Please pray with me: Gracious God, reach into the hidden places in our souls, where fear and pain lurk, and love us until it heals. Amen
You have heard it said that this text is about Thomas and his doubts. That he is an example of what not to be, but I want to tell a story about God’s love for Thomas, a story about a love so powerful it can see into every crack and cranny where fear might hide. Every crevice where pain hides out, whispering those painful, anxious thoughts that cause us to withdraw on too many a fine day. I want to tell you a story about a god who is, in and of God’s very self, relational. A god who, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, is engaged in this wonderous dance, first one leading, then the other, as each celebrates the other. A god who reaches out to each and every one of us, swinging us up into God’s very arms, bringing us into this dance of love and joy. This is the god I want to speak of. Not the recriminating, you don’t have enough faith god, but the one who reaches for us even when we pull away. One who loves us in the depths of our misery and despair, in the midst of our anger and pain, in the midst of our fear and anxiety; a god who meets us where we are, but doesn’t leave us there. This is the God we meet in Jesus Christ. This is the God I want to speak of today.
I want to meet this god through Thomas and his story. I want to join Thomas in his grief and his loss, in his exclusion and his pain. I want to hear Thomas from across the centuries speak to us. I imagine it would go something like this:
First it was the women, saying they had seen Jesus, had spoken with him, but really, we all know that could never happen. I understand their grief, their desire to believe that what had happened could be undone, could be erased, but that’s not the way life works. I felt for them, in their pain and grief, but that was all.
Then it was everyone else! Saying that Jesus had come to them, not as spirit or a ghost but as a living breathing man. They assured me it was real. But, that’s not the way life worked. It hadn’t worked that way when my childhood friend died, or my grandparents, or, well death happens, there had been others. Once dead, one stayed dead. What they were saying was silly, and a bit disturbing.
We had to get on with things. We couldn’t just pretend that death could be reversed! Hadn’t I said, if we go to Jerusalem, they will kill him, and if our teacher, our rabbi and prophet, set his face to Jerusalem, was resolute, then we ought to go with him expecting to die also! Hadn’t I said that? This is the way of the world! This is just the way things are! You can’t change the way things are.
But, I couldn’t let it alone. The thoughts played through my mind over and over. If only I’d been more faithful, more courageous, maybe he would have come to me, I mean, if it could happen. But I hadn’t. I hadn’t gone to the cross with him. I’d been so scared.
Somehow, and I could think of so many ways it might have been, somehow I had failed him. The others were all lit up by his presence! Oh but I could see it. I knew that look on their faces. I knew that feeling, how he could reach into your heart and soul and make everything all right again, but this time, I had been denied, and I both knew why and didn’t know why. I just kept thinking over and over of what I might have done wrong, but mostly, I just tried really hard not to think about it. Because that’s not the way life works.“
We’ve all been there haven’t we? Last to be picked for sports teams in elementary school. The one left dateless on prom night. The one without an invitation to the party. The one who is left wondering why they aren’t good enough, not loved, not chosen, not appreciated, not valued. Not loved.
And don’t we all know what it is to face a hard reality? And the frustration of people telling us to “just think positive” or sharing one miracle cure after another that they heard of on the internet?
Can we take hope from Thomas’ story? For who among us has not wondered, can I be loved? Who among us has not secretly thought, well if they really knew me, they wouldn’t like me. And if you haven’t, and bless you if you haven’t because it’s a wonderful and gracious thing to have such a wonderful sense of yourself, still we can empathize. We’ve seen this kind of pain all too often. It’s the pre-teen girl who posts a picture of herself online asking this anonymous community if she’s pretty enough to be loved. It’s the angry young man who bullies and threatens because the whole world feels unsafe and he’s sure no one could really want him, love him, as he is.
I want to share a story that touched my heart. It’s the story of an elementary school teacher who every Friday, would ask the kids in her class to write down who they want to sit with next week. Who they want to have on their teams in group projects and then for hours she would pour over these lists of who is most loved, most wanted, who is chosen, who is not. A friend asked her about this and this is what she said,
“I know it might be arrogant, but I feel like I’m preventing the next Columbine, the next school shooting. You see, I’m looking for the kids no one wants to sit with, the ones no one notices or befriends, the outsiders, the excluded, the unwanted. I just think, if I could help them find friends now, when they’re still little, if I could help them to see themselves as beloved and wanted and chosen. I don’t know if it makes any difference really, but after Columbine, I had to do something.”
There is such power in being seen, in being invited in, in being included, in being named and claimed as one of us.
This is evangelism, this is the bringing of a good word, of a life-transformative experience of love, and the really cool thing is, we get to do it. The cool thing and the scary thing, is that God has entrusted us with the love and care of God’s very beloved children-each other.
That moment when your name is called, and you know, you know that finally it’s really you. Not those times when you are first chosen or even chosen in the middle of choosing, but that one time when all the choosing was done and you were sure that you were forgotten. When all the invitations have been sent out, but none for you. When all the names have been called but not yours. When it seems like no one sees you anymore they are so busy celebrating their loves, their invitations, their moment of glory…and then, as if from nowhere, someone calls your name!
That moment. But Jesus wasn’t done yet. He wasn’t done reaching into the pit of despair and loss and grief that had been welling up in Thomas’ heart. Thomas the one who had been prepared to “go with Jesus to Jerusalem and die there with him.” Thomas who had never expected any moment of reprieve from the loss he had experienced. Thomas who was willing to bravely soldier on through all the pain and grief, but please, please, don’t expect me to believe in miracles. It’s just too hard, too unfathomable, too outrageous. That Thomas. But no, just no. Thomas was a realist. He faced life on life’s terms and he knew that once dead is always dead. So no. No to the outrageous hope which defied all reality, all experience. Jesus was never going to call his name again. Never embrace him again. Never laugh with him again. Never share a meal with him again. And Thomas bravely moved through this finality. He didn’t deny it, but what rational man would?
