kindred

dinner church - sundays @ 5:30pm

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.

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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.

….

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.

…..

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.

The Case of Mistaken Divinity

Acts 13:1-3; 14:8-18

13:1 Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the ruler, and Saul. 2While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." 3 Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.

14:8 In Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet and had never walked, for he had been crippled from birth. 9 He listened to Paul as he was speaking. And Paul, looking at him intently and seeing that he had faith to be healed, 10 said in a loud voice, "Stand upright on your feet." And the man sprang up and began to walk. 11 When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, "The gods have come down to us in human form!" 12Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. 13The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates; he and the crowds wanted to offer sacrifice. 14 When the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting, 15 "Friends, why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. 16 In past generations he allowed all the nations to follow their own ways;17 yet he has not left himself without a witness in doing good—giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy." 18 Even with these words, they scarcely restrained the crowds from offering sacrifice to them.

 

When have you felt powerful? Impfactful? When have other people witnessed you in your element and, “get it, gurl! Yaaas!” Maybe even if you weren’t feeling it yourself?

I have felt this way when:

  • I finished the MS150 on my bike. I felt physically and mentally strong, generous, capable – and it helps me feels strong and powerful in the rest of my life.

  • When we get our kid off to school, on time, with a lunch in her bag, AND matching socks, AND no one cried or yelled

  • when I was leading a women’s retreat, and we were talking about seeing ourselves in the image of God and the disconnect so many of these women felt because the imagery is always male. I got to be the one who said, “no, that’s not true and here’s where you can find many many examples of God as feminine in the Bible” – as mother, as one who rejoices and one who weeps, as wisdom, as persistence - all of these femme depictions in our sacred stories.  It felt soooo good introducing this room full of women to parts of scripture that had been hidden from them, knowing that it was Gospel, good news, that they desperately needed to hear and embody.

    Now, I acknowledge that this moment was the work of the Holy Spirit – in calling me to this work of teacher and of pastor – this work of tending and caring for the souls of others, and giving me the particular gospel perspective of a woman, in providing me formal and informal teachers who revealed such affirmation and liberation to me, in bringing this community of women together, and lighting the fire of curiosity and longing for God and God’s image within us.  But I also felt pretty darn smart for being able to pull those scripture references out, and felt pretty awesome about myself as one bad mamma jamma. That night, if someone called me Zeus or Hermes, sometimes I feel like….yeah, pretty close. I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t feel good about ourselves, about the work God calls us to each day, and all the places of joy. Because we SHOULD celebrate and bask in those moments. But I think this text also shows us how tricky it can be to discern the direction for our worship and praise, our expectations, and our hope.

When have you felt powerful? Impfactful?

The question I'm beginning to ask myself is...When I’m feelin myself, feeling larger than life, is it because I’m living into God’s call for me, or society’s expectations for me? Do I feel this way because I’ve connected with the depths of my own soul, the Holy Spirit’s work in and for me? OR because it’s what makes sense to everyone around me as power and achievement? Because those can be two different things.

Saul (who will later be renamed Paul) and Barnabas are called by the Holy Spirit and blessed by their peers to teach and heal. Through the power of God, they do incredible things, seemingly impossible things.  They are changing lives and hearts in powerful ways but the people around them can't imagine a God who would be willing to share such power, so they use the language and symbols of divinity that they know and understand to make sense of their experience. Jesus said that his followers would do even great things than he did and it's true.  They are raising women like Tabitha from the dead and healing bodies and souls. But the story of Jesus - of his life, and promises, and resurrection...is not the only story being told.

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There are other stories - stories where there are precious few on top and the best you can hope for is to have any connection you can to them, even if it's degrading; stories where you have to constantly hustle in order to be loved or even valued, and the dominant story is of power that serves itself, not one that is given away. This is how most of the people near Paul understand God to be and so they mistakenly place the identity and expectations of God on Paul and Barnabas because of the power and impact they display. At a 2000-year distance, we are tempted to laugh these people off as primitive or superstitious, but these were also human beings just like us - longing for God, longing for God to come close, and trying their best to make sense of their world and the divine.

We too can misplace the identity and expectation of God. We can place it on ourselves, others can place it on us, and we can place it on others. It's all striving, longing for God to be near us, to be present, which is true.

