Monday, September 20, 2021

The G.O.A.T.

 


Mark 9:30-37

Proper 20 / Year B

If you listen to Sports Talk Radio, as I do, you know often there is a debate about “the G.O.A.T.”  Now, it used to be a goat in sports referred to a person who lets down the team; like the batter who strikes out with the bases loaded or the kicker who misses a game winner.  Well, this usage largely has disappeared and a new meaning has emerged.  G.O.A.T. now is an acronym signifying “Greatest of All Time” - the best player ever at his or her sport or position.  Tom Brady is the G.O.A.T. of NFL quarterbacks.  Novak Djokovic had an opportunity to become the G.O.A.T. of men’s tennis, but failed to win the US Open last week.  And nothing stirs up impassioned debate like arguing who is the G.O.A.T. of basketball – Michael Jordon or LeBron James.

Sports lends itself well to this kind of discussion because it has so many measurables: wins, batting average, championships, points, and so on.  Most occupations lack these concrete elements.  How would you determine which teacher is the G.O.A.T.?  By comparing students’ SOL results?  You could determine the G.O.A.T. of realtors merely by calculating volume of sales, but isn’t there more to the profession than this?  And how in the world could you ever figure out the G.O.A.T. of preachers?  Most parishioners in the pews or fewest people who fall asleep or something else?

I suspect most of us are not driven to be the G.O.A.T. at what we do.  We want to be the best we can possibly be, but recognize ‘greatness’ is awfully difficult to obtain.  When we say (for example) “Jan Gates is so great at flower arranging” we are highlighting a particular skill or ability.  We intend it to be a compliment, but is not an indication she is the G.O.A.T of all flower arrangers who possesses an exalted position of over everyone else.  St. Paul’s is blessed to have several people who excel in this area.  We appreciate their contributions.  We don’t attempt to rank them.

Well, hopefully all of these musings help you to grasp the absurdity of what the disciples discussed amongst themselves in today’s gospel reading: Which of them is the G.O.A.T.?  Umm, the fact they are asking the question suggests the answer is this: None of them!  Can you imagine walking into a Vestry meeting and finding our elected parish leadership arguing about who of them is the greatest?  Could anything be less Southern!  I can’t even begin to imagine the criteria the disciples draw on to justify their self-importance.  Number of converts?  Most “you have answered correctly” responses from Jesus?  Longest beard?  It is just unfathomable.

Jesus, as he so often does, defines kingdom living and kingdom behavior by reversing norms and expectations.  “Whoever wants to be first must be last and a servant to all.”  And then he enacts a parable by taking a child into his arms and saying “Whoever welcomes a little child welcomes me.”  In other words, your greatness manifests itself in how you treat the least, the last, the lost, and the lonely.  You manifest greatness not by mastering a particular skill or craft, but by being mindful of others… especially those people who don’t seem to matter in the eyes of the world.

Since we’re talking sports, when LeBron James came back to the Cleveland Cavaliers several years ago he had one goal: to bring a championship to the people of Northeast Ohio.  In order to accomplish this he knew he had to be more than the G.O.A.T. on the basketball court.  He had to show every member of the team and the organization what it takes to be a winner.  One night in the locker room after a game, James noticed how all of his multi-million dollar teammates left their sweaty uniforms and wet towels in piles on the floor for the lowly laundry boy to pick up.  LeBron called the players together and told them they would never be champions until they recognized and valued the contributions of each and every person in the organization.  “Champions,” he said, “put their dirty clothes in the laundry basket as a sign of respect for the person who does the laundry.”  “And,” he told them, “they know the name of the person who does the laundry and each and every day they thank him (by name) for what he contributes to the overall effort.” 

Jesus reminds us greatness is about how you give yourself to others.  You can measure which pop star sold the most records in a single year, but you can’t measure how he, she, or anyone of us values another person.  Still, we all recognize when we see it the kind of greatness which Jesus admires.

I love this morning’s first reading from the Wisdom of Solomon.  It contains such wonderful, evocative language as it describes what happens if you attempt to hold yourself to a high standard… there will be plenty who wait anxiously to cheer your fall.  Solomon is looking at the same thing Jesus is –greatness – only from a different vantage point.  From where he stands, greatness involves attempting to know “the secret purposes of God.”  It is about “hoping for the wages of holiness”, which I suspect won’t help your credit rating but will make you a more loving, caring, and thoughtful person.  And it is about discerning the “prize” that awaits for “blameless souls”, which may be eternal life, but even more I think in means you can look at yourself in the mirror with as little a sense of shame or regret as possible.

So, we live in an era obsessed with G.O.A.T.s.  This morning’s reading invites us to ponder what it means to be Great as God Estimates (G.A.G.E.).  While I don’t think G.A.G.E. is going to replace G.O.A.T. in our cultural lexicon anytime soon, nor will it even approach the stratosphere of W.W.J.D. (What would Jesus do?), it is worth considering.  What makes a person great: Nailing the championship-winning three point shot with seconds left on the clock or saying to the laundry boy after the game “Richie, thanks for everything you do to help us be a better team?”  What makes a person Great as God’s Estimates?


