Advent 3, A, 2019
You’ve all heard of urban legends: those fantastic or funny or pithy or horrifying stories that make the rounds of coffee clutches and water coolers and facebook friends as true stories. They may or may not have ever had a basis in fact, but it doesn’t even matter any more because they have taken on a life of their own. It turns out churchy folks have their own set of legends, ecclesiastical legends, if you will. I read about this one making the rounds of a Methodist seminary a while back – one about a video tape that everyone had heard about, but no one had ever seen.
The Methodists apparently have a number of ministers who come to ministry in a round about sort of way, as a second career, or a vocation in addition to their career. Sound familiar? Instead of the sort of team discernment and formation approach we employ, they agree to go part time to Lay Pastor’s School for several years rather than seminary.
Story goes, a video tape surfaced of the first sermon of the first preaching class of one such lay minister. The man was relatively new to the Methodist Church. He had been raised in a Pentecostal tradition and brought much of that ethos and sensibility with him to Pastor’s School.
“He said, ‘I got here today to preach and this preaching teaching fellow asked me ‘Where is your manuscript?’ and I says, I says, ‘I ain’t got no manuscript.’ So he says, ‘Well, where is your outline?’ And I says, I says, ‘I ain’t got no outline.’ And he says, ‘Well have you got your sermon memorized?’ And I said, “How could I memorize it if God ain’t told me it yet?’
He looked at me kind of dumb-founded so I says, ‘Look here, I just flip open the Bible and put down my finger and then God gives me utterance on whatever verse my finger lands on.’ Now this here preaching teaching fellow stared at me a minute, then he says, ‘Well, what do you do if you run out of things to say?’ And I says ‘Well now, I just reach back and grab me a handful of Isaiah and go on!’” (Rev. Delmer Chilton, The Lectionary Lab, 2016)
You could do worse things in life than grabbing yourself a handful of Isaiah and going on:
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
While much of Isaiah up to this point exhorts a wayward people to return to Yaweh, and communicates Yaweh’s anger at his rebellious brood, this is the voice of a prophet comforting his people. A voice encouraging a broken, beaten people within a wilderness of fear and exile…
Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
A handful of Isaiah goes a long way. That’s what Jesus does. Grabs himself a handful of Isaiah-that’s what he does when those messengers of John the Baptist come with his sad, desperate plea, are you the one?:
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer
And let’s be clear – John can use a handful of Isaiah about now. Not the first voice of Isaiah. Not the angry God, you people screwed it all up, make it right Isaiah. The hopeful Isaiah. Because John is running a little low on hope at this point.
American author Barbara Kingsolver wrote, “The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.” John knew what he hoped for, lived in it, within it, reaching for it, preaching for it, living for it, striving for it. And it landed him in prison. As it turns out, calling the king an incestuous adulterer does not improve your lifestyle, even if it is true, possibly especially if it is true. Now John sits in a Herodian prison in his camel skins, munching a snack of locust, pondering his markedly reduced life expectancy and wondering, as we are wont to do when time runs short, if he got it wrong. He’s been proclaiming his cousin as the Messiah since they both snuggled cozily in their mother’s wombs. He preached so confidently, pointed the way – but he has yet to see any ax wielded against unfruitful trees, witness any winnowing, discern any fire at all much less the unquenchable variety. Maybe, maybe I got it wrong. We don’t know how he responded to the handful of Isaiah Jesus sent back to him. I find myself hoping it helped, brought some peace, if not some joy. John seems such a serious fellow.
He’s the patron saint of spiritual joy, did you know that? All that womb leaping, I suppose. The patron saint of spiritual joy. And this, this Sunday, in which we squat with a sad and broken baptizer in his squalid cell, this is Rejoice Sunday – pink candle, pink vestments for many churches. Rejoice – while the Herodians and the Romans rule from sumptuous selfishness? Rejoice – while the manger lies empty? Rejoice – while we languish in various prisons, some of our own making? Rejoice – while the nights get longer, the days get colder? Rejoice – while the glitter and consumerism of the secular Christmas overtake all notions of peace on earth? Rejoice – while the earth struggles under the burden we place on her? Rejoice, yes! Grab yourself a handful of Isaiah and rejoice.
Maybe, as one author suggests, John “realized that God’s work is bigger than the difficult circumstances of his own life, calling him to a selfless joy for the liberation of others. Maybe John’s joy was otherworldly in the most literal sense, because he understood that our stories extend beyond death, and find completion only in the presence of God himself.” (Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus). Maybe he did. Clearly James urges patience in our epistle.
But know this truth preacher Frederick Buechner penned, ”…to wait for Christ to come in his fullness is not just a passive thing, a pious, prayerful, churchly thing. On the contrary, to wait for Christ to come in his fullness is above all else to act in Christ’s stead as fully as we know how. To wait for Christ is as best we can to be Christ to those who need us to be Christ to them most and to bring them the most we have of Christ’s healing and hope because unless we bring it, it may never be brought at all.” (“Be Patient,” Frederick Buechner Blog). Amen.
Advent 2, A, 2019
Advent is a time of quiet, of stillness. As the lake surface coalesces into motionless iciness and the snow muffles ambient noise, the weather seems complicit in the stillness, even as our human driven surroundings of glitter and glitz and shopping and the steady world diet of violence and fear and hostility seem to combat any sense of quietude. In a tumultuous and hectic world – I look forward to that stillness every year. I have to admit that I did not anticipate and do not fully appreciate the extent of quiet that I have involuntarily achieved so far this Advent.
Aside from the obvious inconvenience of laryngitis, Advent brings us some very powerful words from the formidable John the Baptist – words about vipers and wrath and fire and repentance – words I guarantee he did not whisper at the crowds that gathered. Honest and zealous, Jesus’s brutally candid cousin had no trepidation about public opinion, no fear of trampling on powerful toes, no sense of humor and even less sense of fashion, but the man could preach. He could preach with a spirit that drew the people to him, to his baptism, to his message – draw the people even though his message seems to suggest a rather uncomfortable future of being chopped down and burned up. Preacher. Prophet. Voice in the wilderness.
In his book, Healing the Shame That Binds You, John Bradshaw shared the the parable of the Prisoner in the Dark Cave:
There once was a man who was sentenced to die. He was blindfolded and put in a pitch dark cave. He was told that there was a way out of the cave, and if he could find it, he was a free man.