It’s not a huge jump between feeling close to God and reflective of God’s image and power, to believing the critical voice in the back of our heads, the crowds and culture that wants us to believe we ARE God, or we CAN be God…if we can just keep this up. And then, seemingly all of a sudden, our longing switches between longing for God and longing to maintain the exhausting façade of divinity, to be constantly at the top of our game. OR, we place our ultimate hope in another human being to fulfill us, make us whole, and love us in ways that only God can and so we end up frustrated and broken-hearted when we are reminded that they are indeed mortal and imperfect.

It's hard to untangle all these stories to reveal one that is true. But that true story endures.

Jesus is alive, God is present and active, the Holy Spirit is speaking to us, through us, and sending us. Sometimes we don’t know what to call her, sometimes we call her by the names we are most familiar with, but aren’t quite right. But we keep searching for God and are surprised to find God already and always within us - the source of our power and calling, always and already among our people - speaking from the Holy Spirit as they bless and encourage us, already and always at work in the world - bringing Christ’s resurrection healing and love to all of creation in the ways it is most needed.  

For the ways that God has called and empowered you to be one bad mamma jamma, I give so much thanks. For the communities God gives us to speak a divine word of blessing and encouragement over us, even and especially when we feel like we don't deserve it, I give thanks.  For the blows to my ego and confrontation of my limitations that remind me that I'm not God, I...reluctantly but inevitably...give thanks. For the nurturing, wise, raw, and persistent Spirit of God, that wraps me in this enduring true story of Good News of love above all else, I give thanks.  Amen.



The Conversion of Peter

Acts 10:1-17, 34-35

1 In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. 2 He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. 3 One afternoon at about three o'clock he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and saying to him, "Cornelius." 4 He stared at him in terror and said, "What is it, Lord?" He answered, "Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. 5 Now send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter; 6 he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside." 7 When the angel who spoke to him had left, he called two of his slaves and a devout soldier from the ranks of those who served him, 8 and after telling them everything, he sent them to Joppa. 9 About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11 He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. 12 In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 Then he heard a voice saying, "Get up, Peter; kill and eat." 14 But Peter said, "By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean." 15The voice said to him again, a second time, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane." 16 This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven. 17 Now while Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen, suddenly the men sent by Cornelius appeared. They were asking for Simon's house and were standing by the gate.
34 Then Peter began to speak to them: "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.

I was a pretty awkward teenager.  I suppose all teenagers are somewhat awkward as we wrestle with our identity and community, our brains trying desperately to catch up to our growing bodies. But I was looking through old yearbooks recently and was came face to face with this part of my story. I feel like it took me a particularly long time to figure it all out. And I don’t know about yours, but my middle school and high school seemed liked ones where everybody else had already figured out the right way to be. So I tried to wear the “right” clothes, say the “right” things, be a part of the “right” clubs, but I wasn’t particularly convincing and I lived constantly in fear that the people around me didn’t really want me to be there, or especially to be a part of them.

I talk about teenage years as if these insecurities and struggles have completely passed.  But even now, I’m tempted to subscribe to some socially accepted version of what’s right, instead of the holy integrity already within me. Trying to be another person’s version of ourselves, of who God created you to be, not only frustrates our own souls, it actively rejects God’s beautiful and holy creation in us.  

Cornelius does so many of the “right” things, but people like him will never quite be “in” as Peter understands it.  And in this story it seems, the issue is not so much about Cornelius’ feeling of being left out as the establishment’s preoccupation that they are excluded, at least from the fullness of this Christian life.

Cornelius is a centurion which means he is Roman, which means he is not a Jew. Since Jesus was Jewish, and so most of his followers were Jewish, it follows that the church being born after his Resurrection primarily had a Jewish identity. And this early church is trying to figure out who they are, what life looks like in light of the resurrection, and Peter and his followers still think that Jewish and non-Jewish is an important distinction this identity. And I’m not saying that’s inherently wrong because as a religious and ethnic minority, this cultural and identity distinction is rather important. The effect is that the status quo has become that non-Jews (aka Gentiles) are welcome, but always a little less than, second-class. They simply don’t share that same background, history, know the same songs and movements and rituals in the same ingrained way...