So yes, that moment. When all hope is lost and the crazy ramblings of a few people wasn’t going to change that.
It is that moment that Jesus steps into and calls Thomas’ name. It is that moment, when it feels right and natural to harden one’s heart, to just move on, to get on with life, because nothing can be done. It is into that hardness and determination to survive that Jesus invites Thomas into a softer, more vulnerable, intimate embrace than he had ever thought possible. Into the pain, the grief, the loss, the hardness, Jesus brings gentleness, intimacy, vulnerability. “Go on, touch my wounds. Come close and feel my breath, breathe in my scent, hear my voice, come close. Do not be unbelieving, but abide in me.” Do not let your fear harden your heart and make your life small and desparate, but become soft, take the risk and come close to me again.
Jesus comes bearing his wounds and his flesh for Thomas to touch and feel, but it is Thomas’ wounds which are healed. It is Thomas’ despair, grief, and loss which receive that breath of new life.
Thomas’ head must have whirled with confusion, with desire and fear all at once. To touch the beloved teacher, to feel the warmth of his skin and see the gentle laughter in his eyes? Was not Thomas’ heart burning within his chest? Was he not rocked almost to his knees? To be so loved, that even death could not touch nor diminish that love, that even a brutal, tortured death, could not prevent that love from stirring his heart back to life one more time!
Had not some part of Thomas, some hope, some faith, died on that cross with Jesus?
And was it not the certainty of that loss rather than doubt which closed Thomas heart? But the moment he hears his name, doubt is stirred, doubt questions, and hope bubbles up in his chest! And Thomas, who had so bravely declared that he would die with Jesus, is just brave enough to let that hope fully enter his heart, overwhelm his certainties, and open his fearful heart to wonder, mystery, and a love that is well beyond his or our understanding.
It’s in those places where we’ve hardened our hearts and we’ve given up hope, where we’ve accepted that this is just the way life is and it won’t get any better, it’s into those locked down, locked up places that Jesus speaks our name, calling us into a new future, a new potential, asking us to be vulnerable enough to hope again, to love again, to believe again. It’s in those raw and painful wounds that Jesus breathes new life. It’s into that joyless resignation that Jesus takes our hand and invites us to join the dance and in so doing to abide in him as he abides in the Father. We are swept up, carried away, like a child who is caught up in a loving parent’s arms.
Doubt is the open door through which Jesus enters. Doubt is the glorious openness to the unknown. It is the refusal to accept the common answers. It is both the refusal to deny death, grief, and loss and the willingness to transcend them.
It is my hope that when you are asked to doubt all that you have ever known, about how life is, about death and taxes, about broken hearts and not-good-enough, when you are invited to doubt that things really have to be this way, you too will doubt, will wonder, will question. That you too will be swept up in those loving arms giddy for a moment, laughing, surprised and delighted, and that you will allow yourself to be vulnerable enough to be carried away, overcome by emotion, that you too will join Thomas in proclaiming, my lord, and my God!
Ah my friends, we arrive at the crux of the matter, why go into the desert anyway? Why go on these wilderness journeys, why not hide our head in the corner and just refuse? It isn’t fun. We talked about how crisis is so often the thing that gets us off the couch and into the wilderness, we talked about losing all that we think we are and need to be, that holy stripping of identity and boundary markers by which we say, ‘I am this.” We talked about getting lost and how scary it can be, and how much we want to be in control, so we resist ‘letting go and letting God,” because that reminds us all too much that we aren’t in control anyway and we really want to be.
So why go? Why face our mortality every year, looking death in the face and saying, yes we know this is coming and we are mortal. Why do it? Why not stay where everything looks grand and beautiful and if it doesn’t we’ll just tuck our heads and our hearts away and refuse to look. What I don’t know, I don’t have to face, so there.
I imagine poor Lazarus and his sisters must have been wondering the same sorts of things as they waited for their friend, the healer to come and heal Lazarus and he just didn’t come. What good did it do for them to believe when he didn’t come? I feel for Mary and Martha in their recriminations when they bluntly say to Jesus, “You could have saved him. You didn’t come. You didn’t show up.” Bam. There it is. So why look death in the face if you can do nothing to prevent it, why embrace hope and salvation if it isn’t coming? Our Lenten practice of facing our own darkness, our own mortality every year must have some benefit right? I mean because we keep doing it. So why?
We finally hit that point in our journey when rock bottom shows up. When we experienced this holy stripping of identity, of boundary markers, that place where we can say, Hi, I’m Cyndi I’m…and all those things we hold precious are listed, I’m Joyce and Gunther’s mom, I’m Betty ‘s daughter, I’m a Christian, I’m here to help, I’m this, I’m that, all of this is just gone. This is a holy striping. It’s what happens to Job. When all he has is just ripped from him and all he has left is “I belong to God.”
One of my favorite confessions begins by identifying our chief comfort, that we belong to God and no one and nothing can take that away. The man who wrote that, Frederick the Electorate, did so as he was being hauled before the courts on a charge of heresy. The outcome of the trial would determine whether he lived, or was burned at the stake, so he needed to be sure. He needed to know that he was staking his life on something solid and sure and the most important thing he could grasp hold of, not unlike Job, is that he belonged to God.
This is what a wilderness journey does, it strips us down until all that is left is our essential truth. Every year we rehearse this, we gather together and remind one another that is part of who we are. Mortal, vulnerable, fragile, and that in our tender mortality who we are matters a very great deal. Yes we are dust, and to dust we shall return, but what we do in the meantime is an act of co-creation. We are not powerless automatons but vibrantly alive and graced by the love of God, God’s very self. That is amazing!
In our day to day acts we miss this. We get busy with our to-do lists and we miss that every act we give our energy to matters. It matters whether we speak ill of one another or good. It matters whether we stand with the outcast or the insider. It matters whether we forgive the errors of those we love, choosing love and connection over our insistence that some things just should never have happened! These things matter intensely. And when we allow our self to feel our mortality, feel the need for a legacy, all of this matters.