After a rock was secured at the entrance to the cave, the prisoner was allowed to take his blindfold off and roam freely in the darkness. He was to be fed only bread and water for the first 30 days and nothing thereafter. The bread and water were lowered from a small hole in the roof at the south end of the cave. The ceiling was about 18 feet high. The opening was about one foot in diameter. The prisoner could see a faint light up above, but no light came into the cave.
As the prisoner roamed and crawled around the cave, he bumped into [large] rocks…He thought if he could build a mound of rocks and dirt that was high enough, he could reach the opening and…escape. Since he was 5’9”, and his reach was another two feet, the mound had to be at least 10 feet high..
So the prisoner spent his waking hours picking up rocks and digging up dirt. At the end of two weeks, he had built a mound of about six feet. He thought that if he could duplicate that in the next two weeks, he could make it before the food ran out. But as he had already used most of the rocks in the cave, he had to dig harder and harder…with his bare hands. After a month had passed, the mound was 9 ½ feet high and he could almost reach the opening if he jumped. He was almost exhausted and extremely weak.
One day just as he thought he could touch the opening, he fell. He was simply too weak to get up, and in two days he died. His captors came to get his body. They rolled away the huge rock that covered the entrance. As the light flooded into the cave, it illuminated an opening in the wall of the cave about three feet in circumference.
The opening was the opening to a tunnel which led to the other side of the mountain. This was the passage to freedom the prisoner had been told about. It was in the south wall directly under the opening in the ceiling. All the prisoner would have had to do was crawl about 200 feet and he would have found freedom. He had so completely focused on the opening of light that it never occurred to him to look for freedom in the darkness. Liberation was there all the time right next to the mound he was building, but it was in the darkness..
John found his wilderness far away from the edifices and restrictions of the religious hierarchy, in the harsh land surrounding the Jordan in which he baptized his followers – a literal wilderness. A land far away from here, a life far away from now. But his wilderness could have easily been in the darkness of a cave, or on a dimly lit street corner, or in a brightly lit home touched by grief, or addiction, or poverty, or loneliness, or illness. One author describes the wilderness as “a place of vulnerability, risk, and powerlessness. In the wilderness, we have no safety net. No Plan B, no rainy day savings account, no quick fix. In the wilderness, life is raw and unsettled, and our illusions of self-sufficiency shatter fast.” (Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus)
John cries out urgently in the wilderness. “Repent!” He cries. Turn around. Change. Head for the way out of the darkness that surrounds you, the walls that hold you. Jesus stands with you in the wilderness, in the darkness.
“Repentance…” one author notes, “[also] underscores that change isn’t necessary for change’s sake, but rather that change is necessary because we’ve become aware that our actions are out of step with God’s deep desire for peace and equity for all God’s people and – taking Isaiah’s vivid imagery in the second reading seriously – for the whole of creation. Repentance, in short, is realizing that God is pointing you one way, that you’ve been traveling another way, and changing course.” (David Lose, in the meantime)
Jesuit priest Gregory Joseph Boyle is the founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, the largest gang rehabilitation and re-entry program in the world. This program, which reaches over 10,000 people a year, centers on repentance in response to the unconditional love of God. In his 2017 book, Barking to the Choir, Father Boyle wrote this about Advent:
In Advent time, we are reminded over and over again: “Stay awake.” This is not a warning that death is coming but a reminder that life is happening. Now is the day of salvation. We see as God sees: with amplitude, wideness, and mercy. The only moment left to us to participate in this larger love, this limitless, all-accepting love, is the present moment. Can you hear it? The voice of the Beloved (90). Amen.
Advent 1, A, 2019
We’re going to really put the new microphone to the test this morning…
Those of you who have worshipped here at Holy Trinity for a while have lived through the experience of laryngitis with me more than once. This is how it works: I see sick people all day, every day. I wash my hands constantly. I stay healthy. My youngest child gets a cold. I immediately, invariably catch her cold. Said cold inevitably attacks my vocal cords. Voila – laryngitis. I pay this price, and gladly enough, for snuggly progeny. The duration of this malady used to be predictable – 5 days. Every. Single. Time. 5 days. Today is day #5. The last few times, you see, the course has been extending. I suppose my vocal cords are losing their elasticity just like everything else does as I age. The last time I had this it lasted for 11 days. 11.
For anyone who hasn’t tried laryngitis – I honestly don’t recommend it. I don’t feel sick. I don’t have pain. For these things I give thanks, but I squeak. I croak. I whisper, but I’m not whispering. My real voice breaks in teasing me with normalcy, then disappears into its bed of phlegmy rasping. I stomp my feet to get my children’s attention – because the din of everyday life completely obscures such voice as I can currently produce. I used to worry that I wouldn’t be able to maintain proper parental authority without my full range of vocal amplitude. “But,” my daughter tells me, “you are so much scarier when you can’t talk!”
When Matthew penned this Gospel narrative around the year 80 AD, Jesus hadn’t talked for a long time. Matthew recorded this particular good news for a waiting community. Waiting 50 years. Waiting to hear their savior’s voice again. Waiting to see their savior’s face again. Waiting, and maybe, beginning to wonder. Maybe, beginning to forget. Forget why He lived. Forget what He meant. Forget how to live like He taught them they should. Unlike the earlier evangelist Mark whose community had not waited so very long, Matthew reached for these images from Jesus. Images to wake people up. Shake them up. American novelist Flannery O’Connor wrote, “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind, you draw large and startling figures.” Jesus’s followers had become hard of hearing, nearly blind, deafened by the din of everyday life. Jesus is, metaphorically speaking, shouting and stomping His feet and drawing huge vivid pictures in startling and disquieting detail to grab the undivided attention of His increasingly stupefied, oblivious followers, lulled to sleep by his silence. WAKE UP!
Today marks the beginning of Advent, the first day of the new church year. We lit the first candle of the advent wreath, the candle symbolizing hope. But the days are getting shorter, the nights longer. The one will be taken, the other left. The thief comes in the night. The fires burn. The school children run from their school under threat. Oil leaks into precious wetlands and ocean floors. Hate fuels hate, anger fuels anger. Nation raises sword against nation. War is a lesson begun in the nursery.