Monday, September 13, 2021

Let Go & lean In

 


Mark 8:27-38

Proper 19 / Year B

I don’t know how many of you journal, but it can be a wonderful spiritual exercise.  The process has a surprising way of allowing clarity to emerge.  Such a moment happened for me on Thursday as I engaged in the weekly discipline of writing my portion of Friday’s e-news.  Sometimes I enter into this chore well-aware of where Sunday’s sermon is heading.  Other times I am lost at sea.  In moments such as these, just opening myself to whatever is buried, but stirring, provides for me some direction.  Last Thursday these words transmitted themselves from somewhere inside me, through a keyboard, and onto a computer screen:

More and more, as our world increasingly grows more complicated and our attempts to master it feel increasingly futile, it is worth coming back to the question of who we say Jesus is and what we believe Jesus calls us to do. 

For me, at least, this brought into focus so much of what has been weighing on me and weighing me down over the last few weeks…

·    A pandemic raging out of control.

·    A 20-year-long war coming to an inglorious end.

·    A nation divided.

·    An economy which feels like it is teetering on a precipice of disaster.

·    Half of our country is on fire and half is under water.

More locally…

·    Our church, like almost every congregation everywhere, struggles to find a way to move forward in these unprecedented times.

·    Our members continue to grapple with setbacks, crisis, and heartbreak while we are so limited in our ability to express compassion.

·    We struggle to find ways to respond to the needs of our neighbors, such as the folks who used to live in the Suffolk Tower.

And me personally… well, none of you came here this morning to listen to me drone on about the burdens I carry.  Let’s just say pretty much every day this week I had to muster every ounce of energy and every pound of motivation just to get out of bed each morning and face the day.  I am keenly aware I am not in a place all that different from many of you. 

This morning we hear Jesus pose what is the single most important question in human history: Who do you say that I am?  Peter famously answers, “You are the Messiah.”  He is right, of course, but misunderstands exactly what this means.  Consider the context.  Jesus’ older cousin (John the Baptist) has been brutally executed.  Jesus knows he is next and says so plainly.  Peter, thinking a messiah can just snap his fingers and make all the world’s problems evaporate, openly rebukes what Jesus says: “This will never happen to you.” 

Apparently Jesus as Messiah is not in a position to make life problem free – not for himself and not for us.  What he is able to do is show us how to walk in midst of a troubling world.  The pathway looks like this: “Deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow Jesus.  If you want to save your life you will lose it, and if you lose your life in pursuit of the Gospel you will find it.  What will it profit you to gain the world if you lose what is most important in life in the process?”

This, I think, is the heart of Jesus’ teaching.  It is a two-part process: let go and lean in.  Let go of living for yourself alone and lean in to those around you by drawing in on God’s power of love to work in and through you.  

We are blessed to have an example of what this looks like here with us this morning as we welcome Michael Cantrell as our Interim Music Director.  Michael works full-time as a physical therapist and to the best of my knowledge was not seeking to get back into church music at this point in his life.   But one of his patients is a local clergy person and Michael happened to tell him about his music ministry in a Chicago area church prior to relocating to Hampton Roads.  When my colleague learned we needed a person to fill in while we conduct a search, he shared Michael’s contact information with me.  When I reached out I suspect the last thing this young man expected when he answered his phone was my request to help us here at St. Paul’s.  It would have been so easy for him to decline, to say he was not interested, or to say he is not yet settled enough to add something like this onto his plate.  But he let go and he leaned in and we are grateful.

This weekend, as we pause to remember the events of twenty years ago, we remember the heroes who responded, some of whom made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of others.  They let go of their own personal safety and leaned in to save as many as possible.  Those who participated in the massive search and recovery effort risked much in order to save a few and to bring as much dignity as possible to the remains of the dead.  They too let go and leaned in.  And in our world today, we think about our first responders and frontline workers (such as health professionals, teachers, and people employed in the service economy) who accept the risk of contracting the Covid virus simply by doing their jobs.  They are letting go and leaning in every day!

In the years that have passed since 9/11 we have erected memorials and rebuilt with steel and stone and glass, yet it feels like we more are spiritually impoverished now than we were on that dreadful day.  We have not learned how to love our enemies and to pray for those who seek to do us harm (as Jesus teaches).  By demonizing the other, we have invited a poison into our own society.  Our country is fractured and furious and unable to look at the face of another with the humanity necessary to see not just a child of God, but even a fellow citizen.  We are feverishly holding on to everything we can and leaning away from anyone and anything that does not reinforce who we are and what we believe.  What has it profited us to gain the world but to lose the core sense of who we are as a people? 

