Luke 19:1-10 (The Message)
Do you remember Zacchaeus? The little guy who climbed up a tree? Raise your hand if “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he,” is already playing in your head. This song about Zacchaeus is a long-time favorite of Sunday School children, and so, like a lot of children’s songs, if you don’t want this little tune stuck in your head (as it is in mine!) do NOT look on the internet for a video of children singing it. Just my word of caution to you.
Let’s face it: this week’s gospel story may be so familiar it can be difficult to read it and hear it with fresh eyes and ears. Like a lot of people, I’ve kind of considered this a cute and funny children’s story, and maybe irrelevant to my adult life. But while the Sunday School song has reduced the story of Zacchaeus to about two verses, and this “wee little man” ends up being a very happy man because “he had seen the Lord that day,” there’s a lot for us to consider in this story.
And where we land on the story’s meaning, depends a lot on the perspective we bring to it.
Some years ago, a newspaper carried a story about a young couple traveling to visit relatives in a neighboring state. Having parked along the side of the road so the woman could nurse their baby, the man stretched his legs and admired the view of the river and a nearby bridge. Within minutes a state patrol car stopped to check out the scene. Running the man’s name through the police database, the officer discovered a match with someone on a terrorist watch list; within minutes the man was in cuffs and his family detained. They were released more than four hours later after the list was found to be in error. “I knew what was going to happen,” the man later told reporters. “It’s not the first time I’ve been stopped because of the color of my skin.” He had been a U.S. citizen for more than 20 years.
Audrey West, who teaches New Testament at Moravian Theological Seminary in Bethlehem, PA, thinks about this story about the young, Black couple and their baby, and says, “When fear locks us in a stranglehold, it is tempting to believe that all would be well if only we could organize the world into good people and bad ones. Like clutter-busters tackling a houseful of stuff, hoping to discard the things we no longer want, we tend to label individuals according to our stereotypes and place them into their proper categories: welfare moms, soccer moms, suburbanites, hunters, tree huggers, addicts, vegetarians, CEOs, teenagers, artists, foreigners, single parents, motorcyclists, gun owners, RV owners and so on. Depending on our particular contexts—and perhaps on the labels we choose for ourselves—each of the categories carries with it either a positive or negative assessment.”
Society’s labels place Zacchaeus into the latter group, at least from the perspective of the crowds that gathered that one day. While the name Zacchaeus means “righteous,” Luke describes him as the sort of person we love to hate. He says that Zacchaeus was a “chief tax collector.” That means, he was a Jew who collected taxes for the Roman oppressors. So, he was a traitor to the political cause. To some, he was akin to a robber.
Luke also says that Zacchaeus was wealthy. And, big surprise, how did a tax collector for Rome get to be wealthy? By extortion and embezzlement. By taking advantage of the elderly, but exploiting the working poor, and by taking care of his cronies. There’s an unspoken assumption of corruption here. From the crowd’s perspective, and maybe from ours, Zacchaeus is a man who deserves our disdain.
Even the crowds recognize Zacchaeus as a sinner, no doubt with a capital S. They do not even give him a chance to tell how he is giving half of what he owns to the poor and using the rest to pay back four times what he has gained by cheating.
Along comes Jesus. He halts the parade that is passing by the sycamore tree, looks up at Zacchaeus, and by announcing a visit to Zacchaeus’s house, Jesus forces the crowd to see this tax collector with new eyes. It is not a pretty sight, apparently, for they cannot stop grumbling about it, and about the fact that Jesus would stoop to sharing hospitality with such a person. Nonetheless, Jesus refuses to be bound by labels. Where they see a selfishness, Jesus sees welcome. Where they see an outsider, Jesus sees a member of the family. Where they see lost, Jesus sees found. Jesus knows the good and the bad truth about Zacchaeus; when the labels are stripped away, there is nowhere to hide. And still Jesus invites himself over for dinner. Hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.