Advent comes in the dark, and the quiet – the sometimes frightening quiet place that holds the chaos of the world in tension with God’s promise.
Pr. Michael Coffey wrote:
Hope is a blue note on a jazz-worn clarinet a chromatic
piano chord dissonant and handsome a minor modal
song sung diaphragmatically strong a silence between
hymn and homiletic puzzling it holds the day in
a miter-cornered frame setting off the eyes of the
hopeful like sapphires hope is a run on sentence waiting
for some punctuation to signify an end or a pause
or an unknowing or an exclamation of what is yet to come that
is better or beautiful or at least makes what is now worth
the long, melodic, sorrowful, endless, wonderful wait
Hope blooms in what one theology professor calls the “not yet places of the world. Places where justice and equality have not yet been found. Places where hunger and thirst have not yet been alleviated. Places where school children die of senseless violence. Places where the planet is not yet being treated with respect.” (O. Wesley Allen, Jr., Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org) We must wake up to these places. Bring hope in these places. Be the church in these places. Shine the light and love of Christ in these places. Beat our swords into plough shares, spears into pruning hooks, each of us according to our gifts.
The city of Culiacán, Mexico holds the record for the highest rate of gun deaths in the nation. In response to the gun violence, creative activist Pedro Reyes collected 1,527 guns in Culiacan for the project Palas por Pistolas. He melted those 1,527 guns down into 1,527 shovel heads. Now those 1,527 shovels are being used to plant 1,527 trees in the city. “If something is dying, becoming rotten and smelly, I think there is a chance to make a compost…” said Reyes. (Amanda Froelich, “Mexican artist melts 1,527 guns, makes shovels to plant trees,” pocho.com.http://www.pocho.com/chilango-artist-melts-1527-guns-makes-shovels-to-plant-trees/?fbclid=IwAR0HOASU423v6Aj39ao38XrLipvtRoV-FtKY8LsD5V33rCPMEz3ZkAhWN4E)
Death into life. Swords into ploughshares. Darkness pierced by the light. Wake up.
Jesus means to awaken souls. In the ending is the beginning – the birth of hope. We wait. Awake. Quiet. Searching. Living in hope. Acting in love.
CHRIST THE KING, C, 2019
“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To speak of many things:
Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–
Of cabbages–and kings–
and why the sea is boiling hot,
and whether pigs have wings.”
(Lewis Carroll, The Walrus and the Carpenter)
The time has come. This Sunday represents the last Sunday of the Church year. It is Christ the King Sunday and the time has come. I don’t have much to say, I’m afraid, about shoes or ships, beyond expressing a sincere desire for them both of them to keep the water out. Of cabbages I know little beyond the obvious, of sealing wax I know even less – and of kings, well, we’ll see.
The concept of kingery bears little significance in our world these days. It loomed large in this country’s beginnings – we had this whole big Revolutionary war and created a constitution to be rid of kings and queens and their ilk. We have not entirely lost our national fascination with royalty – Queen Elizabeth and her offspring, and her offspring’s offspring, and her offspring’s offspring’s offspring control at least their fair share of the newsstand real estate, whatever declarations of Independence we may have made 243 years ago. Their travels, their outfits, their squabbles, their weddings, their foibles, and those hats – we drink it all in.
Our fascination with them comes, I suppose, from just how fairytale they seem – with their own sets of rules and customs, their seemingly endless streams of jewels and clothes and their ability (however illusory the impression) to remain seemingly untouched by the vicissitudes of the world we share. Ah, and the power. Let’s not forget their power. It is seductive to think of someone making all the tough decisions, taking care of things, protecting their people, guiding their subjects regally and wisely to just and good decisions.
The Jews sought such a king; a King impervious to the centuries of exile and servitude and victimization they had suffered. 6 centuries before “God was pleased to dwell” on Earth through Jesus, Jeremiah spent most of his prophetic career warning the powers that be that their misbehavior would destroy their kingdoms, scatter their people. Inconveniently for those same people, Jeremiah proved a better prophet than politician and the Babylonian exile came to fruition. In the face of this tragedy Jeremiah shifted his tone from castigating to comforting, delivering God’s promise to remove the current failed leaders and replace them with better ones, encouraging the devastated people to look forward to the appearance of a new, righteous king.
600 years later, some descendants of those people met Jesus. “Maybe,” they thought, “maybe this time, maybe this man, maybe this king” – and Jesus rode into Jerusalem amidst waving palm branches and Hosannas. And 5 days later – he stretched out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross and died – like no king anybody ever wished for, but somehow, mysteriously, still ushering in the exactly the kingdom for which we yearn so desperately.
In his book, “Wishful Thinking, Frederick Buechner wrote, ”As far as I know, there is only one good reason for believing that he was who he said he was. One of the crooks he was strung up with put it this way: ‘If you are the Christ, save yourself and us’ (Luke 23:39). Save us from whatever we need most to be saved from. Save us from each other. Save us from ourselves. Save us from death both beyond the grave and before. (my emphasis) If he is, he can. If he isn’t, he can’t. It may be that the only way in the world to find out is to give him the chance, whatever that involves. It may be just as simple and just as complicated as that.”
Give him the chance. Give Christ the chance. Give him a chance to teach us compassion, even if it means sacrifice. Give him a chance to live physically on this earth right now within you, through you. Give him a chance to bring light into the darkness of the world. Give him a chance to reveal the humbling release of forgiveness – forgiveness received and forgiveness bestowed.
Rev. Ginny McDaniel writes “Today’s text about Jesus offering forgiveness as his final act is resonating with me like never before. If the church needs a single message, a sound byte, if you will, for this impatient, multitasking generation, it’s this: It’s ALL about mercy. We don’t need taller statues to proclaim our message. We don’t need bigger buildings and fancier gadgetry. Mercy is what the world needs, now as never before, now as it always has.” Mercy, compassion, loving-kindness.
Apropos of the approach of Advent, in God and Empire, Jon Dominick Crossan wrote, “The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen soon, violently, or literally. The Second Coming of Christ is what will happen when we Christians finally accept the First Coming … and start to cooperate with its divine presence.” The Rev. Dr. Carl Gregg expounds, “In other words, on Reign of Christ Sunday, we are invited to remember that the “Kingdom of God” or “Reign of God” — to which Jesus constantly pointed — is as fully available now and always as it was 2,000 years ago. The question that remains each Reign of Christ Sunday is whether we will choose to live as if the one who reigns is not Caesar, but God.