During my family research I came across a memorable story from the life of William Cochran, Jr., a Pennsylvania and decent person who was one of my Great-great-great grandfathers.  It seems two of his neighbors got into a quarrel.  One neighbor had an counted on using an access road that ran through the property of another neighbor.  Well, the man owning the vital property, fenced in the land, thereby making it impossible for the other to get off his own land.  You can imagine how tense things must have been.  Well, Grandpa Will/Willie/Bill/Billy/William or whatever he was called, did the only thing an 85-year-old man living in 1886 could do.  He picked up an ax and worked tirelessly to hew a new path through his own property to provide for the hemmed in neighbor a new access path to the outside world.  Let go and lean in, allowing God’s power of love to work in and through you!

When I think about the mythology of what it means to be an American (let alone a Christian), William Cochran’s witness is one of so many examples that come to mind.  With such inspiring models to emulate, why do I want to pull the covers over my head each morning in an attempt to create a safer, saner space?  Well, over the last twenty years, the American spirit, which once found strength in diversity, mustered compassion for the needy, and honored virtue and self-sacrifice as a way to create a better world for all, has become meaner, pettier, more selfish, and more agnostic.  As our world increasingly grows more complicated, our attempts to master it feel increasingly futile. 

I recognize I am just one person with one voice being heard by only a couple dozen people, so most likely not much will come from what I say today.  However, Jesus was one person with one voice and in today’s reading it was heard by just a dozen people.  But he lived out what he taught and they learned to live it out too.  And here we are 2,000 years later, listening to what Jesus said and wondering how we might live out its wisdom in our day and age.  Of what are you being challenged to let go and where are you being called to lean in by allowing God’s power of love to work in and through you?  


Tuesday, September 7, 2021

The Powerlessness of God's Love

 


Mark 7:24-37

Proper 18 / Year B

School is back in session and with it comes… as every student will tell you… homework.  Years ago one of the first assignments given to my older daughter was to interview me.  I recall how, after a series introductory questions, she started to probe the topic of religion.  “Do you believe God has the power to heal people?” she asked.  “Yes, I do.”  “Well then, why do you think God doesn’t do it all the time?”  “That,” I remember answering, “is a very good question.” 

It is a good question.  I have to admit it crosses my mind every time I prepare a sermon on one of the healing stories in the Gospels.  If Jesus had the ability to restore hearing and to remove speech impediments, as our reading this morning asserts, and if Jesus had the power to perform all other sorts of healings, then why is there suffering?  Why is there sickness?  Why is there disease?  Why is Covid lingering?  Why is there death?  These are the questions I want to help us think through this morning.

Most people, whether or not they believe in God, have an idea of God which tends to center on power: God is omnipotent… all-powerful; God is in charge of everything; God is like a king or a domineering father or the Lord of all.  This is how most people tend to think of God.  And if this is who God is then our dismay at God’s unwillingness to use this power for our benefit and well-being is all the more justified.

The Christian Gospel starts its understanding of God at a very different place than this.  To read the biblical narratives is to encounter a God who is first and foremost characterized by love.  And love involves not power, but a willingness to risk because when you reach out in love the other’s response is not guaranteed.  Love offered may be met, matched, returned, and cherished.  It can also be rejected, abused, betrayed, and taken for granted.  To risk love is to be vulnerable… even to the point of suffering.  The suffering may come from rejection or it may take the form of witnessing the pain of another.  To love is to be vulnerable, not powerful.

Because God is love, God must allow for freedom.  If the person who loves can compel the object of love to love in return, then the response is not true love.  A response that is coerced or compelled is not love.  So each one of us is free to respond to God’s love however we see fit.  One theologian describes God as being “weak in power but strong in love” because God is willing to be vulnerable to pain in the freedom of love.  Allowing for freedom limits power and implies even greater vulnerability. 

What does all of this say to us about Jesus?  To be sure, Jesus heals and performs other signs of power, but he silences those he has healed, almost as if the act were one of shame.  But why?  A professional wonder worker should know how to milk the dramatic moment, but Jesus seems to keep undercutting the impact of his actions. 

How basic is this to Jesus’ ministry?  Well, the Gospel writer Mark never even uses the Greek word for “miracle” to describe even one of these events.  In fact he often portrays these episodes as doing more harm than good to Jesus’ mission.  They prohibit his ability to move freely throughout a town.  They raise the ire of the authorities.  They motivate people to focus only on satisfying their physical needs while ignoring their spiritual hunger.  And perhaps most important, if God is indeed primarily love offering relationship, then the miracles distort the true nature of God by focusing people’s attention on God’s power rather than on God’s love.

It is as if Jesus is trying to get us to shift our focus on these stories from what they say about his power to what they reveal about his love.  It is tempting to try to frame this love in nice, comforting, benign images… such as Jesus tending to the dainty needs of his wounded sheep.  But the narratives paint for us a very different picture.  Jesus does not heal from a distance, but in the most intimate ways imaginable.  He touches lepers and spits on the tongue of a deaf man.  In the eyes of his contemporaries, the very forms these healings take are both ritually polluting and physically disgusting.