So the writer of Acts wants us to know that Cornelius - is definitely one who would fall outside that understanding of the “right” Christian community. But then they also throw some wrenches in there - this “outsider” sure does look a lot like a follower of Jesus in practice. Devout, prayerful, generous, trusting of God enough to send his best people to follow God’s mystery. And the scripture tell us through the angel that God sees and hears, and receives all these things.

So that’s who is coming down the road, or represented by who’s coming toward the house of Peter, the rock, the head of the church.

Meanwhile, at Peter’s house, as he settles down for pre-meal nap - it’s visions of food, animals specifically.  The animals he sees are animals that are outside what had been good and sacred practice for generations and generations. These are ritually unclean creatures and the understanding was that consuming them would make him unclean too. And yet, the voice of God is saying to eat them.  It seems Peter is always thinking God’s words are a test of his passion, but it turns out God actually means what God says. He awakes, still confused about what God would have him do, what it all means. And then....Cornelius’ crew shows up, strangers, unclean, asking for him by name. And that’s when Peter goes “oh God, we weren’t just talking about food before were we?”

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From parables and visions, and those mystical experiences where we know we’ve been close to God, I find that God often teaches us sideways. If God had told Peter flat out that he should welcome these people, he would have done so...eventually, but his heart probably not have changed so significantly.  Perhaps Peter would have tolerated them and given welcome lip service but without God’s work, he would not have come to this point of full embrace. God talks to Peter about food, but teaches him about people. Often this takes repetition and hindsight before we can see where God was a part of guiding us and shaping us.

Sometimes this story is called the conversion of Cornelius, but while it IS a shift for him to name claim the Christian Community and the explicit Yahweh, he was already practicing an Easter way of life - worship, prayer and generosity - public, personal, and outward. Just as significantly, Peter is changed, converted to a new way of thinking about God and God’s people, an Easter way that reminds us and activates us by God’s work of revealing connection and integration, reconciliation between things we thought were separate or far off.

When Peter stands by the tradition and the rules of religion and refuses to come into contact with things unclean, Peter’s not technically wrong. But Jesus shows us time and time again that being right isn’t as important as being human - created good and in love and for one another. The rules and the law aren’t the most important thing, people are. Jesus is always breaking the religious law - healing on the sabbath, touching the unclean people, building relationships with foreigners...for the sake of love. This Easter way reveals that this new creation is one where the law is love. Jesus says the greatest commandments are to Love God and Love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus doesn’t say to love your religiosity, your brand of people, or or even just yourself - but to extend all that love to the ends of the earth. Because that’s what Christ does, and as followers of Christ, that’s what God is guiding us and shaping us for, often in unexpected ways.

We all get stuck trying to be right all on our own, or at least more right than THEM. We sink into tribalism, thinking that “our people” are the right people. But tribalism leads to dehumanization of those outside the tribe.  And anything not human can be hated, and hatred leads us to violence, even when that violence is ultimately against ourselves.. We have had too many case studies lately - murderous attacks against muslims, jews, then retaliation towards christians, ongoing oppression and violence toward women, people of color, and the poor.

Yesterday morning we lost a young woman named Rachel Held Evans - at just 37 years old, she wasn’t an ordained pastor but she was a passionate preacher, a transformatively honest writer and speaker, and her radical conviction for the wide welcome of Christ often got her in trouble with the religious institution.  Her books were pulled from store shelves and she was essentially marked unclean by the gatekeepers of religious rightness. And yet, this devout, prayerful, generous woman was bold enough to write about the church like this. She writes: “this is what God’s kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there’s always room for more.”

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Inclusion and diversity are easily reduced to hollow buzzwords. We perform welcome, but our hearts keep their distance from one another. But I find hope in how God keeps at us, nudging us together, opening us up to on another so that we might know the fullness of God and God’s redemption through one another, precisely through the ones we’d like to keep at a distance, those we would rather not embrace. After all, it wasn’t Petere’s amazing preach that attracted Cornelius, but God’s call. It isn’t Peter’s amazing wisdom and enlightenment that reveal a new way, but God’s vision. In this way, resurrection occurs not just in how others are changed by God’s grace and welcome, but how we are changed and made more aware and connected to God through diversity - through God’s wide welcome, even when it confuses us. Amen.