We celebrate Christ the King today.
We celebrate Christ’s humility, not his royalty
We celebrate Christ’s compassion, not his power
We celebrate Christ’s travail, not his triumph
We celebrate Christ’s gift of self, not his accumulation of riches
We celebrate Christ showing us the way of new life, not rescuing us so that we can repeat the old broken ways.
(paraphrased and adapted from Delmer Chilton, Lectionary Lab)
We celebrate Christ the King in our worship today
Do we go out those doors and live His reign?
The time has come. Amen.
Proper 28, C, 2019
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
I have noticed, over time, that while my presence can be comforting for some folks in an exam room, in a hospital room, or in a labor room, my voice on the other end of a phone call to a patient in the evening or on a weekend tends to create the opposite effect. Usually I call just following up on labs or x-rays or something, but still – not knowing the changes that particular phone call could portend is for patients…unsettling. It turns out, it was not particularly helpful if I carefully prefaced those conversations with, “Now, I don’t want you to worry.” In fact, there may not be any words better calculated to induce panic. Actually, I never tried it, but I might create even more consternation if I carefully prefaced my conversations as Our Lord did with “Do not be terrified”
Do not be terrified – and then he goes on to describe in great detail a staggering array of things about which to be terrified: wars, insurrections, famines, plagues. And then He gets personal: They will arrest you, persecute you, family will betray you. Do not be terrified indeed. The Lord works in mysterious ways…
I read a story, of an American Philosophy professor doing research in the Asia. She asks a Japanese colleague to explain some of the complexities of Shintoism and Buddhism. The Japanese scholar initially demurs, but finally does her best to thoughtfully clarify the point in question.
The American professor listened intently, taking careful notes. At the conclusion of the explanation, she thanked her colleague profusely declaring gratefully. “Finally I understand perfectly.” The Japanese scholar looked puzzled. “Really?” she asked quizzically, “You understand now?” “Yes,” replied the American, “I have pondered this question for years, but your explanation has at last made it absolutely clear to me. “Hmmm,” said her Japanese counterpart with a troubled look on her face, “Then I must not have explained it properly.”
If we take today’s lessons at face value, they do not feel like good news. Not good news at all. Might even say apocalyptically bad news: All sorts of people from scholars to evangelists to persons of more suspect motives spend all sorts of time and energy engaging these sorts of texts to promote the idea the the end times are nigh; that our wars, our earthquakes, our famines are THE wars, THE earthquakes, THE famines that Jesus references. And they could be right, of course. The world may end next week. Certainly a great deal of time and effort has been spent establishing those timetables and calendars. And if the world doesn’t end exactly when predicted, well, back to the biblical timetable analysis.
I’ll be honest though, it seems that as people of a living faith, we can do more good concentrating on other things. It seems like Jesus, who cured the lepers, healed the blind and the lame, ate with outcasts, spoke truth to power – might have more in mind than declaring that the world will end and offering a reassuring pat on our heads in a scary world. If that is the depth of our understanding of scripture, we may miss the bigger point.
It’s a scary world. Wars. Famine. Ancient hatreds forced into sharper view and enhanced by fear. The centuries between Jesus’s life and our own have not ended these things. He does, indeed, preach the apocalypse, but the word does not mean what we think it means. It is not the stuff of zombie movies and Left Behind. It is not an ending, but an unveiling, a disclosure, a fresh, honest view. An opportunity to apprehend reality as we’ve never apprehended it before. (Debie Thomas.)
The disciples look at the temple and they see the glittering gold, and the sheer, vast scale of the place. Jesus sees something temporal of this world. Something which must, and will, end.
November 14, 1960 – 59 years ago this Thursday – much of New Orleans, much of the country saw the end of the world in little Ruby Bridges as she walked her brave little African American six year old steps into an otherwise all white school and sat herself down for an equal education. 4 US Marshals walked with her. So did Jesus. And a world did begin to crumble. In 2011, that same child of God stood in the halls of the White house looking at a newly installed Norman Rockwell painting of the event entitled The Problem We All Live With, while the first AA president stood with her saying “I think it’s fair to say if it hadn’t been for you guys, I might not be here and we would not be looking at this together”
Jesus reveals the birth of the kingdom in the death of fear; the seeds of new birth in the ashes of destruction. Martin Luther said, “If tomorrow is the day of Judgment, then today I want to plant an apple tree.” Jesus offers the disciples, offers us, the long view. Oscar Romero wrote,
It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the Church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about: we plant seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.
You testify daily to the presence of christ with us. You testify with every smile, every generous act, every refusal to let fear guide your actions, …. Brothers and sisters, as Paul says, do not be weary in doing what is right, for “the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings“ Amen.
Proper 27, C, 2019
As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.
After my awaking, he will raise me up;
and in my body I shall see God.
I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him
who is my friend and not a stranger. (Book of Common Prayer, BCP)
This paraphrase of Job’s lament comes from the funeral liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer. Out of death, life. Resurrection, the resurrection of Christ, our own hope of resurrection is a cornerstone of our faith.
Jesus was days away from The Temple. From Pilate. From Gethsemane. From the cross.
The Sadducees, a conservative Jewish sect, contemporaries of the Pharisees and the Essenes, rejected the authority of oral tradition. They believed only in the written Torah, the Pentateuch, the first 5 books of the Hebrew scriptures. The concept of resurrection does not appear anywhere in those 5 books. True to their own faith, the Sadducees rejected the notion of the resurrection and of angels. The pentateuch does, however, have rather a lot to say about levirate marriage – the system presumed in today’s Gospel lesson.
Levirate marriage. The word comes from the Latin, levir – brother-in-law. Prior to belief in resurrection, the Israelites believed that a person lived on in their descendants and in their descendant’s memory. Hence if a man died without children, his brother was obligated to take his wife and have children by her, thus ensuring that the brother would “live on”. By this system, our poor, nameless, barren serial widow would have worked her married way through 7 dutiful brothers in turn.
Whose wife will she be in the resurrection – for 7 have married her?
The sadducees had zero interest in the fate of their fictional widow. They sought by their question to expose the ridiculous notion of the resurrection, the utterly unworkable impracticality of it.