In thinking about Zacchaeus, Audrey West goes on to say that she lives in a 120-year-old house not far from the historic center of her town. She says it’s a pleasant neighborhood, with terrific neighbors: an artist, a social worker, a school principal, a lawyer, a nurse, an electrical engineer and two graduate students. “If that were all anybody knew about the place,” she says, “they might imagine a stately old home with oak paneling, crown moldings, lovely patina and nooks and crannies in the attic that might hold a hidden trunk of amazing old letters. The reality is that nothing in the place is level or square. The electrical wiring includes a significant amount of knob and tube elements, meaning that we have to be careful about overloading the circuits. There is no oak paneling or crown molding. There are cracks in the ceiling; the front steps are crooked; the door needs painting. Spiders are more at home on the porch than we are, and they prove it almost every night by weaving intricate webs at face level. If Jesus were coming over for dinner,” she says—and I totally agree with her—"I would want time to clean the place, to make it look more tidy than it really is: if nothing else, to vacuum the dog hair, shoo the cats off the bookcase and sweep the spider webs away from the front door. I would want it to look like we keep a nice house, even if the reality is considerably different.”
Zacchaeus, though, has no time to beautify his place, no time to fix a special meal, no opportunity to make his home look like anything other than what it is. Jesus is coming for dinner. Today. Right now. The rejected tax collector is playing host to the redeeming Son of Humanity.
And this is how salvation works. We do not have to put things in order first, because salvation is not about being neat and orderly. It is not about making things look good, not about what we do, not about fitting into the world’s stereotypes; it’s not about the good or bad labels by which we are known to ourselves or others. Before even announcing his newfound spirit of generosity and restitution, Zacchaeus learns that Jesus is coming to see him. Today salvation has come to his house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.
At some point or other, that’s you, and that’s me. God seeks us, to save us…no matter what the crowd thinks of us.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Now What Can you See?
Mark 8:22-26 (NRSVUE)
I was looking through some old files recently and came upon a whole file from 2016 about the Fair Labor Standards Act. I had a vague memory of having to learn about this six years ago, but I couldn’t remember why. I certainly didn’t remember that the act was passed in 1938 and is a federal statute of the United States. The FLSA introduced the forty-hour work week, established a national minimum wage, guaranteed "time-and-a-half" for overtime in certain jobs, and prohibited most employment of minors in "oppressive child labor", a term that is defined in the statute.
It was all here in the file…all the documents from our payroll company, Paychex, when they had reached out to the church and said, “There will be changes to the FLSA beginning December 1, 2016. Are you prepared to abide by the changes?” What?
Over several months in the fall of 2016, I learned a fair amount about this law and how the upcoming changes would affect the church’s six employees. I participated in a 90-minute phone conference with an attorney from Paychex. I followed that up by listening in on a 90-minute webinar on how the changes particularly affect church employees, led by two attorneys, and sponsored by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Through it all, one comment about all this that caught my attention and stuck in my brain and then was tucked away in this folder came from the Buffalo-born Secretary of Labor at the time, Thomas Perez. He said, “Employers have a variety of ways they can comply with the new rule when it takes effect Dec. 1. People are going to get at least one of three benefits," Perez said. "They're either going to get more money ... more time with their family, or everybody is going to get clarity."
Everybody is going to get clarity. What an amazing thing that would be, right?! If we all had clarity about anything. Clarity, in my experience, is just not all that easy to achieve. Maybe this is true for you, too. Thinking about the benefit of clarity led me back to the scripture passage we are looking at today, the story in Mark’s gospel where Jesus heals a blind man…a man with a total lack of vision and clarity.
Blindness was one of the great medical curses of the Middle East. We find Jesus taking this particular blind man by the hand and leading him out of town so he could deal with him privately. The healing of this person is recorded only in the gospel of Mark and it is the only miracle that Jesus performed which happened gradually. In this miracle the blind man’s sight came back in two stages.