Resurrection is Here

Matthew 28:1-10 - The Resurrection of Jesus

28After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” This is my message for you.’ 8So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.9Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’

I wonder what Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were expecting that morning when they left the house. I wonder what you expected out of this day. Perhaps, like the Mary’s, we cling to tradition and ritual because they have offered us comfort or helped us make sense of things before, or because we’re not sure what to do, but this seemed as good an option as any. Or perhaps we even dare to hope in the back of our hearts that what Jesus said about returning on the third day was true, that the words of hope were real, that things can be as God promises.  Perhaps we, like the guards, stand ready to keep death in its place, but we just can’t do it.

I was standing in the church office when someone told me that Notre Dame was burning. I remember shaking my head confused. It seemed like the words they said were never meant to go together - an impossible and incomprehensible sentence. I guess my mind had established this thing as some untouchable monolith. Pictures starting coming in of a steeple reduced to a haunting skeleton until even it collapsed completely into ash. It surprised me to feel heartbroken over a thing that I’ve never seen in person, or acknowledged any kind of connection to. But among other things, it grieved me to see the world lose something so beautiful. The night settled in and there was nothing to do but wait and see what was left in the morning. As the dawn of a new day revealed what had been lost, it also showed what the fires did not consume - the iconic rose window, the bees that were housed on the roof, and the gilded cross still above the altar even while surrounded by charred fragments. Light comes out of the ashes.  We see as much in the cathedrals of Paris as the black churches of Louisiana and the mosques of Jerusalem. Perhaps we expect only to find death or disappointment, but we are surprised and to encounter life.

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As Easter dawns, the very earth shakes, is disrupted, is shifted. We are moved and I’m shook. Even the earth itself echoes the seismic upheaval that comes with the resurrection.  Angels appear like lightning, there’s an electric energy in the air as even the fundamental elements of creation cry out in glory. The tomb is split open and I think I’ve been split open with it as well.

The disruption extends from the elements of creation to the ordering of society. On this first Easter morning, like always, God makes a point to show up through the ones that others counted out. It seems the resurrection isn’t just about defying the grave, but creating a new way, one that makes room for and lifts up those who have been overlooked or excluded. On this first Easter Sunday, God disrupts the status quo, the social order, indeed the patriarchy by showing up first among women, commissioning them to be the ones to share the story first, to be the first lady preachers.

Taking it all in, they are filled with fear and joy. Not one or the other, but both together. Perhaps they fear they won’t be believed, that they and their story will be rejected.  Perhaps they fear they WILL be believed and they know that upsetting the status quo is dangerous work. But they have joy in the knowledge that clearly none of those things can stop God and God’s insistence on life and life abundant.

The angel and the risen Christ tell the women to go and tell the others.  This story is too good to be contained. Go and tell them that God’s love can’t be stopped, the death doesn’t get the final word, that oppressive empires can try their tired old tactics, but it won’t last. This Easter Day and this Easter story  is for sharing. Sharing! Not explaining or theorizing, just being with one another as we together bask in this new dawn. This is not a day for doctrine, but dancing. It’s scary and exciting.

Resurrection is here, resurrection is happening now, can you not feel it in your bones? A fear and joy in your own heart? Haven’t you noticed light shining in the darkness, the places of death and destruction transformed into life? The places that were closed off are now opened.  Jesus is risen, and you too arise. You are resurrected from all the powers of sin and death that have hurt you and that resulted in your hurting others . Jesus couldn’t stay dead, didn’t stay dead, and God does not leave you for dead either. God loves you so much, they will go to the grave and back for you.  Alleluia. Amen.

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Jesus for President

This week’s sacred story comes from Luke 19:28-40, where Jesus enters Jerusalem for the last time. He is greeted with a kind of royal fanfare, but with whatever the people have on hand - a donkey and worn coats as opposed to a chariot and red carpet.

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What a rollercoaster! What a whirlwind within a week! It feels like we’re sitting in the eye of a hurricane -the outer bands of the storm have already thrashed us about, and we know there’s more to come - perhaps even the “dirty” side of the storm. But before that, and before we reach blue skies on the other side, there’s a pause.

In the eye of the hurricane there is quiet. For just a moment. A yellow sky.