When an important leader of a synagogue begs Jesus to heal his daughter, Jesus delays in order to tend to a nameless women suffering from menstrual hemorrhaging; thereby transgressing important cultural and religious taboos related to gender and status.  If the miracles are intended to show off power, it would have been better to emphasize raising from the dead the daughter of a local dignitary.  But since they are demonstrations of love, the healing of the anonymous woman provides an even more accurate rendering of God’s nature. 

Perhaps the healing stories confuse us because we focus on the outcome and lose sight of the risk, the vulnerability, and the love evidenced in and through them.  These stories point not to power, but to compassion.  The Greek word for compassion is used just 12 times in the Gospels and refers exclusively either to God or Jesus.  The root part of the word compassion is the same word used to describe the part of our anatomy we refer to as our “guts”… the place where we feel most intensely the physical symptoms of emotion.  One theologian says this:

…the Hebrew word for compassion… refers to the womb of Yahweh.  Indeed, compassion is such a deep, central, and powerful emotion in Jesus that it can only be described as a movement in the womb of God… When Jesus was moved to compassion, the source of all life trembled, the ground of all love burst open, and the abyss of God’s immense, inexhaustible, and unfathomable tenderness revealed itself.

My experience, both as a person and through my pastoral ministry, has been when a person comes before God demanding a cure, the outcome is uncertain.  A cure… the complete restoration of health… may happen or it may not.  When it happens the person may give credit to God… but somehow is never moved closer to God through it all.  But when a person opens him/herself to the immense, unfathomable love God risks to offer, some kind of healing always happens.  Keep in mind a healing is not always the same thing as a cure.  But to know God’s love for you is to be healed.  This I believe is the point of the healing stories.  They are invitations not so much to turn to God when we are in need of a physical cure, but to seek God in all times in order to be in a relationship of love.


Monday, August 30, 2021

Did You Wash Your Hands?

 


Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Proper 17 / Year B

The framers of the Lectionary readings have it in for me.  After five weeks on the theme of bread, today they give me this… “It is not what goes into a person that makes one unclean, but rather what comes out.”   Not exactly the teaching on which I want to muse just two days after a colonoscopy!  If ever there was a Sunday to omit the sermon and move straight to the Creed, this is it.  But I will attempt to battle through my recent unpleasantness and try to say something about this reading which will inspire (and not lead to dozens of you calling the bishop’s office in the morning to complain!).

It occurs to me as children each of our parents asked us the same question when we sat down at the dinner table: “Did you wash your hands?”  I recall getting in real trouble once when I said I had, but my father wanted to conduct an inspection.   Well, I had washed my hands, but it was what in NASCAR they refer to as a ‘splash and go.’  With dirt still evident, my father deemed I had lied to him and while I don’t recall what form of punishment he administered, to this day I believe it was unwarranted.  I also learned to be more thorough in my washing rituals moving forward.

It is not often we read a story from a gospel and want to side with the Pharisees and scribes against Jesus, but today is just such a day.  There is something… well… gross about pondering the disciples not washing their hands before eating and there is something stomach-turning about them not washing their food prior to eating it and there is something downright disturbing about eating from dishes and drinking from cups that have not been washed. 

I once served at a church where the Women’s group had a monthly pot-luck lunch to which I was invited.  One of the ladies, Laura, was way up in years and well past the prime of her abilities.  At my first lunch, one of the other members took me aside and said, “Make sure to take some of Laura’s corn pudding so as not to offend her, but whatever you do, don’t eat it.  Let’s just say she does not keep a clean kitchen.”  I can just imagine being at a disciple’s BBQ and St. Andrew walks up to me, grimy hands and all, and says, “Have some of the potato salad.  I made it myself.”  Um, no thanks.

While our natural inclination is to side with the bad guys on this point, if we do so we will miss the point.  You see, they are not accusing Jesus’s followers of being unsanitary, they hold them to be ritually unclean.  In other words, because they did not engage in certain specific religious traditions, the Pharisees and scribes contend the disciples have rendered themselves unfit in God’s eyes.  They have an answer for the great question posed by the 15th Psalm: “Lord, who may abide in your presence?”  Not these fellows with the dirty hands and unwashed dishes, say the Pharisees and scribes. 

Think of it this way.  Suppose when we come to the Confession physical limitations make it difficult or impossible for you to kneel.  Does this mean you are ineligible to receive communion?  Does this make you ‘ritually unclean’?  The Pharisees and scribes would say ‘yes’, but Jesus says ‘no.’  And we get it.  A person’s knees can be firmly bent and planted on the ground and yet the words coming out of the mouth are rote and empty, while the person sitting in a pew a few feet away confesses things done and left undone from a deep and authentic place in the heart. 