When we face our wounds and dare to look into the cracks and crevices of our brokenness, we see where we have gone astray, where we have missed the mark and stop fooling our self that somehow it was justified. That we only said this hurtful thing or did that other thing because so and so did this, and we realize there never was an excuse big enough or important enough to justify our being less than we were created to be. Oh, we might say, that person promised me this, and it’s okay if I hurt them because they failed to produce it…but it was never about them, was it? At our rock bottom, in the act of having all our justifications stripped from us, all that remains is that we hurt someone who may or may not have failed us. Ouch. Just ouch, because that is NOT who we want to be. We wanted to be so much more than that!
So we rehearse it, we stop every year and check ourselves. Who am I really? Am I living up to who I said I’d be? Who God created me to be? How far off the mark am I? One of my favorite authors, Stephen Levine, captured this practice well in his book, A Year to Live. As a hospice worker he had noticed that many of his patients were experiencing these glorious ah-ha moments when they could see clearly how far off the mark they had gone and how little they had to lose by moving back toward that mark. The same theory is captured beautifully in that song by Tim Mcgraw, Live Like You are Dying. The lyrics from that song that really touch my heart are the “I loved deeper and I spoke sweeter, and I gave forgiveness that I’d been denying,” He had nothing left to lose, “I hope you get the chance to live like you are dying, “ he tells his young friend. Well, Stephen Levine decided that darn it, he was going to do just that, and he spent an entire year pretending that he only had a year to live.
This is our Lenten practice. A place where we stop and remember that we are all mortal, and we will all wonder in the desert at some point. We will lose loved ones, we will see opportunities pass us by, we will some day have that final spring, the one where we, hopefully, stop complaining about all the mud and just glory in the daffodils, we will have that final summer and we hope that as those long evenings go by they aren’t filled with regret that we failed to forgive this person and we failed to repair that relationship because we were just too daggon scared. It felt too doggon vulnerable so we froze up and we didn’t do it.
The glory of our Lenten journey into the wilderness to examine and look at all the things within us that block love that shut out the light, that keep our lives small and timid, is that we get to choose differently. We get to really look deeply at how we are, or are not, living into the being God created us to be and imagine a different way of being. I imagine that this is a big part of Lazarus’s story. We really don’t know much about him, other than that he died, like all of us will, and he got a second chance. Just flip those tables Jesus! We get one chance to get things right, to say how much we love those we care about, to give forgiveness, to do and say all the things that God has laid on our hearts…except that Lazarus gets a do-over. Mary and Martha get a do-over, and that changes everything.
Now it’s hard work to go into the tomb if you don’t have to. It’s a challenge to face one’s humanity, one’s limitations, one’s faults and errors if you don’t have to. Even when we’ve been scared to death once or twice, it’s really easy to re-armor our hearts with lots of should’s and shouldn’ts and it ought to be this way or that, and fail to see what is right in front of us. We are so good at protecting ourselves from loss, so good at pretending that we if do all the right things somehow it will pass us by, that we need to stop every year and say, whoa, wait a minute, You are Mortal. You are dust and to dust, you, yes you, will return. Every year we take this journey, we pack our bags and we unpack our baggage and we take this journey. We look carefully at what we take with us and who we are and who we have become.
And then we get to choose again. Then we get to live like we are dying. The gems mined in your darkest moments are what give you a depth, a courage, a wisdom and a richness that can’t be learned elsewhere. And your ability to fly is in direct proportion to your willingness and courage to face your version of rock bottom. If you’ve ever been at the bottom and bounced back to tell the story, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Now I hope that during our Lenten journey you really looked deeply. That you thought about the ways you keep people from loving on you, and the things you tell yourself that keep you from loving others. I hope that you have looked at the ways you have kept your life small and ‘reasonable’ and perhaps you’ve looked at the ways you fight change, fearing loss so much that it’s hard to let anything go. I hope that you have been shook and all that you wish you could let go of has become a little looser. And I hope too that you have been gentle with yourself during this process, because it’s all okay. There is next year…right? It is in our human nature to pretend that we all have another chance coming, that later is okay, the story of Lazarus reminds us that later is sometimes too late, and even God, very God will weep.
So I hope that you have been shaken on this journey. Let your heart and soul be shaken, for in some measure we are all with Lazarus, Mary and Martha, sending out those messages, “Master come quick, the one you love is ill.” I wonder what words of forgiveness and love were shared around that deathbed, words which might not have been shared if they knew that Lazarus was going to get a second chance. I hope that whatever words of love or forgiveness, are spoken, that love isn’t being denied, that we are all clinging tightly to the knowledge that we belong to God, and that we can truly live as if we are dying.
I hope that in this shaking you have been gentle with yourself and gentle with each other, that those things you want to let go of have been shook loose and are ready to drop. I hope you feel ready to love deeper, speak sweeter, and express that audacious, bold love that we are called to. May it be so,
36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
Decide now how you will live your life. What matters most to you. Where do you want to put your energy. Make that decision now. You don’t have much time. You think you have time, but you don’t, so decide now, act now, be the person you want to be now. You don’t have much time, don’t be fooled, don’t put it off. Be who you want to be right now.
If the word apocalypse literally means removing the veil of all our illusions, of coming face to face with the truth, then perhaps we can live an apocalyptic life every day, shredding our illusions and facing the reality, the difficult truths, the beautiful truths, every day. It’s odd, though, isn’t it? that our lectionary has this apocalyptic warning for the first Sunday of advent. Advent is that time of waiting, of anticipating, it’s a pregnant time, dark and hidden, waiting for new light, new birth, new life, the hope of a new future and kingdom here on earth, and the whole world groans for this, we long for redemption, for this new thing to come, for justice to come down like a cleansing rain, washing away all injury, all wounds cleansed and healed, we long for this!