In this suspended moment, we might notice that what’s happening is bigger than us, bigger than the church, bigger than what we can fathom or understand.
In this moment, we might also be drawn deeply into our skin, into the tangible, the world immediately at hand - and we might recognize familiar faces between God’s story and our own - how we are both impacted by friends, politicians, and society or crowds.
In this moment, as we look around, we might become keenly aware that we’re in this together, connected.

We’ve been calling this season a journey which we know is metaphorical and yet it also has been experiential, with real grit and gristle.

Sometimes I wonder why we tell this story, year after year. It’s not like we don’t know the ending For me, it’s beautiful and hopeful to hear that God is with us in the form of a newborn baby on a still and starlit night in December...but what I really need to know is if God is still with me in the hustle and the heartbreak and the hurt. This is the week where the rubber meets the road to Jerusalem, where we see God in the mix of triumph, tragedy, and politics.

The word “politics” comes from the word “polis” which is Latin for “cities” and so politics is anything having to do with civil affairs, basically how we organize our public life together. It’s a necessary and part of society.

And sometimes I would really like Jesus to stay tucked away in a convenient compartment of life, someone I can visit on the weekends or in my proverbial free time but God is apparently hell-bent on not just redeeming some small portion of my being but all of it and not just mine, but the whole world, the whole of society which...inherently includes politics - how we live together.

God with us in the world - through, with, and under all things inherently makes a political (although not necessarily partisan) claim. When Caesar Augustus was born it was announced to the people as good news, evangelion, the same word we translate as “gospel.” These words were etched in the stone, erected as monuments. So when we say that the life, death, and resurrection of Christ is the Gospel, it’s not only religious but treasonous.

“Since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior, both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance (excelled even our anticipations), surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings for the world that came by reason of him,”

“Since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior, both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance (excelled even our anticipations), surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings for the world that came by reason of him,”

When the crowds throw a royal parade and cry out to call Jesus king of kings, it means Herod is not the ultimate king. When it is written that Jesus is Llord, the implication is that Caesar is not. When we say Jesus is the leader of the free world, it means the president of the United States is not.
Philippians 3:20 tells us that we are Citizens of heaven. That doesn’t mean where we live doesn’t matter but it does mean our allegiance is first to God and not a country or a flag. This week reminds us that Jesus is ultimately executed by the state not for blasphemy but for treason.

So while politics and world affairs often feels like the last place we would experience God’s presence, it is also where that good news seems particularly powerful - in the intersection of self and society, local and global.

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The gospel, god with us in body, in place and time, god who is and creates life, death, and resurrection makes a claim about our whole selves, and our whole world. It is both political and so much bigger than politics and partisanship. It shows us that God has something to say about how we govern ourselves and the systems that organize our public life together. It has something to say to each of us.

Sacred Mysteries

This week’s sacred story comes from John 12:1-8 where Jesus is hanging out with friends over dinner when things get a little intimate. Read the full story here.

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I wonder…When have you felt closest to God? What was around you? Who was around you? What do you see, feel, taste, smell, hear? I wonder. ..Have you ever felt so close to God that you felt a part of God- one with your Creator? Your Liberator? Your Sustainer? What was that like?

I bet it wasn’t in a zero-gravity chamber of silence by yourself. I bet there was something around you that played a part – the scent of something soothing or stringent that filled your nostrils - carried on a soft breeze or a powerful wind, the touch of a hand on your shoulder holding you steady or pushing you forward, in the ache of your side – sore from laughing, or in the sting of tears that burn hot on your cheeks, in the sound of a song or a voice that reaches into your soul or the splash of water at bath time, the sight of something beautiful and/or broken – wildflowers along the bayou or a haunting yet holy hospital bed, the taste of something delightful, earthy, shared.

Perhaps you have known the closeness of God in the mystical birth of a new baby, flush, crying, and raw. Perhaps you have felt God nearest standing next to a loved one preparing to die or already gone.

Jesus doesn’t exist in a zero-gravity vacuum either. God is not kept in a pristine museum within a protective glass shield.

Here, with the crucifixion on the horizon, God has gathered with friends - people who have seen each other at their highs and lows. They have shared the mundane task of washing dishes together, the depths of grief, and the miracle of life restored.  Here they sit around the dinner table together, talking about that crazy thing they overheard at the market today and the way their knee has really been hurting them lately. Jesus is in there - in the midst of people and moments that share the intimacy of the nitty gritty of life, the details, the nooks and crannies of what we really are when we’re not putting on a show.

