saved you, now you owe me” kind of obligation. Or “you better be good, or I’ll take it all back.” But more, now that you’re free, how could you go back to living like a slave? Now that you’ve heard that sin doesn’t win, doesn’t own you...there’s no going back. It’s like once you’ve seen it, once you know…you can’t un-know or go back.

Like…once you realize Thomas Jefferson apparently always looked a little like Harriet Tubman. Or…once you’ve tasted real  butter over the imitation stuff, the former just isn’t as satisfying.

Once you know…there’s a giant floating island of plastic trash in the ocean that is now twice the size of Texas…TEXAS, y‘all!... it changes the way you consume and discard things.

Once you recognize that the group of people you thought less of and feared or kept your distance from, that they are beloved children of God…once you know their names, look into their eyes, and see that reflection of God in them…you can’t go on ignoring that divine light or stay silent about it.

Once you’ve received grace and love from God who knows you, all of you, and still says that you are worthwhile and good…your heart can’t truly accept all the voices that say you’re not good enough.

It’s always been true and always will be true, and Christ helps us to see and experience how profoundly true it is.

Where before we might feel like giving up or giving in, God causes us to rise up, breathes new life into us as from the beginning, and gives us capacity and courage to live into a new way that is defined by love over law, generosity over obligation, people over policies, connection over isolation. We are still imperfect, still human and limited, but also beloved and liberated. And that changes us in ultimate, eternal, practical ways that can’t be undone, even when I think we sometimes wish for that. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Peace, Not Perfection

This week’s sacred story comes from Paul’s letter to the Roman church where they grapple with peace, justification, suffering and hope. Same. Read the full text from Romans [3:28-30] 5:1-11 here.


I want to invite you to take a few deep breaths, place your feet on the ground, lower your shoulders, relax your face.  A few more deep breaths. Allow your mind to let go of all the things it’s trying to manage, all the “should”s, “could”s, and “have to”s. Breathe deep, breathe deep the breath of God. Linger here.

Do you feel a hint of peace? A glimpse of this peace that surpasses all understand.  If you don’t, that’s ok too. It doesn’t seem to make sense to struggle to make yourself feel peaceful. In this scripture we are reminded that God meets us wherever we’re at. We are reminded that peace already belongs to us. It is the peace that was promised and is made real in Jesus Christ.

I’ve heard people say “you need to get right with God.” The apostle Paul writes about how God has already set us aright. That’s what justified means, it means things are made right. And scripture says that it has already been accomplished. Well, my instinct is to immediately argue.  That can’t be true. How can I be declared right when I often feel so wrong? How can the world already be set aright when it also feels so terribly wrong?

The apostle Paul must have had similar thoughts.  The people and the world around him were by no means perfect, not even close. I mean, life in the ancient Roman Empire was pretty messed up, aside from what I assume is the usual people hurting each other and themselves. How could he say these things about peace, hope, and love? And then in verse 6 he says, “WHILE we were still weak (not after), Christ died for us.” He goes on… “WHILE we were still sinners…” and even further… “For if WHILE we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.”

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And then it hits me, we are justified, made right with God, filled with hope and love...not by our own hustle...but by God’s love. God demonstrates God’s love for us even and especially when it seems like we don’t deserve it, or when we’re at odds with the world. That’s where God does not abandon us but doubles down on insisting just how much we are loved. It is precisely when and where I feel like everything has gone to shit, that God says “I’ve still got you. I always have and I always will.” Sometimes I don’t even realize that under the weight of all this suffering, I subconsciously assumed that God was looking at me with the same disgust I had for myself or that God had even given up on me entirely. Sometimes I don’t even realize how badly I needed to hear these words from God. “We’re alright.”

And in that moment, my soul feels washed clean, still a bit heavy but somehow renewed, at peace. And then somehow, hope wiggles through. It’s a hope that goes beyond good vibes.  It is a hope that does not disappoint. Hope that is not diminished even in suffering. Suffering does not separate us from the love of God in Christ, despite all evidence to the contrary. In fact, it is out of the depths of suffering, that God delivers new life.  That same suffering that threatens to annihilate us can also produce fruit - the fruits of the Spirit - endurance, character, hope.