When Jesus says it is not what goes into a person which makes one unclean, but what comes out, he is accurate in a very narrow sense.  All of our rituals and ceremonials may be helpful spiritual aids, but none justifies us.  They are not an end unto themselves, but can be a means to greater devotion and more faithful living.  Who cares if you scrub the utensils in the way approved by the elders down through the ages if you still are a thoroughly rotten human being!  So from the perspective of rituals, doing or not doing them does not mean a person is clean or unclean.  Washing your hands does not automatically mean you can abide in God’s presence.

But in a wider sense, what goes into our bodies has a way of shaping what comes out.  It influences who we are, what we know, what we value, and how we act.  Did you see the study which was released this week from the University of Michigan where researchers examined how specific food consumption effects life expectancy?  Among their findings is this: every hot dog you eat takes 36 minutes off of your life.  In our day and age we have a heightened sense of the relationship between diet and health – what goes in and what it does to us.

But more than this, we are aware of how the exterior world has a way of shaping our interior life.  We worry about how violence in video games shapes teenage boys.  We worry about how dubious role models flaunting promiscuous clothing shapes teenage girls.  We worry about how prolonged exposure to extreme media outlets is shaping our citizenry.   

When I served at the church in Richmond we undertook a building program to add a connecting wing to unite the freestanding church with the freestanding parish hall.  One part of the project involved relocating the church offices from the basement of one building to the main level in the new addition.  The budget was tight, but by the grace of God we were able to get it done.  But it took everything we had to get the building up.  The new offices had no furniture, no book cases, no nothing.  My desk was a folding table and my office was littered with boxes of unpacked books and pictures which had nowhere to be displayed.  It was chaos and it was affecting me in numerous ways.  At a monthly meeting of a small group of clergy I described my situation and frustration.  Our group’s facilitator said something I will never forget, “We all need our exterior world to project the kind of order and calm we want to experience in our interior life.  When our exterior world is in chaos, our interior world suffers." 

The relationship between the interior world and the exterior world is dynamic to be sure.  The exterior world affects us in ways we are aware and in ways we are not.  I suspect each one of us here this morning desires in some form or fashion to have our interior world affect for the good the exterior world around us.  Jesus describes some of the negative ways the interior can shape the exterior: “fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly” – all of these even though you have washed your hands and dishes correctly.  If this is the influence you bring to the world, Jesus says you are defiled. 

In his letter to the Church in Galatia, St. Paul describes what he calls the ‘fruit of the Spirit’, interior qualities which well up in us as we allow God to work on us, in us, and through us: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (5:22-23).  Rather than those things which defile, the Apostle notes a person operating from these interior qualities does not need ‘the Law’ to guide them because they are the living embodiment of the intent of the Law.

We often say going to church makes me a better person.  By this, I think we mean it helps us to be more aware of the relationship between the exterior world and our interior life and the kind of impact each can have on the other.  Being here can be like taking a dirty, broken-down clunker through a car wash.  It will make the car look clean and shiny on the outside, but it won’t make it run any better.  Or, this can be one of many places where we bare our heart and soul to God and dedicate ourselves to the missional purpose of making God’s love known in and through everything we do. 

So, in a few moments, when you come to the rail to receive communion, I will not ask if you have washed your hands.  In fact, I won’t ask you any question at all.  But if I could, it might be this: “What mark is the world making on you and what mark are you making on the world?” 

 

 


Monday, August 23, 2021

God’s Utility to Us vs. God’s Intention for Us

 

John 6:56-69

Proper 16 / Year B

Over the past four Sundays our assigned readings from the Gospel of John have focused on the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus’ subsequent teaching on its deeper meaning.  Today, all of what we have read and heard and pondered over the last month comes to a conclusion with one big, dramatic, glorious, resounding thud.  It bombs.  Jesus bombs.  The text puts it pretty succinctly: “Because of this [Jesus saying “I am the Bread of Life”] many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.”

In one fell swoop, Jesus transforms his megachurch-sized following into a hardly little band typical of an early service at pretty much every Episcopal Church.  We tend not to think of Jesus as being a failure, but the proof is right there in the bible.  By almost any contemporary measure, we can say Jesus’ sermon causes a thriving ministry to crash and burn.

The masses have been chasing Jesus all over the countryside and racing to beat him to the beaches on the other side of the lake.  Every time he tries to sneak away they find a way to find him.  If you want talk about devotion, this crowd is devoted.  So what happened?  Why this reaction?  Why the fallout?  Why did so many quit the cause all at once?

The best clue comes from the first thing Jesus says to them when he begins his teaching.  John 6:26: “Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs [a sign being a wondrous event pointing to a larger, more significant truth], but because you ate your fill of the loaves.’”  Then he adds, “Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food which endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”

Here, I think, is the rub:  Jesus wants to provide spiritual insight and direction – let’s call it ‘soul food’ – whereas the masses are looking for plenteous, free food.  Let’s not be entirely unsympathetic to their position for, most likely, most of these folks are poor and hungry.  They are, like a lot of people, interested in what God can do for them to make their lives better.  They pursue God for God’s utility, or usefulness, in their lives.  A God who is useful to us… it may sound like a strange way to put it, but the desire behind it is something we all recognize. 