Guess what. God’s not big into practical.
If the pharisees had asked a question designed to trip him up,Jesus would have answered with a snappy unanswerable comeback question. He knew the Sadducees mocked him with their question, but this time, with the Sadducees, He answered in all seriousness, meeting them where they were. Your faith comes from the written Torah? Look at Exodus the story of the burning bush. God appeared from a burning bush and said to Moses. ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ I am. Not I was back then when they were alive. I AM.
We, like the Sadducees, have a habit of trying to put limits on God; trying to put God in a box of our own understanding. We remake God in our image, create Earth in Heaven as some sort of endless replay of all the good bits of life here. No, says Jesus. You don’t get it. The resurrection is not just an extension of life here except with wings and a harp. It is something different. Something other.
Now, resurrection is a hard pill to swallow for many. For some a notion at once so mysterious and so mystical holds no sway if it cannot be touched, tasted, seen, verified, proven and reproduced. If it makes you feel better, several physicists are actually working on the physics of immortality. Dr. Frank Tipler, a quantum mathematical physicist from Tulane postulates that in the very last moments of cosmic history matter will transcend its own destruction by an implosion of creative power, basing his theory on the currently accepted notion of a collapsing universe. “John Polkinghorne, a theoretical physicist and Anglican priest believes also that physical resurrection is “a perfectly coherent hope,” in which our souls function along the lines of DNA, carrying the unique pattern of each one of us inside our bodies and when we die, being used by God to recreate new bodies in any future world of God’s choosing”. (Sunday, November 11, 2013: “27 Weddings and 8 Funerals” Rev. Dr. Joanna Seibert)
Not convinced? That’s ok. Because the resurrection isn’t about what you believe, or I believe, or the Church believes – the Nicene Creed notwithstanding. It is rather about God’s belief in us. About Jesus’s willingness to journey to the cross and beyond and back. About, as one priest writes, “God’s investment in the creation, the incarnation, the essential goodness of matter, bodies, flesh. Anyone who is ever part of God’s life never stops being part of it. Even if it was for less than a moment, they still belong to God forever.” (Sunday, November 11, 2013: “27 Weddings and 8 Funerals” Rev. Dr. Joanna Seibert)
Theologian Paul Tillich suggested that death isn’t a moment, but a process we are living every day fulfilled finally in one moment. If so, consider what it means for us to be progressing in death while simultaneously progressing in life. “Just as physical death is the culmination of the slow dying that is life lived, is the resurrection of the body also the culmination of the slow living that is death dying away?” (Shannon Schaefer)
Still don’t understand resurrection? Me either. It won’t fit in our God box. We don’t have to understand it. We experience it – see it, in miniature, all the time, every day. When you see that seedling bravely peeking through the leaf litter and snow you’re walking through. When you see an addict, with the help of community, NOT take that next drink. When you learn the stories of your elders. When you shake the hand of a veteran who struggles to find his or her place in a world that changed with the agreement to risk life for the protection of hearth and home. When you walk with the grieving. When you stand with the vulnerable; when you dare to BE vulnerable. When you smile and meet the eyes of a stranger, and the eyes of Christ smile back at you.
As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.
After my awaking, he will raise me up;
and in my body I shall see God.
I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him
who is my friend and not a stranger. (BCP)
ALL SAINTS SUNDAY, C, 2019
For better or for worse, my children bear Northland nature names. Gavia is the scientific nomenclature of the common loon – my husband campaigned to make her middle name immer, which would complete her association with the bird whose plaintive song inspired us late in that pregnancy. Linnaea borealis, the twin flower, lives on several continents, but always only in the northland, preferring cool, moist climates. Cool and moist certainly sounds like familiar surroundings these days. The flower Linnaea borealis was named for Carolus Linnaeus – the father of the modern method of grouping and naming species. Humans named groups of things long before Dr. Linnaeus came on the scene – some times more logically than others. Easy enough, for example to see where group name parade of elephants comes from, or a tower of giraffes, an exaltation of larks, a romp of otters or even a pounce of cats. But what did the poor crows do to deserve to called a murder or ravens to be called an unkindness? I frankly don’t think I’d care much for an audience of squid. Consortium sounds rather too dignified to represent a bunch of crabs, conspiracy too sinister for sprightly lemurs, and business too serious for mischievous ferrets. And what is a murmuration when its not a bunch of starlings, anyway?
Today we honor a different group: the communion of saints. All Saint’s Day actually falls on November 1, but since it’s one of the 7 principal feast days of the church, we move the observance if necessary. Interestingly, November 3rd is actually the feast day of Richard Hooker, a 15th century Anglican priest whose claim to fame is his defense of via media – the middle way that the Anglican Church navigates between Roman Catholicism and Puritanism. A certain ambivalence within the Episcopal church with regard to saints I think is reflected in our negotiation of that middle way. We don’t seem, as a rule, to adopt the passionate personal devotion to individual saints that our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters stereotypically do, but we are not quite ready to ignore that blessed communion either.
Rightly so. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote, “The saints have no need of honor from us; neither does our devotion add the slightest thing to what is theirs. Clearly, if we venerate their memory, it serves us, not them. But I tell you, when I think of them, I feel myself inflamed by tremendous yearning.”
Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and prolific spiritual writer, converted to catholicism in his 20’s. In the autobiography he wrote at the direction of his abbot, Merton describes a conversation between himself and poet Robert Lax that occurred when Merton first began to contemplate what his conversion meant…
I forget what we were arguing about, but in the end Lax suddenly turned around and asked me the question:
“What do you want to be, anyway?”
I could not say, “I want to be Thomas Merton the well-known writer of all those book reviews in the back pages of the Times Book Review,” or “Thomas Merton the assistant instructor of Freshman English at the New Life Social Institute for Progress and Culture,” so I put the thing on the spiritual plane, where I knew it belonged and said:
“I don’t know; I guess what I want is to be a good Catholic.”
“What do you mean, you want to be a good Catholic?”
The explanation I gave was lame enough, and expressed my confusion, and betrayed how little I had really thought about it at all.
Lax did not accept it.
“What you should say” – he told me – “what you should say is that you want to be a saint.”
A saint! The thought struck me as a little weird. I said:
“How do you expect me to become a saint?”