In the scripture passage, Jesus has come to a town called Bethsaida. And while he’s there, some people bring their friend to Jesus to be healed of his blindness. By itself, that’s not unusual, because Jesus healed all kinds of people during his ministry. He healed lepers, and cripples, and demoniacs, and raised the dead. Of course, he also healed a bunch of people who’d been blind… just like this man. There doesn't seem to be anything Jesus can't do! But not this time. This time it almost seems like Jesus can’t heal this man. All through his ministry Jesus healed people… miraculously. He would heal them by merely saying they were healed, or he healed people by letting them touch him, or he healed people by him touching them: the lame walked…the deaf heard…mute people spoke.
But this guy didn’t see perfectly…not immediately. Maybe the man didn’t want to hurt Jesus’ feelings so when Jesus asked him if he could see anything, he said, “Well, yeah. Sort of. I can see people. But I have to tell you, Jesus, they look like trees, walking.” So once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. This time, when the man opened his eyes, he looked around intently and discovered that he saw everything clearly.
It took Jesus TWO times to heal this guy! Jesus never has to do that! Nobody has ever had to be touched twice by Jesus to be healed. So why this man, why does this man need to be touched twice? Was Jesus off his game that day? Did He get up on the wrong side of the bed? Had he not had his morning coffee? Or was there something else going on here?
I think there is profound theological truth here. Not all people see all of God’s truth all at one time. It is true for some people that clarity comes in a single “aha” moment. We’ve all heard these kinds of stories…the “come to Jesus moments” some people experience. For others, like me, the ability to see, the gift of clarity, the epiphany, often comes in a much slower process, starting first with “Well, I think I see some trees…”
Circling back to the Fair Labor Standards Act, it was not until I’d heard the same thing being said four or five times before I was able to say, “Ok. Now I think I’m starting to get it.” Now the “trees” look like “people.” Clarity was slowing coming my way.
The exact same thing happens to me in my spiritual life. God can be tapping on my forehead trying to get my attention, (like my brother used to do to drive me crazy when we were kids!) and sometimes I’ll think to myself, “Huh. I don’t get it. I wonder what God is trying to do. I wonder what God is trying to say. I wonder what all of this means.” I can be a very slow learner, spiritually. But that’s how I’m wired. I am less likely to experience the “aha!” moment than I am to experience the slow, methodical, sometimes tortuous path to clarity. It’s amazing to me how patient God is with me!
The “aha!” moment and the “slow dawning.” Neither one is better than the other. They both happen.
There is, though, a danger in a certain type of evangelism that encourages the idea that when someone makes a decision to follow Christ, he or she is automatically a full-grown Christian. Nothing could be further from the truth. Discipleship is always a process. It is always a journey. There will always be days when we are good at it, and days when we completely miss the mark. And, by the grace of God, Jesus and the holy spirit stick with us all along the way.
After the first touch, the blind man had only limited vision, but after the second touch his eyesight was restored completely. That’s what we can all be striving for…clearer vision, as individuals and as a congregation…no matter how long it takes us to get there.
Can we see clearly, now? May it be so!
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Where Help Comes from
Psalm 121 (NRSVUE)
On Tuesday, I went to the infusion center at Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital to get a healthy dose of iron. Over the last several weeks, I’d been noticing that I was feeling unusually fatigued, and that I was getting out of breath doing some things around my house that had never before been taxing on my body. When I asked my doctor about it, he ordered some blood work, and lo and behold, my iron levels were lower than they had been; lower than they should be. It’s called iron anemia, and an iron infusion was in order.
The time it takes to receive the infusion is only fifteen minutes, but I had to wait for the iron to arrive from the pharmacy, and then, after the infusion, I had to wait for half an hour to make sure I didn’t have any weird reaction to the infusion. I didn’t.
While I was sitting in my chair, waiting for time to pass, a 28-year-old man and his mother arrived and occupied the chair near mine. I’m not sure what he was there for, but I could tell this was not his first visit to the infusion center, and I could tell he and his mother were extremely frustrated with everything he had been going through—for years!—trying to get help from doctors for whatever his particular condition was. Yes, HIPPA laws suggest I should not have been hearing any of what they were saying, but there was nowhere for me to go, and they clearly had a lot of anxiety to get off their chests.