I think about Rick, a high school student I knew long ago.  Rick’s sister was diagnosed with a brain tumor.  It was a very serious matter.  Rick, who had been lackadaisical at best in his church attendance, immediately became a weekly fixture at worship.  You could almost hear his silent prayers as he knelt at the rail and in the pews Sunday after Sunday.  What bargain was he willing to strike with God in return for his sister’s health, I wondered?  How much earnestness did he think God required from him in order to answer his prayers?

When Rick had nowhere else to turn, he turned to God.  And God came through, along with some help from a neurologist or two.  His sister had surgery, all went well, and she was given a clean bill of health.  And guess what happened next.  Rick’s dedication to Sunday worship began to wane.  God had done what Rick wanted God to do and I have no doubt he was grateful.  While not being privy to the content of his private prayers, I imagine the last one went something like this: “Thanks God.  You sure did take good care of my sister.  I really appreciate it and will never forget your kindness.  In fact, I’ll be right back here the next time I need you.”

“The next time I need you…” it is an expression that speaks of God’s utility.  Please don’t think I am singling out Rick for ridicule because there is a little bit of him in each one of us, including me.  The temptation to domesticate God is very strong.  There is a pull within each of us to make the Almighty into a kind of house god whose job it is to watch over us and keep us safe.  Prayer then boils down to two purposes.  One is to remind God of the problems in our lives God needs to tend and the other is to thank God for tending to them.  This is how Rick thought of God.  This is how the crowds following Jesus thought of God.  And, if the truth be told, there is a part of you and a part of me that thinks about God in this way too.

It is something akin to what happens to most big lottery winners.  Whatever their previous relationship with family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, and causal associates, it all changes once they have new-found money.  Suddenly everyone wants a loan or handout.  The relationship centers around what the lottery winner can do for you; a relationship about utility and usefulness.  And almost to a person, the winners resent it.

From time to time I look up at the stars in the night sky and try to get my head around the enormous mass of the universe and the unfathomable distance it covers or I read an article about an emerging discovery in the subatomic world and I begin to ponder the Intellect behind all of creation.  In what sense does God reign over it all?  What kind of power and creative imagination must God have to have called all of this into being?  How is it possible for God to be in relationship with any of it, especially me and you?  And as I am pondering these lofty notions, I realize anew how absurd it is to reduce God to being nothing more than a concierge who awaits my beck and call.  But if you are interested in, and only in, God’s usefulness to you, this, in fact, is what you are doing.

And it is what draws the masses to Jesus.  Can’t you just imagine his frustration as he tries to point this out to them; as he tries to teach them God is more than a porter?  When the free food runs out and Jesus refuses to be useful in the way they want, the masses pack up their empty picnic baskets and go home.

But not everyone.  A few people remain.  Jesus looks at the twelve disciples and asks, “Well, aren’t you going to leave too?”  And Peter, who so often in the gospels gets it wrong, this time gets it right by saying, “Lord, to whom can we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”  His statement of loyalty reveals two significant ways in which his religion differs from that of the now departed crowd.  Notice first he says “to whom can we go.”  This indicates Peter is looking not for something, but for someone.  He is not there for the free bread but rather to be in relationship with Jesus.  If he were to leave to follow someone else, who would that person be?  For Peter, there is no where else to go because there is no one else he wants to follow.  And second, notice what Peter professes, “You, Jesus, have the words of eternal life.”  He has made the leap from bread which is useful to bread which is life-giving.  He has gone from looking for a god to meet his needs to searching for God’s wisdom for living. 

When I do my star gazing and micro-probing, I ponder how God infuses intentionality into all creation and I wonder what God’s intention is for me.  If I can discover God’s intention for me and if I can live into it then I figure I will be who I am created to be.  This is how I understand Jesus to have the words of eternal life.

So two thousand years ago the crowds disperse from the remote countryside when Jesus lets them know in no uncertain terms he is not there primarily to be useful to them in the way they want, when they want, as they want.  And here we are in this place today coming into God’s presence and looking for what?  Are you here this morning to remind God of the things in your life in need of tending?  There is no doubt God seems to come through for us time and time and time again; although there are some times when God does not.  Or, are you here to seek after God, to know God, to discern what this life is all about and where you fit into it, to know God’s will for you, and to know God’s love for all God has made – including you and your neighbor?  Let me suggest today’s reading encourages us to lay aside our desire for a God who is useful in order to focus on discerning God’s intention for us and for all of life.