But fear does drive us now and then, it causes us to pull back from our dreams, our best intentions and asks us to live a life that is small and safe. It insists we can try and live out our dreams another day, another time, but not now, not yet, we’re not ready, and so we play it small. If the owner of the house had known when the thief was coming, he might have realized the thief is the fear that lives in his own heart insisting that he lock all the doors, put up a fence and keep a safe distance from anyone who might want his things. The thief is the promise that he can make it alone and doesn’t need anyone so why take a risk? Why answer the door and risk meeting someone who might hurt your heart, disappoint you, abandon you.
“We want to love people who won’t hurt us, let us down, or betray us, but there are no other people.” Everyone we meet is fighting a battle with their own wounds, their own brokenness and sometimes it spills over and we get caught in it; the closer we are to that person, the more we feel, the more likely we are to be hurt, but the alternative, shutting down, closing our hearts, pulling away from love, is far more painful. Fear says it’s not worth the risk, love says we are strong enough to take it all in stride, feel the pain of our best intentions falling flat, our expectations unmet, failure to communicate, and still love. Love says we have plenty of room and lots to give and we can live our lives out loud.
And so a part of us wants to avoid living fully, loving fully. We want to lock ourselves away from any vulnerability or risk, but we cannot live that way. Brene Brown is a researcher based in Houston Texas and a several years ago she began researching whole heartedness. She wanted to know how it is that some people are able to live these rich, full lives, lives that we all look at with a little envy. In her now famous TED talk (https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability#t-9445) Brene admitted that when she discovered that the difference between these whole hearted, delightful folk and those who lived much more cautiously and fearfully was accepting vulnerability she experienced a bit of an existential crisis. She had been looking for the perfect life hack, how to have it all, to win at the game of life, and the answer came back, be vulnerable, accept that you will be hurt, you will lose, and decide to love anyway.
I’m with Brene in that deep down desire to find an easier way! And there is a big part of me that wants to put my life on hold until this better way shows up. I want promises and certainty, but our text reminds us vividly today that only one thing is certain, we aren’t promised tomorrow. We are not given the perfect life hack, but invited to consider how we are living with what is. Are we keeping our lights lit, our lamps full of oil as we wait for the bridegroom? Are we saying the things we most need to say, the I love you’s, the I forgive you’s? Are we offering our hearts and our full attention to those we love the most? Or are we withdrawing and distracting, promising that another time, another place we’ll show up more fully.
The hospice caregiver Stephen Levine participated in a one year thought experiment which he documented in his book A Year to Live. He decided to live one year with the thought that this year might very well be his last. He wanted to get that incredible benefit which he saw many of the dying people he accompanied receiving as they approached their death. Why wait, he thought, until the diagnosis was for real. Tomorrow is never promised us, he figured, so why not assume that I will not be here next year. Every time he began to disengage with life, he would remind himself that this was his last experience of this day. He practiced embracing each and every day, each and every experience. It is not that he had not known that he ought to be fully open, fully present, but knowing this and actually practicing it are two different things.
So we begin our period of advent, this pregnant time, with the reminder that this is precious, precious time. This is one more incredible opportunity to open our hearts, to stay present with all that pains us, to forgive, to love, to worship, to create space in our every day busy-ness for joy.
“In the end
these things matter most:
How well did you love?
How fully did you live?
How deeply did you let go?”
So having gotten just this far into my sermon I was personally confronted by the fact that I have not been living this way. I know the importance of being present in each moment, cherishing each relationship, but doing it, actually putting these thoughts into practice isn’t something I’ve been very good at. I get busy, just like all of you and I get tired and it always seems like there will be another day, another time.
In June of this year I drove through Minneapolis, anxious to get here I failed to make adequate preparations to connect with people there whom I dearly love. I told myself that there will always be time, I could come back up later, but six months down the road I just never had. It’s hard to convey simply how important these people are to me; people who helped me find courage and conviction when it would have been easier to simply quit. People who offered me many and various ways to participate in the life of the church and encouraged me. People who had become a new family to me, yet I had gotten busy and failed to connect.
Short story long, I was in Minneapolis by 1:30, eating tomato basil soup at Turtle Bread Bakery, relishing the sights, the tastes, the sounds of a city that had been home to me for four years. At 4:30 I was sitting on the steps of Lake Nokomis Presbyterian watching members of my church family begin to filter in. I hadn’t been there in nearly four years, Bill has a full beard now, I almost didn’t recognize him. Lisa has lost weight and was looking all fine and trim. The Root kids had grown! Oh my gosh, but Owen is as tall as I am now! My two Sue’s and Kara, women who have been like sisters to me, were all there.
Yesterday I stopped denying myself the joy of reconnecting with these lovely and beloved people. Yesterday, a few of us gathered around a table and shared a meal. Yesterday I was able to wrap my arms around dear friends and give them long overdue hugs! Yesterday I remembered that I am not promised any more time; I am not promised second chances or second Christmases,
How well do you love, how fully do you live, how well do you let go of things not meant for you? The problem is, we think we have time and we put off our joy, we tell ourselves that we can connect with loved ones later, we can say the words that we long to say, later, we can find joy, later.
Do not wait, my friends, we are not promised later. We have the incredible gift of now. Do not withhold yourself from joy. Cherish each relationship, treasure your conversations, give yourself fully to each moment, for tomorrow isn’t promised. Two will go into the field, but only one will come back; so love and live as fully as you can, cherishing this moment, this time, this person with you now, and do not withhold yourself from joy.
For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
18 But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.
19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.
20 No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
21 They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22 They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
23 They shall not labor in vain,
or bear children for calamity;[e]
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—
and their descendants as well.
24 Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
but the serpent—its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain,
says the Lord.
I had the good fortune to find some time to walk around Madison yesterday afternoon. As I met one smiling face after another, watched children ride their bikes down suburban streets, saw people helping each other, their kids racing from one house to another I was reminded again and again that people are basically good and kind. I was reminded that we all bear the image of God and the love of God just shines right on through us like sunlight through a stained glass window.