Now, this does NOT mean that we need seek out suffering NOR do we inflict suffering on others and justify it in this way.  As in “maybe God wanted awful things to happen to you so you could learn some life lesson.” No. Or “sorry I made your life miserable, maybe God is just trying to teach how to be as amazing as me.” Miss me with that. That is not at all what Paul is saying. I don’t want to pretend that all suffering is productive or that it’s all for some greater good. I think there are too many people we allow to continue suffering, in isolation. We avert our eyes, perpetuate, or rationalize. And then sometimes suffering just is what it is. We know all too well that suffering is a part of our world, it doesn’t need our help through either apathy or glorification.  

BUT the promise is that we need not live in the debilitating fear of it. God is not separate from but is present and moving in the midst of our suffering.  God does not stand at a distance, with vague shouts of “it’s gonna be ok,” but enters into the mire with us.

This is what gives me hope. It’s what how I dare to speak of hope even when I’m not feeling it, until somehow it wiggles its way into my heart again. It is God’s endurance alongside me, God’s character of faithfulness, God’s hope for humanity and for the world.  This is what strengthens me in times of trouble, to put one foot in front on the other, and to be transformed by the unending love of God through the Holy Spirit. God’s love, that has been poured into your hearts through the Holy Spirit, carries us through toward hope.

And so we boast in God’s triumph. We boast that what looked like the crucifixion of this poor Galilean guy is actually God’s epic victory, where God breaks in but we are also lifted up. We boast that this is not just some event in the past to say “oh that was nice” but still has ongoing relevance. We boast that neither ourselves nor others can say or do anything to us to contradict what God has already declared for us.  That we ARE good and we ARE loved by God, even and especially in our mess. Amen.

Good News

This week’s sacred story comes from Paul’s introduction of his letter to the church in Rome. They’re starting to build a relationship, but they also have to build some shared language and understanding. Read the full text, Romans 1:1-17, here.

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What Good News have you heard lately? I don’t intend for this to be a rhetorical question. Take a second to reflect. What was the last piece of really Good News you heard or received?

Now, I wonder…WHY is that news GOOD? Why was it good TO YOU particularly?  What about it, at its heart, is GOOD? What does it contrast?

The Apostle Paul is writing to this relatively young church in Rome, to a people living life in the heart of a big metropolitan city, to a people working to create a different kind of community, to a people who are for the first time ever…trying to figure out how Jesus and the resurrection equals Good News and what that means for them and for the world. It seems people have forever been trying to figure out what God’s love means and thousands of years later we’re still trying to understand.

As Paul nurtures this relationship with these people, he begins with trying to establish some kind of foundation about what they’re even talking about. And he talks about the Gospel, the Good News, in this way.  He writes that “it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, "The one who is righteous will live by faith." That’s some pretty thick stuff. I feel like I need to stop after every other word to define those too. What does he mean by power, salvation, faith, righteousness? Power is something we’ve seen used for harm and yet here it is cast as a force for good. Salvation has to be one of the most loaded words in history and here it is the hinge of God’s purpose. Faith seems critical to this understanding, but there’s nothing in this text that says faith is a thing that comes from us. Rather, it seems to be something that comes TO us, that is a catalyst FOR us.

The Gospel is the power …of God… for salvation… through faith.  It’s beautiful and all, but what does that even mean? How is that Good News for me when my house is flooding again or when someone steals my stuff or I’m waiting on news from the doctor? I need the meat and potatoes version, down on the ground version.

One Lutheran Pastor reflects on the Gospel this way, they write: “God’s story is always related to human need. For example, if a woman is dying of cancer, the gospel of God’s strong word of resurrection. If a person is permeated with guilt, the gospel is God’s assurance of forgiveness. If people experience extreme suffering, the gospel is the prayer: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble.” For the starving, the gospel may be bread. For a homeless refugee, the gospel may be freedom in a new homeland. For others, the gospel may be freedom from political tyranny. The gospel is always related to human need. It is never truth in a vacuum, a theologically true statement which may or may not relate to one’s life. The gospel is God’s truth, God’s message, God’s action, God’s word to a particular person, to a particular need, to a particular historical situation. You don’t throw a drowning person a sandwich. However good the sandwich may be, it just doesn’t meet that person’s need. You throw a drowning person a life jacket or a lifeline, or you dive in for the rescue. So it is with the gospel. The gospel is God’s truth, God’s actions, aimed at a particular human need.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu said that “I don't preach a social gospel; I preach the gospel, period. The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is concerned with the whole person. When people were hungry, Jesus didn't say, 'Now is that political or social?' He said,'I feed you.' Because the good news to a hungry person is bread.”