 


Monday, August 9, 2021

Bread Under the Broom Tree

 


I Kings 19:4-8

John 6:35, 41-51

Proper 14 / Year B

The founder of the Israel’s prophetic movement is the focus of this morning’s first reading and we meet him at what is almost certainly the lowest point in his life.  How did he get here? 

King Ahab rules over the Northern Kingdom from 9th Century BC.  He marries Jezebel, the daughter of the king of Sidon and a Baal worshipper.  Ahab builds a temple for this foreign god and Jezebel consecrates scores of priests to serve in it.  The prophet Elijah rails against this and eventually challenges the priests of Baal to a contest.  He and they build separate altars of wood for an animal sacrifice.  Whichever deity can send fire to light the sacrifice will be deemed the true God.

 The priests of Baal go first.  They pray, they sing, they dance, they even cut themselves, all the while being mocked by God’s prophet, but no fire appears.  When it is Elijah’s turn he orders his altar to be drenched with water.  He looks to heaven only when it is wetter than the church’s parking lot last Sunday.  A flame comes down and ignites the sacrifice.  The people proclaim Yahweh to be the one true God and Elijah orders them to slay the prophets of Baal – all 450 of them.  It is a triumphant moment for Elijah, the highest of highs, but when Queen Jezebel learns of it she vows Elijah will be dead within 24 hours.  This is why he flees into the wilderness.

And it is here, exhausted and famished and disillusioned, he prays, “It is enough.  I want to die.”  Pete and Al’s rendition of Felix Mendelssohn’s stirring interpretation of this passage portrayed so powerfully just how shaken and defeated the prophet had become.  Ponder for a moment the lowest point in your life and you will know exactly where Elijah is.  And it is hard to be here with him here because our memories and our experiences which connect us to him are deeply painful.  Sit with them for too long and they might just pull you back into their deep despair.

Notice the text tells us Elijah takes refugee under a broom tree; an umbrella shaped desert shrub with roots capable of drawing moisture out of near-barren land.  If you do a Google search of ‘broom tree’ you will see photo after photo of a solitary piece of green vegetation surrounded by nothing else but rocky wilderness.  It is a truly remarkable specimen of God’s creation. 

There are several times in the bible when a person finds him or herself despairing under a broom tree.  Job experiences it as a place of desolation and abandonment.  The Psalmist finds it to be a place to mourn and to experience punishment.  In the Book of Genesis, Hagar and her son Ishmael lie down under a broom tree ready to die of hunger and thirst after being expelled from Abraham’s household. 

Yet, in spite of these examples, the broom tree is anything but a symbol of hopelessness.  Its leaf cover provides shade from the searing desert sun.  And its wood is excellent for building a fire because it burns slow and warm.  In fact, on cold desert nights, a person under a broom tree might take warms coals, bury them a few inches under the sand, and then spread out a bedroll over top of them.  The coals warm the sand, which in turn mitigates effect of a frigid night.  In the morning the coals can be dug up, rekindled, and used to bake a meal of bread, which is what God’s angel offers to Elijah.

As with all moments of human despair, in the Old Testament the broom tree is a place of divine encounter.  God comes to the person under the tree, just as God comes to us… at the time when we need God the most.  There is always bread under the broom tree, whether it be a literal tree in the wilderness or the figurative tree of our difficult times and moments; whether it be literal bread and drink for Elijah or spiritual bread and drink for us.  Whenever you find yourself under a broom tree, look around for the bread!

Last Sunday morning the back wall of Terry and Irma Mottley’s garage collapsed, creating a cascade of mud and water which came gushing in.  Fortunately, the supporting structure held and has now been reinforced, but the house is now condemned until major structural repairs can take place.  It will be months.  As trying as this experience has been physically and emotionally, Terry and Irma are surprisingly upbeat.  They talk about the dozens of people who have shown up and offered help: the fire department responded immediately to a 911 call and made sure everyone was safe, a contractor in the neighborhood is spearing heading the charge to get repairs done, adjustors are assessing the situation.  A colleague of mine - a deacon in the Episcopal Church who is a professional engineer - designed an impressive iron structure to shore up the house until permanent repairs are made.  Even with all the challenges this has brought on them, Terry and Irma talk mostly about the outpouring of help and concern coming their way.  They have found firsthand how God provides bread under the broom tree.

The bread Elijah finds is anything but a quick fix.  He is directed to eat not once, but twice because he is being sent on a forty-day journey to Mt. Horeb (better known as Mt. Sinai), where Moses first encountered God.  God does not make Elijah’s problems magically disappear, but God does give him strength for the journey and promises to be present with him throughout the ordeal.

Today’s Gospel reading pairs so beautifully with the story of Elijah.  Jesus tells us he is the true and living bread come down from heaven.  He is the bread under the broom tree who meets us in the hopeless places and sustains us for the road ahead.