It was a reminder that, although our country feels so very divided right now, we share a goal that goes way beyond the election. We share the goal of a country in which all people can live with great hope and joy, with meaningful work and justice for all. And as I thought about the fact that not only have we just had a contentious election, but that Friday was veteran’s day and I, like so many of you, have such deep, deep gratitude for our veterans and all that they have done for us. All that they have given to help us attain these greater goals of freedom, equality, and a bright future. We all hold those things in common, values and goals we cherish.
We are in a new land today. Let that sink in. We are in a whole new place and we aren’t certain what will happen, how we should live. It’s just really shaky and uncertain. And that’s exactly where the people who third Isaiah was speaking to were at. It’s interesting to hold Isaiah 65 right next to Isaiah 66 because they parallel one another, the first written to those who had not been faithful-but ending with a promise anyway, and the second written to those who had been faithful, also ending with a promise.
Let me be honest and clear with you. I’m really hurting from the results of our recent election. I don’t dislike Trump as a man. I’ve known many men like him, and I want to be clear that I am not saying that anyone here who voted for him is in favor of the racism, misogyny and abuse that is raising its head right now. I do not believe anyone here wanted to see the Klan marching in victory.
My heart is with those who are now fearing that this means half of America doesn’t value them, doesn’t believe they have a right to safety, or hope, or a future. I hear their fear, I hear their dismay, and I can’t ignore it. I have been left wanting to comfort the women and young girls around me with the knowledge that even though we have elected a man who sees them as nothing more than objects to rated, used, and abused, their sacred, intrinsic worth, remains.
So please understand that I recognize that most people who voted in this election, regardless of who they voted for, are good, decent people, who don’t want anyone to be hurt or scared. They certainly don’t condone violence even as violence against women and minorities immediately escalated following this election. Please know, that I understand that no matter who won this election, some of us would be hurting.
We as a church have not done a very good job of acknowledging trauma and I want to acknowledge that there are those among us who have experienced sexual violence, it’s an unseen, often unacknowledged trauma. if you are one who feels your abuse and trauma have been dismissed and disregarded, if you feel unsafe then these next words are for you:
Hold onto your anger with tight fists and don’t let it go! Your anger is a holy fire lit by God within you, reminding you that you are a child of God! A child of the most high and any abuse or violence against your being that you have suffered is so very, very wrong! Don’t let go of that!
Even if there is only one person here who has experienced abuse or sexual assault present here today, hear me clearly: you deserve better than this.
So please hear me now, listen with every fiber of your soul, especially if you are one of those,
You are so deeply loved and cared for, God weeps with you for every violation of your beautiful tender soul. You are beloved, chosen, called, you are seen wholly and completely in every aspect of you being, broken and whole, and loved completely. The breaking, broken parts of your life, are continually washed clean in the tears of God. You are stronger than you ever thought you could be, and those times when you don’t feel strong enough, that’s why we are here, that’s why God gave you us, because it’s okay not to be strong enough. Everyone has their breaking point, and those times when you can’t quite make it, it’s okay.
And again, I want to be clear that I am not saying everyone who voted for Trump approved of his behavior or the interpretation that others are putting on it. I want to acknowledge that there must be incredible frustration and hurt in being wrongly labeled and categorized.
We are called to wrestle and engage with all that is happening, and refuse to let it go, refuse to numb out, or accept violence as politics as usual. So hold onto your pain until it blesses you, until it leads you to treasure, until it brings you to the thing you love the most. Pain is the red flag saying this is important, this is important, this is important.
Trust that God is at work in this process. God is the one who shifts our painful experiences from pointless and painful to transformative. Who uses them to open our hearts and souls to those around us. It is God who shifts our pain from meaningless to redemptive.
We are incredibly divided in our nation right now. Incidents of violence have increased, students are protesting, protests are becoming riots, and it’s all very frightening. To extricate the people from despondency, to attach meaning to their past and present misery, was the task that the prophet and God had in common.
We find ourselves in a new land, where we are called to hold aloft the light of Christ and remember who we are and whose we are.
The exiles in Isaiah, having returned to the promised land also had some faithful and some not-so-faithful responses. The first half of Isaiah 65 lists some of these faults, forsaking the worship of the God of Israel for those super fun worship ceremonies on the hill, defiling oneself, doing what is evil in the sight of the Lord.
We, like the exiles returning to Jerusalem, have been through a sea-change, in fact it’s still going on. And we, just like they did, get to choose how we will respond and most likely, just as it was with them, it will be a mixed choice, a little back and forth, because it’s hard to be all in, all the time. But we do get to choose, and the good news is, that we were born for just such a time. We are a gracious, loving community; we are a community committed to dialogue and to learning, to building bridges across divides. We are a people who know we are called to love justice, to walk with the oppressed, to be humble, and to welcome all people to the love and grace we have received in Jesus Christ.
Now that doesn’t mean we won’t slip once in a while. We won’t necessarily argue or be hurt or angry. We will have different views and perspectives, but we are committed to the way of peace, we are committed to the path of healing, we are committed to one another, we are committed to following Jesus.
We are a wrestling people, not a walking away people. For I remember the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to abandon you.
And that brings us to the second part of Isaiah 65. The part that we take refuge in during hard and difficult times;
For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
18 But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.
19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.
Violence is loud, but Love is more pervasive. We are in process, this is not over yet.
This is the promise we hold onto. That centering our lives on God, living faithfully, we will be participants in creating a new heaven and new earth. That God will delight in us, that every tear will be wiped, every wound will be healed. That in this new kingdom the fruit of one’s labor will not be stolen, that health and wellbeing will be the prospect of all people, not only the wealthy, that we will not fear for the future of our children, but see them live blessed and joyful lives. This is the promise we hold onto.
Now we don’t get to this promise without going through the rest of it. It’s a process, not instant gratification. And this process involves a lot of healing, a lot of looking at the places where we’ve gone wrong, but the promise remains. So we need to actively disavow racism, misogyny, and violence- no matter who you voted for, these things don’t represent who we are. We need to create a safe place for all the children of God to gather, to know they are wholly and completely welcome. And we need to be vocal about doing this. We must witness to the world that we walk the path that Jesus taught us to.