 What would be Good News to you? Not just happy news, but ultimate, in-your-gut and the depths of your soul Good News?

Perhaps Good News for you is…

A cold cup of water when you’ve been walking the blazing summer streets for hours.

Perhaps it is a day when you don’t have to live in fear of what might happen to your kid at school today, or at the local park, or when sirens show up.

Perhaps it is the hand that holds yours when the HIV test comes back.

Perhaps it’s being able to go to the doctor without bankrupting themselves.

Perhaps it is being able to look in the mirror and know that when God made you, she said it is very Good – thick thighs, balding pattern, melanin, speech stutter and all.

Paul renounces shame and so perhaps, for you too, the good news is freedom from shame – from stigma, the crap that too often surrounds our conversations about mental health and treatment. Beloved faithful children of God sometimes get the flu and take antibiotics, and sometimes beloved faithful children of God live with depression or anxiety or OCD or struggling marriages and then GO TO THERAPY, or take medication, or both. Perhaps the Good News for you is the reminder that this doesn’t make you a lesser person or any less loved and you’re not the only one.

Perhaps it is the resounding truth that your identity and your value does not reside in whether or not you marry up or reproduce.

Perhaps it is in the autonomy to make the best and most faithful decision you can with your doctor about whether or not to give birth.

Perhaps it is the assurance that God loves us just as much no matter what. NO. MATTER. WHAT.

 For me, the Gospel is a surprising word of hope that’s too big for me to express from my own tongue, often one that arrives without my even realizing that it’s exactly what I desperately needed to hear and experience in the depths of my being.

The gospel is deeply personal, but that doesn’t mean it’s private or proprietary.  As Paul speaks of the Gospel, he does so in conversation with community. When was say the Good News is for us, “us” is plural. It is for all of us. And as he writes, he acknowledges just how important it is to come together in the flesh, to actually occupy the same space. We can keep up relationships at a distance and those relationships can be good, but it’s never quite the same as being physically together, being able to see and sense if someone is really “fine” or just trying to not be inconvenient.

So as you sit there, I want you to take a moment, take a breath, and listen for just a couple minutes, for the Good News God wants you to hear tonight. What would be Good, ultimate, life-giving, liberating, news to your ears and your heart, your body and your soul tonight?

…..

What did you hear? I want to invite you, if you’re comfortable, to take another minute to write it down.  It doesn’t mean we’re trying to re-write the bible, but if the Gospel is revealing God’s goodness, how is that being revealed here and now? Perhaps the Good News God is revealing here is the particular Good News someone else needs to hear too.

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To all God's beloved in Montrose, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world. For God, whom I serve with my spirit by announcing the gospel of his Son, is my witness that without ceasing I remember you always in my prayers, giving thanks that by God's will I am blessed to be among you. Amen.

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After collecting what the people of KINDRED wrote down as Good News, here is the Gospel according to KINDRED:

It is hope in face of despair. God is making God’s home in surprising and delightful relationships with people we can’t even imagine until God puts us together. The dysfunction that plagues the nations, God will turn into function. God is at work now in the world and in individuals who are in our families and neighborhoods. Everyone will be made whole. The Good News is finding a stable job and meaningful work.  It is freedom from guilt and the generosity to share. Take a breath; there are blessings all around you. It is the freedom to stop searching for purpose and to start trusting that living whatever path we have is purpose enough. There is enough time for you to do that which is required of you. Don’t shy away from your call, it’s time. The Good News is the assurance that God loves me even when I battle depression and God is with me. I am not disqualified and it is not too late for me.

Play us out, Ben.

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