On Thursday those of us who gather for Evening Prayer read a poem from Francis J. Robert’s devotional classic Come Away My Beloved titled Move on Steadily.  While it changes the metaphorical imagery of today’s readings from bread to water, it still conveys the promise of bread under the broom tree:

Many a ship has sailed from port to port

with no interference from Me,

because Strong Will has been at the wheel.

Multitudes of pleasure cruises

go merrily on their ways,

untouched by the power of My hand.

But you have put your life into My keeping,

and because you are

depending on Me for guidance and direction,

I shall give it.

Move on steadily,

and know that the waters that carry you

are the waters of My love and My kindness,

and I will keep you on the right course.

When we find ourselves under the broom tree what a blessing it is to know God provides bread and waters of love and kindness to direct us.

 


Monday, August 2, 2021

A Sip and a Taste

 

John 6:24-35

Proper 13 / Year B

Can you imagine going out to your yard every morning for forty years and picking up manna to eat?  Can you imagine having only it to dine on for all those years?  “What’s for dinner tonight, honey?”  “Manna!”  “Baked?  Fried?  Poached?  Sautéed?  Breaded?  Grilled?  Stir fried?  “Over easy?”  “No.  Fresh, like I picked it up off the grass.”  I’d have tired of this diet long before the Israelites did.  And I’m also positive I’d have failed to see God’s blessing in it after only a few weeks.  On one hand, this was their only food for forty years.  Yuck!  On the other, God looked after their daily need for 14,610 straight days.  Wow!  I know what it would have been like for me.  At first, it would have been a miracle.  After time, it would become a blessing.  From there it would morph into an expectation, and then give way to routine.  Eventually it would become nothing but drudgery.  What begins as feeding on the bread of angels becomes just another item on a dull to-do list.

Last Sunday we heard the story of how Jesus fed 5,000 people with just a few loaves of bread and two fish.  The people who participate in the meal are so deeply satisfied they chase Jesus all around the Sea of Galilee so as not to miss the next meal.  Of all the impressive elements of the story, perhaps the most intriguing is how the disciples fill twelve baskets with the leftovers.  You don’t need to be a physics major to deduce there is more food at the end than is present at the beginning.  And every one of those crumbs and morsels and bits of fish not eaten represents a blessing missed.  They represent the grace present that goes unrecognized.  And, like them, we have a lot of unrecognized grace present in our lives.

Paul Sohn is a blogger who describes himself as a Korean-Canadian/American leadership junkie, purpose weaver, and catalyst.  He begins one post by quoting William Arthur Ward who said, “God gave you a gift of 86,400 seconds today.  Have you used one to say ‘thank you?’”

Sohn writes this:

One of the words that has been stripped of its meaning is the word ‘blessing.’… In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I challenged myself, asking “What areas have I been really blessed?”  An article I recently read inspired me to count my blessings.  In fact, it suggested that I come up with 100 things I’m thankful for.


At the outset, I considered this a piece of cake.  A no brainer.  But, as I have spent the last few days counting all my blessings, I realized how thankless and entitled I’ve become.  Coming up with things to be thankful for was at times an arduous, time-consuming process.  It was a sobering moment.  The overall result from this exercise was a renewed sense of appreciation for big things, but also small things that bring color in life.

Sohn shares his list of thanksgivings on his blog, often with an explanation after each item for how or why it is a blessing.  His list includes such varied things as parents, girlfriend, salvation, purpose, adversity, Portland Leadership Foundation, books, the Bible, great customer service, GPS, and today.  His exercise strikes me as a way to pick up the leftover fragments.  It seems like a mindful way to remember the daily blessing of manna always present, but often overlooked.

I think it is worth remembering Jesus says “I am the Bread of Life”, not “I am the Golden Coral of life.”  As Anne Lamont notes, “Small is how blessings, healing, progress, and increase occur.”  Yes, God offers us a buffet, a banquet, and a feast, but most often blessing and grace come to us in a single serving, or perhaps as a sip or a taste.  And a sip and a taste is at the heart of what we come here for this morning.

David Lose, a Lutheran pastor and seminary professor, writes about a conversation he once had with a psychiatrist who told him “the goal of all counseling is for a person to love him or herself because if you aren’t going to love yourself, who will, and if you don’t start now, then when?”  Lose responded, “Doctor, have you ever encountered a single person who has the ability to love himself without first experiencing love from another person?”  “No,” the doctor said quietly, “No, not really.”

The taste of bread and the sip of wine we will receive in a few moments are the sure and certain signs God gives to let us know we are loved and forgiven.  They are such “common” things, but receiving them must never become a common experience.  It must never become like going out to pick up manna.  It must always ignite in us the desire and the ability to seek and search for all the other fragments of blessing in our life.  And, as we sense we are blessed and as we feel we are fed, we must never think this is an end unto itself.  It is only just a beginning.  As we are filled, we find a hunger growing within to ensure every person in our life, in our church, in our community, and it our world shares in the blessings we have found.  God fills us with the Bread of Life one taste and one sip at a time so that we can feed others.