“By wanting to,” said Lax simply.
“I can’t be a saint,” I said, “I can’t be a saint.” And my mind darkened with a confusion of realities and unrealities: the knowledge of my own sins, and the false humility which makes men say that they cannot do the things that they must do, cannot reach the level that they must reach: the cowardice that says: “I am satisfied to save my soul, to keep out of mortal sin,” but which means, by those words: “I do not want to give up my sins and my attachments.” (Thomas Merton, The Seven Story Mountain)
Blessed are you – the poor, hungry, weeping, hated. These are the vulnerable people, the people who know their dependence on God, who have fewer attachments to release. One theologian writes, “Vulnerability, I should warn you, is a nice sounding word that names a condition most of us would like to avoid. Vulnerability names the condition of need and dependence that is often not comfortable and that our culture regularly invites us to imagine that we can and should avoid.” (David Lose) But vulnerability is also what makes us human, what makes us need to connect, part and parcel of love.
Woe to you who are rich, consoled, satisfied, laughing, popular. In this context, according to one scholar, “‘woe’ functions as a sharp contrast to “blessed,” yet the Greek word ouai does not mean “cursed” or “unhappy.” Certainly not “damned.” Like the English word yikes, it is more of an attention-getter and emotion-setter than a clear characterization or pronouncement. (Matt Skinner). Look out: devotion to money will kill your soul. Yikes: dependence on the illusions of self-satisfaction and respectability will drive you away from communion with God. Uh oh: Allow yourself to be vulnerable to the life changing, radical love of God; to protect the poor, comfort the sorrowful, feed the hungry, love your enemy – You may find you’re a saint after all, one of the communion.
To be a saint is to be sanctified;
set apart for a sacred purpose.
That would be you.
Every breath of your life is for a sacred purpose:
to shed light, to radiate God’s love.
You don’t have to be influential,
or pious, virtuous or pure.
You have to be yourself.
The You of you is what God has made holy.
You are God’s Beloved.
All you have to do is act like it.
Everything you do today is an opportunity
to embody God’s love,
not by your effort or skill,
but by the love you embody.
The light of God is in you.
Be transparent to it.
(Steve Garnaas-Holmes, Unfolding Light). AMEN!
Proper 24, 2019, C
Luke alone among the Gospels relates today’s incident. “Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” Having told the parable of the self-serving, unprincipled judge and the plucky, persistent widow, Jesus concluded His thought saying that God will quickly grant justice to those who cry to him night and day. If today, sitting here, 2000 years later, after millions of prayers by thousands upon thousands of saints and sinners alike have wended their way heavenward, you find yourself satisfied that justice has quickly come, you are excused from the rest of the sermon. And while you are not listening to the rest of the sermon, please, please, pray for those of us who harbor some doubt at this point about the swiftness of justice. (paraphrased from J. Hugh Magers, Sermons that Work)
An e-mail made the rounds a few years ago describing a sign seen posted in a hospital cafeteria: NOTICE: Due to the current budget cutbacks, the light at the end of the tunnel will be turned off until further notice. In a world governed by money and power, administered by individual interests, entrenched anger and fear, and capitalized by the seemingly endless exploitation of our most vulnerable citizens and of the earth itself, sometimes light and justice seem far away and our prayers as unheard as those of the widow. Which begs the question, is God really any more sympathetic to the cause of justice than that corrupt judge? If the moral of the story is just keep prayerfully pestering God like a toddler in a cosmic candy store until He provides us our spiritual sweeties, then what is faith really beyond an endurance contest? What is prayer beyond an itemization of desires and demands?
Biblical Scholar Raymond Bailey describes the immense power of a judge in Israel saying: “In Israel, the judge was the final arbiter. There was no jury, no court of appeal. . . The judge in the parable is a law unto himself, who has no sense of accountability to persons or God. He shirked his duty by not bothering to even hear the case . . . . . The widow throughout the Bible . . . was a vulnerable victim . . . a symbol of helplessness.” (The Lectionary Commentary, The Gospels, p. 429) With that kind of power accountable to no one, naturally we place God in the place of the judge. But what of Jesus?
Before the Soviet Union collapsed, Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn served years in the Soviet prison camps of Siberia. Along with other prisoners, he performed hard labor day in and day out, in all seasons, summer and bitter winter. Eventually he could see nothing more to life than backbreaking labor and slow starvation. The intense suffering reduced him to a state of despair.
One day the hopelessness of his situation overcame him. He saw no reason to continue his struggle, no reason to keep on living. His life made no difference in the world. He gave up.
Leaving his shovel on the ground, he slowly walked to a crude bench and sat down. He knew that at any moment a guard would order him to stand up. When he failed to respond, and the guard would beat him to death, probably with his own shovel. He had seen it happen to other prisoners.
As he waited for a violent but swift death, head held down, he felt a presence. He looked up and saw a skinny old prisoner squat down beside him. The man said nothing. He picked up a stick. He traced the sign of the Cross in the dirt. The man then got back up and returned to his work.
As Solzhenitsyn stared at the Cross drawn in the dirt his entire perspective changed. He knew he was only one man against the all-powerful Soviet empire. Yet he knew there was something greater than the evil he saw in the prison camp, something greater than the Soviet Union. He knew that hope for all people was represented by that simple Cross. Through the power of the Cross, anything was possible.
Solzhenitsyn slowly rose to his feet, picked up his shovel, and went back to work. Outwardly, nothing had changed. Inside, he had received hope. [Paraphrased from Luke Veronis, “The Sign of the Cross”; Communion, issue 8, Pascha 1997. Via Charles Hoffacker, Sermons that Work]
God is all powerful, but what of Jesus? Jesus was born in a stable, an itinerant preacher without means or power and nailed to a tree as an ignominious criminal. But He came. To be here. With us. For us.
“As Brené Brown puts it, “I went to church thinking it would be like an epidural, that it would take the pain away . . . But I realized that church is more like a midwife, standing next to me saying push. . . I thought faith would say, ‘I’ll take away the pain and discomfort, but what it ended up saying was, ‘I’ll sit with you in it.”
What if the judge is not meant to represent God at all, but the worst of our humanity – ruled by our own wants, our own desires, caring not for God nor fellow man until we have to, until we’re pestered into change. And the widow? A reminder of Jesus, vulnerable but steadfast. Fighting, nudging, pleading, persisting for the cause of justice. Standing with those in need. Drawing crosses in the dirt of our lives. Teaching us what it means to pray.