We are in need of deep healing. We urgently need to see the love of God made visible in our world today and we are uniquely empowered to be that love made visible. We are needed right now. This we know. We are healers, caretakers, visionaries, we are worker bees and community organizers. Our message to the world is one of love and grace, not because we are so great but because God is. Not because we are the most forgiving, but because God is. Not because we are the most inclusive, but because God is.
We are all tasked with choosing love over hate, faith in God over despair, and we are all tasked with making these choices visible so that others may see them and take heart. We are called to be love in action, love determined to make a difference, love working to change and transform a life, a culture, a world. It is this love in action that brought Jesus to the cross. It is this love in action that we are called to bring to the world. Take up your cross is not a passive directive! God who entered into the messiness of life and the cruelty of death to be with us, invites us to do the same for each other.
We are not responsible for fixing everything, for healing the world, that’s God’s work. But we are responsible for the piece of the world within our reach. So today my friends, seek out and find that piece of the world near you that needs healing, needs love. Be that healing and that love, let your light shine brightly so that others may see it and take hope, so that others may see it and discover the reason for your hope.
I invite you to consider one solid, concrete way of being the love and healing that the world needs so much right now. Wear a safety pin so people will know you are committed to being a safe person. Sit next to the woman in the hijab, confront hateful talk when you hear it, pray for those who you are afraid of or who anger you. Find at least one concrete way you can be the peace and healing we so need in the world, for the world needs you today. And don’t let go of hope. Choose to rejoice in God especially when things seem dark and hard.
Once, when I was working in the rehab, a place where we didn’t even use the word God, a young man asked if he could close group using the Lord’s prayer. With the rest of the group’s consent he did so. Now I was confused by this because I knew he wasn’t a Christian, that he had recently expressed an interest in Buddhism, so I stopped him after group and asked him what that was about. He said, “when I was running drugs and I had to go through the park where the other dealers were hanging out, and I would get scared, I would say that prayer under my breath the whole way. It helped me feel safe.” We don’t have to begin with perfect faith or any faith. God hears us. This is why we worship, especially when things are difficult, uncertain and scary, because we need it. It changes us, it works in us. So don’t let go of the struggle until it blesses you. Don’t stop halfway through and reside in the pain, praise God always
O sing to the Lord a new song,
For the Beloved has done marvelous things!
By the strength of your Indwelling Presence,
We, too, are called to do great things;
We are set free through Love’s forgiveness and truth.
Yes, your steadfast love and faithfulness
Are an ever-present gift
In all our lives.
All the ends of the earth have seen
The glory of Love’s Eternal Flame.
Make a joyful noise to the Lord your God,
All the earth;
Break forth into grateful song
And sing praises!
Yes, sing songs of praise extolling
Let the melody be
Gratitude and joy!
Let the voices of all people
Blend in harmony,
In unity let the people
Magnify the Lord!
Let the sea laugh and all that
The land and those who
Dwell upon it;
Let the waters clap their hands;
Let the hills ring out with joy,
Before the Holy One, who radiates Love
To all the earth.
For Love reigns over the world
With truth and justice,
Bringing order and balance
To all of creation!
A reflection on Luke 10: 1-20
Click here for audio~06020102
When I was a young newly married woman I lived in Germany on a military post. At first blush it appeared that I was off on an incredible adventure, living in a foreign land but in military housing we had enclaves of Americanism. There were residents there who never ventured off post. They stayed where the language, the customs, the community, especially the food, were familiar. Others of us dared to venture out into the unknown, to be greeted with strange sayings such as Gruss Gott and to be eyed warily as foreigners. A few brave souls learnt the language and moved into the community, taking jobs and finding housing off post, but most of us would spend most of our time on post, resting in familiarity. Anywhere where a group of immigrants, or transient workers, which I guess in a sense is what military families overseas are, live there tends to arise a pocket of home, a neighborhood that remembers and sustains the culture of home.
We take great comfort in familiarity. It connects at some deep visceral level and assures us that we do, in fact, belong. We know the social contracts that are implied and not spoken. We know the social customs and the familial ties that pass unseen to visitors. Here in church we know when to stand, when to sit, which version of the Lord’s prayer to recite—and we can recite it by memory. I remember that moment when, as a child, I realized I had it fully memorized. I began to recite it looking around to see if anyone noticed that I could recite it by memory and silently judging those who were reading it off the page. Knowing the Lord’s prayer by memory was sort of like my membership card, proving I was an insider. Today I’m back to reading the various prayers and creeds as different versions compete in my mind, is it debts and debtors, is it sins and transgressions, is it trespasses? Are we using inclusive language? But I still have that insider, I belong, familiarity. I mean doesn’t everyone, everywhere stand for the Gloria Patri? And does anyone need to see the music anymore?
But then I venture into another church, something different and I experience my first altar call. I find myself surrounded by people who can’t sit during a song and they simply must wave their hands in the air. And I am reminded that our ways of being are just as strange, just as foreign and unknown to those who visit us. One church I visited introduced me to prayer stations. The pastor stating, “there are many opportunities to respond to today’s message, you might want to light a candle over here, draw or write a prayer on the grafitti wall back there, write a confession on rice paper and release it into the baptismal waters knowing that just as it dissolves there so your sin is absolved,” he went on, and I sat there stunned. He wanted me to do what? But over time as I surrendered my preconceived ideas of what church has to be, must be, in order to be real church my experience was transformed, was widened and I began to see the Holy Spirit moving and shifting through each of these experiences.
In our scripture today we hear Jesus sending the 70, or 72 depending upon the version you read, out into foreign areas, strange new places, where they were to abide and dwell with the first peaceful resident who would take them in. They were not to seek a familiar enclave or to search for the best possible experience, “I’m going to stay with Sam because he has a hot tub!”And they were not to take their own sustenance or means of sustenance along with them. Leave your spare clothes, your extra cash, your comfy slippers, and don’t stop to chat with people on the way, get moving! Go, go now, into the strange new places and meet those who are unlike yourself.