As the evening winds down and the plates are emptied, they linger together. Mary of Bethany places herself at the feet of Jesus, at the feet of her Rabbi, the place of a disciple. She pulls out this really fancy perfumed oil…like Gucci level stuff, worth more than a day laborer would make in an entire year. She doesn’t hold back on the good stuff, but pours it out, filling the whole room with its sweetness. She dips her hand into the oil and rubs it into the calloused feet of a savior, a mark of blessing but also a ritual for burial.  She pulls her dark coarse hair over her shoulder and pats Jesus’s feet dry. This act is both deeply human and humble-using what it at hand and her very body, and divinely luxurious-extending beyond the typical. This is a rare and precious thing.

The juxtaposition of the moment got me thinking about what is luxury? What is truly liberating and what is performative justice – what do we, like Judas, want to appear as saying the righteous thing, but have prioritized our own  benefit whether financial or social over actual impact? Often we associate luxury with expensive, something’s enormous cash value. This week I was introduce to a wonderful little Instagram account called PreachersNSneakers that posts pictures of celebrity preachers and then where you can by the sneakers they're seen wearing on stage for $500-$5000 a pair. And those pastors aren't putting those fancy sneaks on the feet of Christ headed to the cross. Designer labels are one kind of luxury. And it's this understanding of luxury and wealth that is what Judas gets stuck son as he tries to mansplain to Mary why she's doing it wrong.  Um, actually….

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But Mary and Jesus model a different kind of extravagance, one that recognizes the elevation of everyday moments as they transcend the typical. It’s rare, special, set apart...and rare doesn't necessarily mean expensive. To me, sitting still with a cup of coffee and finally reading the magazines that have been sitting on my end table seems like luxury...because it doesn't happen that often. Standing at the kitchen counter while everyone in the family's works together to peel potatoes, snap beans, and carefully measure ingredients for dinner feels extravagant because somehow time seems to flatten and there's somehow beauty in things that are really just mechanical.

I have always been frustrated by the false dichotomy of the world, the lie that we always hear that things are either this or that. Someone is either good or bad. Something is either secular or religious. Something is either holy or profane, human or divine. In Jesus, and as we see in this text, the dividing wall is dissolved.

Judas says that the perfume should have been sold and the money should have been given to the poor….after he skimmed what I'm sure is what he considered a fair portion for himself off the top.  But Jesus says no, that marking this rare moment with rare substance is holy. This is not a license to dismiss the poor or ignore poverty altogether. That would put us right back into the false dichotomy that Care for the poor and care for the spiritual are mutually exclusive, you can either do one or the other, that you have physicality over here and spirituality over there. God brings them together in a hands-on way, in the flesh, in bodies, in everyday transcendent rarities.

Healing and wholeness, experiences of the divine come to us not just in word but when those words connection with action, where they break through the plane of abstract ideas to tangible reality - touch, taste, smell, sound, the sight of something rich and delightful. God gives us these sense not only for our survival, but for our delight, our healing, for our connection to a God who must also be a sensual God.  

In the Lutheran tradition we use the word sacrament to talking about things that are a combination of divine promise, earthly elements and Christ’s command. This officially points us to two rarefied gifts in particular, communion and baptism, as they embody God’s promise for new life with everyday items of food, drink. Jesus explicitly told us to do these things, to notice how God is at work particularly in these things, and how God is re-membered/put together and is made known in full when we do them.

So with those parameters, the Lutheran church officially recognizes these two things as sacraments - communion and baptism.  But the word sacrament literally means sacred mystery. When you think about those moments when you've felt close to God, doesn't it feel like sacred mystery best describes that experience? So our lives are filled with things that remain sacramental, holy and mysteriously so. These things reveal/create a thin space where the divine and the daily come so close to each other that we know there's something more to this thing.  I think back to the moment Mary, the mother of Jesus and Elizabeth got together while pregnant and Elizabeth noticed the movement of her body as a reaction to God’s activity in that moment, that her growing womb was dancing around in joy. Isn't that a holy mystery? Likewise I find it to be sacramental when we are crying with a friend in grief, in a comforting and safe embrace when we've felt raw and vulnerable, in the sweet taste of birthday cake shared with friends and family.