Soon we will pray together over the bread we break, the wine we drink, the spiritual meal that we share. God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, we will entreat – open our eyes.…Jacob is, I think, my prayer hero. Jacob is not much of a moral example – he lied to his dying father, cheated his brother out of his birthright, ran away in the night, fooled his uncle – but he accepted no half measures in relationship with God – he fought, and struggled and insisted on relationship. He became Israel – one who strives with God – and his people became Israel, and we are, spiritually speaking, descended from those people and we forget sometimes to strive with God. To come to the table for strength, as well as solace; for renewal as well as pardon.
“Prayer,” a dear friend once told me, “does not change the circumstances of our lives, it changes us! Which, by coincidence, changes the circumstances of our lives.” (Rev. Dr. Stephen B. Smith, personal communication). AMEN.
Proper 23, C, 2019
2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.
In the 10th century BCE, the northern Israelite tribes separated from Judah in order to establish a rival monarchy and settled in the region of Samaria along with Galilee to the north. Two centuries later the Assyrian empire conquered these northern tribes. The empire transported distant Mesopotamian peoples into the region, resulting in centuries of inter-marriage. From a Judean perspective, these developments continued ethnic compromise of the already alienated branches of Jacob’s family tree. The Samaritans developed their own religious traditions; traditions emphasizing devotion to Torah and affiliation with the sanctuary on Mt. Gerizim near Shechem.
In the 2nd century BCE, much of Galilee converted to Judaism. Subsequently the Galileans recognized the Jerusalem temple as the proper center of worship. This left the middle region of Samaria isolated between two Jerusalem-affiliated populations. In 128 BCE, the rivalry turned especially violent when Judeans destroyed the Samaritan sanctuary on Mt. Gerizim. The hostility between the groups remained strong, and by Jesus’s time, remained strong enough for Galilean pilgrims to Jerusalem, south of Samaria, to opt to bypass Samaria en route to Jerusalem, even though it added considerable time to the journey. (Source: Ira Brent Driggers, Working Preacher)
But Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.
In Leviticus, the law says, “The leper who has the disease shall wear torn cloths and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry, ‘unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean; he shall dwell alone in a habitation outside the camp.”
Now, in Jesus’s day leprosy could have been anything from actual Hansen’s disease (what we know as leprosy) to a bad case of eczema or psoriasis. Either way, it placed the sufferer in a no man’s land, a world outside polite society, a world between living and dead, between human and animal, between Samaria and Galilee.
According to the WHO, elimination of leprosy as public health problem (defined as a registered prevalence of less than 1 case per 10 000 population) was achieved globally in 2000. The people society treats as lepers almost never have Hansen’s disease, they don’t mark their appearance, and they don’t yell out warnings. They do often live in a land between.
My brother’s oldest is incredibly bright, and funny, and compassionate. Actually both of them are, but I always admired the way his oldest in particular seemed to march to the beat of an internal, personalized, individualized drum, seemingly never bowing to the external pressures of growing up. It turns out that, not only was he not comfortable in his own skin as I always thought he was, but he went through life feeling like he lived in the wrong skin altogether. He did not really understand what “transgender” meant until he went away to college – and over time came to learn that the term applied to him. His education was his family’s as well as we grappled, among other things, with the very real pain that can be inflicted with the misapplication of a pronoun. I still feel a deep pit in my stomach when I remember he went driving in the rural south with a driver’s license that didn’t match his pronouns and his physical appearance.
Friday marked the 31st National Coming Out Day, a celebration of LGBTQ+ folks that have made the decision to open up about their sexual orientation. 31 years of celebrating that act, and still LGB youth seriously contemplate suicide at almost three times the rate of heterosexual youth and are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide. (the Trevor Project)
Thursday was World Mental Health Day. One in five people have mental health issues. Mental health conditions are the leading cause of disability across the United States. Less than half of the adults in the U.S. who need services and treatment get the help they need with
An average delay between the onset of symptoms and intervention is 8-10 years.
The people who live between today don’t have Hansen’s. They have depression or anxiety, or suffer the devastating effects of addiction, or struggle with chronic disease. They are escaping crushing poverty or oppression or war or natural disasters. They love someone mainstream society says they should not or express their gender in ways that don’t fit society’s rules. They have black skin or brown, or wear a turban or hijab.
It’s you. It’s me. It’s the people we love. It’s the people we struggle not to hate. We’ve all of us found ourselves at the edge, in between, unaccepted or unacceptable. But Jesus was traveling through the land between Galilee and Samaria and they called out to him Jesus, master, have mercy on us. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said that Jesus meets us both on the boundary of our lives and also at the center.
Go, show yourselves to the priests. And they did. They did what they were supposed to do; what their culture, their rules, their values told them to do. With our individualistic, money driven, accomplishment driven, power driven world, we might relate more to Naaman’s values.
That great general did the things that won battles, won wars, won spoils, won honors and accolades. Naaman – the name means pleasant, a bit ironic for someone in his particular line of work, especially someone who was slowly rotting away from leprosy – Naaman took the advice of the Israeli slave girl and went off to the enemy Israeli king in search of a cure.
He did not come empty handed – he delivered his letter of reference from the king. He offered lavish gifts He would give anything, perform any feat of bravery, of daring. He expected grand recitations, grandiose ceremony, sacrifices – a little pomp if you please. The prophet didn’t even bother to come outside to meet him. Go wash in the Jordan said his messenger.
Naaman almost turned around and went back home, he was so mad. His servants saved his skin (quite literally). You’d do big things, pay big money, risk big risks – why not do the little thing Elisha asks?
Reading the story, you can see all the hot air blowing out of Naaman as he slowly deflates. His royal connections can do nothing. His military prowess is useless. The excessive ransom has been ignored. There is nothing left. Nothing except to strip down and bathe in a second rate muddy river according to the word of the man of God. And he was made clean. And he knew God. “All he had to do was empty himself out, abandoning the pretense that who he was, or what he was worth, could get him what he needed.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, The Cheap Cure)
Jesus responded to the needs of the ten – gives the gift of healing freely, but one was made well. The Greek is sozo (sodzo). It can be translated “made well”, but might better be understood here as “made whole”, in the sense of being completed and made to be what you were meant to be all along. (David Lose). He wasn’t made whole by writing Jesus a demur thank you note, or muttering “thank God” under His breath as he ran to the priest to be allowed to rejoin society. He was made whole by face planting at Jesus’s feet, letting go of hate and anger; embracing love and acceptance and “As soon as healing takes place, go out and heal somebody else.”