I think Jesus knew that our human tendency is to stay with those most like ourselves and when possible to avoid being dependent on others. I think he knew that if his disciples were to truly meet others, to get to know them, to know their stories and their lives, that they had to live together. They had to ask for what they needed. They had to meet these people right where they were if genuine, authentic relationships were to be formed. I think Jesus knew that our human nature is to avoid vulnerability, is to avoid change, is to protect and defend and be self reliant, but this is not the gospel way.
Oh, and how we want to make it that sometimes! We want promises and assurances and we want to be right and certain. We want to bask in the security of what is familiar and routine. But God asks us to grow into something new. God asks us to allow ourselves to be transformed and made over, the old is passed away, behold I do a new thing!
But that middle bit, the part where transformation takes place, it’s messy. No catepillar ever became a butterfly without going through the chrysalis. I can imagine a hundred awkward scenarios as the 70(2) went out. It seems like it’s always the simple things that mess us up. Do I take my shoes off or keep them on? Where is the bathroom? Do I stand or sit? When we come together as church here we, as the insiders, know all of these things.
Jesus’ invitation to us, today, is to set aside our expectations and enter fully into relationship with all people, those who may enter this sanctuary, and those who may never do so.
We are to set aside that which is familiar so that we might meet people right where they are. Parker Palmer, who wrote a wonderful book called, Let Your Life Speak, reminds us that the soul is a quiet and shy thing. It does not like to be pushed out into the open and force will cause it to disappear like water from a tight fist, but if coaxed with promises of welcome, of hospitality and gentleness, it will show up. When we put aside our way of being in order to meet others right where they are, we become a welcoming, hospitable church that invites others to be fully present, with all their crazy ways of being, and all of the gifts that God has given them to give.
In the 1950’s just after the second world war a Japanese woman petitioned a presbyterian church for membership. They said no. No they didn’t need nor want any of her type there. With incredible grace and humility she continued to attend anyway. It is not unusual today to see the sanctuary decorated in hundreds and hundreds of origami cranes, because as she sat in the pews with the restless children, she would teach them some simple origami to keep them quiet. Eventually their heart was softened and she was granted membership. She has long since passed away, but that church was gifted great kindness and humilty through her witness.
We are called not only to meet others where they are but to welcome strangers with such a full and gracious hospitality that they will be empowered to give of themselves and all that they are. We are called to enter into relationship with all who come, allowing them to change us as much as we seek to change them. Each and every time we seek to witness to Christ’s love for the other and we seek to see Christ’s image in the other, we risk becoming a new creation, transformed, made new. No outward sign will do, only a change of heart will suffice.
To really know and understand something, we must move into action, our thoughts and our best understanding must flow through our hands and out into the world where we can see them. The seventy (two) who were sent to all nations, were asked to be act as/like Jesus, to put into action that which they had been taught. Is it ever enough to to simply know? To know and refuse to act, is much the same as not knowing.
Jesus invited the seventy[two] and us! to do something very Christlike, to empty ourselves of all of our preconceptions and right answers, to meet those who so desparately long for connection right where they are, and to love them, just as they are. The seventy[two] had learned this way at the master’s knee, but to fully realize what they had learned they needed to put it into action. And they returned with incredible joy! Love, community building, salvation, restoration, healing! It had all happened for them just as they had seen it happen for Jesus. And Jesus reponded, “I saw the adversary fall from heaven like lightening!
We have only to give up our desire to seek safety and familiarity, to go, go now! Trusting that God will go with us, and risk a little vulnerability, risk making a mistake or two, and meet others, right where they are.
Click here for the audio file~09031901
I had to take this scripture into myself this weekend. To let it work on me, to feel the poetry of it. The kneeling, the bowing, the praying, the astonished heart of one who has been overcome by the fullness of God, of God’s love. This text reads like a love poem to the Damascus road experience. The astonishing moment where a bright light shines lovingly on all the dark and hidden corners of one’s soul and changes everything. This river of grace and love which flowed through Saul the persecutor changing him, altering him forever; breaking open his heart, enlightening his eyes, drawing forth love and compassion from one who was, who had been a persecutor.
And then he is no longer that, but something new. Love paints all things with a new light and his life is transformed. One might wonder if Paul ever regretted it, this move from wealthy pharisee with political power and prestige to hunted revolutionary speaking and preaching the gospel of Jesus to a hurting and lost world. But if we wonder then perhaps we have missed the love poem written in this text. So many years after the Damascus road incident, so many years and experiences later, Paul writes:
Kneeling before the Father,
The archetypal father from whom all fathers
On earth or in heaven (perhaps even the third heaven but who can say? In the body or out.)
Take their name
I only a simple child
Moved by the love of the Father
Moved by the love which,
Is beyond my knowledge
Somehow I feel
A new experience
An abundance of glory
(can you not feel it? )
Is the love of the Father
A love which has no height
No width nor circumference
With which to contain it.
(can you not feel it?)
An abundance of glory, an earth shattering, life changing, unexplainable fullness of God. All these years after Damascus and he’s still in love with God. Paul is given to some rebukes in his writing; he is given to some self promotion, but mostly, he is given to love and surrender for the sake of the gospel. And Paul knows that this is not an easy love, it is not a comfortable love but one which will change you, which will shake up your life and take you to places you cannot at this time imagine. Even as he prays that we too might have the experience of God’s love he also prays,
But be strengthened
Be rooted and grounded
Because you’re going to need it
Because this love,
It will change everything and change is hard
Even when it’s good.
(Love lives in your heart now, can you feel it?)
In your inmost being
In the depths of the dark inside places
Of your soul.
Because hope grows.