Naming these thing as holy may seem decadent, indulgent, a bit of a stretch...but that's what God seems to be all about.

The impact of these sacramental gifts doesn't remain in only that moment, but prepares us for things to come.  As this anointing of Jesus prepares him for the trial, crucifixion, and burial to come. So may our anointing strengthen us for the work or justice, soften us to see beauty in the midst of struggle, and fill us with hope for what is possible in Christ. Amen.  

The Prodigal

This week’s sacred story comes from Luke 15:1-3, 11-32 where Jesus tells a parable of dysfunctional family and the love of God that overflows, even there. Read the full story here.

Guest preaching this week is our own Community Coordinator, Shannon Schaefer.

“The Prodigal Son” by He Qi

“The Prodigal Son” by He Qi

"This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."

When our sacred story begins tonight, Jesus is teaching, and the tax collectors and sinners - the scoundrels, the up-to-no-goods, the scandalous, the shameful, the worthless on-the-margins spectacles with unseemly reputations - these are the ones who come to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and Scribes - the pious, the law-abiding, the privileged socially and religious elite, the ones who are the gate-keepers for who is 'in' and who is 'out' - they grumble against Jesus.

"He welcomes sinners and eats with them."

Some have suggested that the reason Jesus is so often the target of the religious elites' grumbling is that Jesus himself is a Pharisee. Jesus knows the law and prophets. He speaks in the synagogues and has access to the temple. As a religious elite himself, he's constantly in conversation with the Jewish tradition, and yet also constantly clarifying and redefining the heart of that tradition. In other words, the Pharisees are conservatives who want the time-honored traditions of Judaism to be upheld, and to stick very close to the status quo.

And Jesus is sort of a Pharisee gone rogue, gone progressive. He's reinterpreting the core tenets of the Jewish faith. We hear this in the gospels where Jesus says, "You have heard it said... but I say..." For instance, in Matthew 5, Jesus says, "You have heard it said 'you shall not commit murder and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment. But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgement." 

He's reinterpreting his tradition and clarifying what's most important. And he does it even in his practices, his actions in the world with others. Pharisees didn't associate with sinners, and definitely didn't eat with them.

But Jesus does.

His teaching is not simply to other elites, but Jesus goes to the masses, the everyday trying-to-make-it folks, and spends his energy there. The tax collectors and sinners come to listen. "He welcomes them and eats with them," the Pharisees grumble.

“The Prodigal Son” - Jesus Mafa

“The Prodigal Son” - Jesus Mafa

So Jesus turns to them with a story: "There was a man who had two sons."

For the Pharisees, who have spent the better part of their lives reading and studying the Hebrew scriptures, a number of old stories should come to mind as Jesus tells this tale. In Ancient Near Eastern Cultures, which includes Israel, the typical way of things is that the oldest son of a father would inherit the biggest portion of the father's property and receive the birthright blessing. In a patriarchal society, it's how things "should go."

But one very interesting detail is that the Hebrew scriptures continually upend this patriarchal paradigm.  Abraham is a father with two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael is the older brother, but Isaac, the younger one, is the one through whom God's promises are enacted. Isaac has two sons, Esau and Jacob. Esau is the older brother, but Jacob tricks his father and steals the birthright. He's the one who gets the blessing, though he's the younger. Jacob has many sons, but it's his youngest two, Joseph and Benjamin, he loves most. When Joseph brings his own sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, to the bedside of his dying father, Jacob blesses the younger son more. Joseph corrects his father, putting Jacob's right hand on the older, but Jacob switches his hands back to bless the younger grandson with the better blessing, saying, "the younger brother shall be greater than the older." Jesse has many sons, but it is his youngest, David, who becomes 'the' David, King David, the one after God's heart. All of these stories are in the cultural memory of the pharisees as Jesus tells this story.


"A man had two sons and the younger one came asking for his inheritance."

I imagine those hearing might be poised and ready for the younger son to get what's coming to him. After all, he has some serious audacity: "Why don't you just go die already so I can have your stuff?" In effect, that's what he says to his father. So when the younger son returns, the hearers are ready for some justice. What a punk kid! Pardon, but what an ass! Maybe the father won't even let him return as a servant!