Let gratitude be the pillow upon which you kneel to say your nightly prayer. And let faith be the bridge you build to overcome evil and welcome good. (Maya Angelou)
PROPER 22, C, 2019
HABAKKUK 1:1-4, 2:1-4
Bad. Things. Happen. You know this. I know this. The news tells us this. From destruction of our ecosystems to economic devastation to violence on large scales and small – bad things happen. From emerging antibiotic resistance to self destructive behaviors to unwelcome diagnoses, to that pesky cold that just won’t let go, bad things happen. From floods and earthquakes to my suddenly soggy feet as I pick my way to the garage – bad things happen. It is a timeless truth.
Certainly the feces was flying fast at the proverbial fan almost 3000 years ago when Habakkuk penned the lament we heard today. Thought to be a contemporary of Jeremiah and Zapheniah, the mysterious Habakkuk wrote in the early 6th century as the Babylonians, whom he calls the Chaldeans, rose to power – shattering the lives of the Israelites, plunging them into chaos. “Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.” He described the chaos in his world, but his words could just as easily have described ours. Bad things happen.
It’s easy to see why the disciples might beg, why we might beg for just a little more faith. “Wait” is the message in Habakkuk. “If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.” But 6 centuries after Habakkuk and the Chaldeans, God among us set His face for Jerusalem, and the Kingdom remained elusive.
Increase our faith! The Chaldeans were long gone when the disciples voiced their plaintive cry. For some reason the lectionary doesn’t include the verses that immediately precede the disciples’ desperate sounding request-I asked Lee to read them anyway. If someone sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you, you must forgive.’ Seven times a day, one assumes day after day. That’s a lot of sinning. It’s an awful lot of forgiving. Increase my faith…
We talk about faith, they talk about faith, as if it were a commodity, something to be traded and used; strengthened and managed; saved for times of need. Preserved for the times we need the mulberry tree to uproot and jump in the ocean. Commentator Sarah Dylan Breuer writes, “The word ‘faith’ (pistis, in the Greek) is often spoken about as if it meant trying to talk ourselves into intellectual assent to something, with “increasing our faith” meaning that we are successfully persuading ourselves that we have adopted an idea we think is ridiculous. That’s not faith; it’s self-deception, and usually a pretty unsuccessful kind of self-deception that results in our feeling a little guilty and hypocritical, as we know that we don’t actually believe what we say. But faith is not about intellectual projection and assessment; it is not an intellectual analogue to that process we go through to build and maintain hubris.”
So far in Luke, Jesus named as faithful a woman’s desperate confidence that if she only touches him he will be healed (3:48), a centurion’s concern for a sick servant (7:9), and a woman’s gratitude at being forgiven (7:50). Soon he will also call faithful a Samaritan leper who returns to thank him for healing (17:19) and the plea of a blind beggar for sight (18:42). (references from David Lose). Ms. Breuer continues, “Faith is relationship — a relationship of trust, of allegiance. When Jesus talks about “faith,” he’s not talking about what you do in your head; he’s talking about what you do with your hands and your feet, your wallet and your privilege, your power and your time. Faith in Jesus is not shown by saying or thinking things about him, but by following him.”
Now Jesus launches into what to modern ears seems a highly distasteful discourse on slavery – indeed the passage has been used in the past to justify the reprehensible institution of slavery. I’ll let you in on a secret, Jesus wasn’t talking about slavery. He was talking about relationship.
My grandmother was a formidable woman. She raised two daughters under very difficult circumstances, and loved them fiercely. She had this perfect posture and dignity and brooked no nonsense. She came, over time, to accept my father as an adequate suitor for her daughter. He knew how to be polite, and what direction respect needed to flow. He earned his bachelors and masters from MIT and had a good job. He cleaned up nicely, looking sharp in his crisp Air Force Uniform. She found him acceptable.
But the thing that impressed her, the story she told me over and over about my father came after my brother was born. My grandmother came to help very soon after his birth, as new grandmothers do. When she came, of course, my brother was still very much in what my husband sentimentally calls the “leaky sack of fluids” stage of infancy. Fluid in, fluid out. He cried one day as newborns do, and Grandmother came in all her efficiency to remedy the situation. There she found my father. Changing. dirty. diapers. 500 years ago Martin Luther wrote, “When a father goes ahead and washes diapers or performs some other menial task for his child…God with all his angels and creatures is smiling”. I’m sure, had he known her, Martin Luther would be relieved to know my grandmother agreed with him. She fell in love with my father at that point, and was still telling me the story 15 years later. My father shrugs when reminded of this story. That’s what fathers do. Not for thanks, not for payback, certainly not for glory, and not even to win over their formidable mothers-in-law. But because that is the relationship.
We cannot approach a life in Christ as an exercise in maximizing faith or optimizing likelihood of attaining eternal bliss. G.K. Chesterton rightly advised, ““Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.”
I paraphrase Thomas Merton slightly, substituting “serving Christ” for “prayer”, “We are indoctrinated into means and ends…But that is not the way to build a life [serving Christ]. In [serving Christ] we discover what we already have. You start where you are, and you deepen what you already have, and you realize that you are already there. We already have everything, but we don’t know it and we don’t experience it. Everything has been given to us in Christ. All we need is to experience what we already possess. The trouble is, we aren’t taking the time to do so.
“Wait” says the God of Habakkuk. In verses we did not read, his faithful prophet responds with hope in a hopeless world:
Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails,
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold,
and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength; (Habakkuk 3: 17-19a)
We are not, as Mother Teresa said, called to do great things, but to do small things with great love. Change the dirty diapers of the world, one diaper at a time. Reach out to the stranger in love. Challenge the injustice in your little corner of the world. Teach a child and open her world. Offer a healing touch, a nourishing meal, an ardent defense, all for the love of Christ…That mustard seen is within you. Let it grow. Amen.