A new light
A new potential
Future possibilities expand
Love says yes
Because your heart
Just might break open
To wondrous new possibilities
And you may find yourself
Opening up to impossible people
And impossible situations
Which are quite possible now
(how cool is this? But do you dare believe it?)
Paul who had been Saul, who had been replete with all the signs of success that one might hope for in his day, must have spent a lot of time shaking his head, wondering how he came to be in the places he ended up. How did this upright pharisee end up running from the law, hanging precariously in a basket as it was lowered down the city walls. How did he end up shipwrecked on an island. How did he end up in prison? He must have been shaking his head in wonder at times, because no matter how bad it got, it was better than anything he had ever known. It was a fullness of God’s presence, of God’s love, of God’s Spirit that he could not put into words. It was the love of God in Jesus Christ which he could not contain, could not encapsulate such that he could somehow convey it.
It was beyond the height, the depth, the width or length, of anything he could hold up and show. It was uncontainable, this love which flowed through his veins and remade him, which rebirthed him, a whole new creation.
Paul threw it all away. All of his privilege and his influence, his respectable position in society. All gone. He was no catepillar refusing to become a butterfly, creeping around on all those legs, staying safe and remaining in all that he knew. He threw it all away, entered the chaos of the chrysalis and was reborn, remade, because this uncontainable, unknowable love shattered every preconception and expectation that he had. And in this love poem that is our Ephesians text he prays the same for us. “In the abundance of his glory may he, through his Spirit, enable you to grow firm in power with regard to your inner self, so that Christ may live in your hearts through faith.”
In the abundance of his glory, that unrestrained, indomitable, life-changing, life-altering glory, which no person can witness and not be changed by-
Be Changed! Grow firm and strong, be brave, so very brave, because this will change everything; it will take you to new places and new roles, new positions in society, it will change everything!
This is no prosperity gospel! This is not a promise that if you believe God will give you everything you ever wanted, but rather that God will fill you with good thing you’ve never even considered, never imagined, never even knew you needed. You may find yourself dangling from the city walls in a basket, on the run from the police because you fed the homeless, because you protested the violence, because you stood with those who suffer and demanded justice. You may find yourself walking away from a life of prestige and privilege and yet feeling somehow deeply fulfilled and not lacking anything at all.
But it is an act of bravery, an act of trust to open one’s heart so fully to Jesus. To surrender so deeply and let God remake you. Because, if you are like me, then you know what it is to say, ‘I have plans. I know where I’m going and I know what I want to achieve, so the sooner God gets on board with my plans, the better we will get along.” It’s an act of bravery to let go of our expectations, our hopes and dreams and let God bring something new and unknown into our hearts.
I wonder if you will try something with me. Hold your hands out and clench your fist tight. White knuckle it for a moment. All that God longs to give you, the goodness and abundant life that Jesus came that we might have, is not something that God will force upon us. Go ahead and release your fists, turn your hands over, palms up, feel the openness, the release, the surrender of an outstretched hand, an open palm.
When Saul was riding down that Damascus road he was holding tightly to all he knew. He was a white knuckle pharisee, trying his very best to do every right and correct thing. He was in control, till God knocked him for a loop, unseated him, and offered him an opportunity for growth. Paul, courageously opened his heart, released his grip, and surrendered. God does not pry our hands loose but offers us opportunity, after opportunity. The pain of a tight-fisted grip on life is unnecessary and therefore sad and painful. God asks only that we will release our grip on our preconceptions, our plans, our insistence on safety and being right, and let God fill our surrendered, up-turned palms with good things!
God longs to fill our lives with good things, with a rich, full, abundant life. Jesus looking down over Jerusalem, that city which kills its prophets, where he would meet his own death, was filled with compassion. “If I could,” he said, “I would take you all under my wing, like a mother hen.” If you will let me, I will love you, I will care for you. What more do we really want, than to know we are loved, we are accepted, we belong?
Glory be to him who, working within us, can do infinitely more, than we can ask or imagine. Infinitely more, and yet we struggle to allow this, to let go of our plans, but Paul says, let go, let God work within you. It will be more and greater than anything you could ever imagine! It will bring you to places you never thought you would be, you never thought possible! Infinitely more. Just let that sink in. God will do infinitely more than you can imagine.
But be filled with the fullness of God, that incomprehensible, life-changing, life-altering love and then watch what happens!
God who is at work within us,
will not abandon us,
will walk with us as we go,
leading us, bringing us to a new land,
a new way of being.
This new way of being that is not rooted in fear and self protection, but is rooted and grounded in love. It is not rooted in white knuckle sobriety or propriety, but in deep surrender, faith, and trust in the One who loves us. This new way of being that insists we be rooted and grounded in love, that we act with love, that we open ourselves up to love, that we release our fear-based grip and allow God to fill our lives with good things.
Paul, in his deep-rooted love, in the rich abundance that has flowed into his heart and soul, changing him, taking him to unimaginable places, opens his heart with deep compassion for the church, for that beleaguered, struggling community and he prays:
Kneeling before the Father, from whom every fatherhood in heaven or on earth takes its name: in the abundance of his glory may he, through his Spirit, enable you to grow firm in power with regard to your inner selves, so that Christ may live in your hearts through faith and then, planted in love and built on love, with all God’s holy people you will have the strength to grasp the breadth and the length, the height and the depth, so that knowing the love of Christ, which is beyond knowledge, you may be filled with the utter fullness of God.
Glory be to him whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine; glory be to him from generation to generation in the Church and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever amen
This prayer, this love poem, it is our prayer, is our love poem to God, to one another. May we be rooted and grounded in love, may we speak with love, may we act with love, and may we be strengthened in our inner selves, may we have the courage to release our tight-fisted, fear based grip and allow God’s grace and love to flow through our veins, remaking us, re-birthing us, making us a new creation, that God might look down upon us and say, “I’ve got kin in that body.” May God who can do infinitely more than we can ever imagine forgive our fear and continue to work within us, remaking us, reforming us into the body of Christ.