But it's the father who has the audacity.

That father, he's at the edge of his property. He's been watching, waiting, scanning the horizon, ready to run, to embrace. He has a calf ready for the celebrating, with robes and ring prepared, and the younger son doesn't get justice, but utter and unbelievable mercy.

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"Un-freaking-real," the pharisees must be thinking. It's what the older brother thinks.

He's kept the law. He's played by the rules. He's played it safe, set aside his wants and desires to stay in the father's house, poised for that blessing. And when the younger son is celebrated, he's utterly resentful. He tried so hard to earn the love that was his all along. The Pharisees are the older brother in the story. As the religious elite, they've kept close to the law, earning their upstanding status and favor with God and society.

Who is Jesus then? If the Pharisees are the older brother...

Here we get into the intricacies of the Trinity, this idea that the One God is also a Three-ness. We can't explain it - it's a mystery. But Jesus, as the one who is both fully God and fully human being, is both the father and the prodigal son - the younger son - in the parable. Jesus as the father figure is the option that I think instinctively makes the most immediate sense to us. He welcomes and eats with tax collectors and sinners. It's this, his mercy and disregard for social convention, that gets the Pharisees grumbling. He celebrates the far-off ones who come to listen to him. Here the divinity, the God-ness, of Jesus is on full display.

But Jesus is also, I would argue, the younger son in this story.

From the Pharisees' perspective, his progressive reinterpretation of the Jewish tradition and welcoming of the non-elite as disciples and friends is akin to taking a rich inheritance, squandering it, and feeding the swine. They stayed close to God, they think, while Jesus in their view strays. But more than the Pharisees' view of Jesus's faith and practice, it is the incarnation that allows Jesus to be the prodigal younger son. The idea of the incarnation is that in Jesus, God takes on a human body, and in so doing makes it possible for human beings to return to fellowship and communion with God. Jesus, then, is God in our body, and on the cross, he walks the path of the prodigal son, taking his divine inheritance from the Father God and spending it lavishly on the tax collectors and sinners - on us.

In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul says that the work God does in Jesus is the work of reconciliation, the work of bringing human beings back home to God. He says in verse 21, "For our sake," - for yours and mine - "For our sake, God made Jesus to be sin who knew no sin that in Jesus we might become the righteousness of God." So this story of the prodigal son, it points to the cross. It points to the mercy and embrace we are being offered.

Did you hear what the father in the parable says to the older son? He says this:

"But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and was found."This brother of yours was dead. And he has come to life. He was lost and now is found. Dead and come to life. This is the cross, and this is resurrection. Lost and now is found. This is the journey of God in our human flesh, coming into our midst, into our bodies, the move from divinity toward humanity and then the return home to the love of God.

St. Athanasius, who lived in the 4th century, says that Jesus is God becoming human, so that human beings can become God. In other words, Jesus is the path of our restoration to the divine image. We are made to look like God, be like God, but we fall short because of sin. But Jesus makes it possible again. And in the story, the robes and the ring are perhaps our return to that divine image. This coming home to God is a journey, a path we travel. And the reality of our lives - of my life - is that we are often going out from God and coming back to God.

The good news is that God is always waiting, fatted calf, rings, robe, embrace, ready for me - for you - to come home, and to know mercy. Our return to the table of communion each week is a metaphor for the road back to God. Every week, we leave this place and go back out in to the wild of the world, like prodigals, taking the riches of the table with us. And every week, we come back to this place where we can be a kind of home for one another - looked for, known, embraced, and the table is set for celebration. We enact the welcome of God together. We have been dead and are moving toward life. We have been lost and are being found. And we find one another. Paul says that Jesus is God reconciling with us. But then he goes on to say that that work of reconciling others to God is also our work, our ministry.

“The Return of the Prodigal Son” - Rembrandt

“The Return of the Prodigal Son” - Rembrandt

I wonder, who in your life do you to need to return to?

Who have you judged like the older brother and where are you trying to earn love?

And who can you be home for? In other words, how can you embody the mercy and embrace of God for someone else?

For more reading on this story and how it subverts and shapes our understanding of God, check out:
”The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming” - by Henri Nouwen

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