One of the nurses in the center rolled up a chair, sat with them, listened to them, and then gave an enormous amount of time and energy encouraging them in how to navigate a very complicated health care system.
I think she was helpful to this young man and his mother. I pray she was.
Wednesday morning, this Daily Devotion from the United Church of Christ “God is Still Speaking” writing group arrived in my inbox. It was written by Vicki Kemper, pastor of the First Congregational Church of Amherst, Massachusetts. Some of you may have seen it and read it. She focused on this Psalm we’re looking at, Psalm 121, and I don’t know if it was because I now had a more normal level of iron in my body from the infusion the day before, but what she had to say hit me in a profound and totally unexpected way.
Psalm 121 is not new to me. For years and years I have used the words of this powerfully encouraging and hopeful Psalm to comfort families who have lost a loved one. I read it at memorial services. I pray that those who are mourning will find some measure of comfort in its images of a God who will never leave us and who will always help us.
The beginning verses of this beloved Psalm say it all: “I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” I look to the hills—the hills that in our area of this country are filled with amazing bursts of color and majesty. It makes sense to me that help could come from the creator of all that beauty and glory.
What I hadn’t thought about was what Vicki Kemper wrote about in her Daily Devotion. Listen to what she writes:
“I lift up my eyes to my car, broken down in Middle-of-Nowhere, Nebraska. From where will my help come?
“My help comes from God, who arrives as a husband and wife in matching Harley-Davidson t-shirts. God takes me and my dog out of the life-threatening heat and into their home.
“My help comes from God, looking like a young tow-truck driver who changed his surname to his wife’s so she wouldn’t be re-traumatized by having his family name remind her of the man who sexually assaulted her.
“My help comes from God, who is clearly just showing off when the manager of an auto parts store announces he will do whatever it takes to get us back on the road—because he works for Jesus.
“Psalm 121,” she says, “is not about beautiful hills. It is about taking an honest look at whatever stands between us and well-being—and trusting that God will make a way through. It is an invitation to ask the Holy One for help, and to recognize God when help comes.
“Look around: at our dwindling bank balances, our strained relationships, our aging bodies, our dysfunctional families, a nation divided by fear and hatred, a democracy in peril, a world on fire. From where will our help come?
“From God, who may show up how and when we least expect it. From God, who is our keeper and our deliverer, our strength and our hope.”
This is what Vicki Kemper says—that God will show up how and when we least expect it. Like that nurse in the infusion center showed up for a mother and her son.
She made me stop to think: where is God helping me? Where is God helping you?
And I think about sweet, Nate Lambert’s family, gathered here to give thanks to God for his life and to promise to love him and tell him about this God that both creates the hills and shows up for each of us in ways we may never expect. Think about where your help has come from these past months. I believe your help has, and will continue, to come from all sorts of places. I think this is true for all parents and families!
Hear these words from the Psalmist again:
I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come? 2 My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
3 He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. 4 He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand. 6 The sun shall not strike you by day nor the moon by night.
7 The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. 8 The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.
Be alert, my friends, for all the ways God finds to help you…to help us. Then, give thanks to God!
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
How Did Jesus Sound?
Here we are, my friends, still in the gospel of Luke. Some of you may like how we’ve been methodically moving through the gospel pretty much every Sunday for some weeks now. And if this method of moving through one gospel—following the lectionary readings—really drives you crazy, hang in there. On the first Sunday of Advent—November 27th—the lectionary gospel readings move on to the gospel of Matthew until the first Sunday of Advent in 2023, when the lectionary gospel readings move on to Mark.
I feel confident there is just someone—just one person—here today who needed to know this!
Perhaps because we’ve been spending a fair amount of time in Luke, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud this week when our Administrative Assistant, Debbie Sauer, handed me a pew bible that one of you, perhaps, left for her. On the pew bible was a note that said, “Luke is missing.” What could that possibly mean? Where could Luke be? Sure enough, the binding on this particular pew bible was broken, and a bunch of pages were just gone, including the entire gospel of Luke.
Thankfully, that wasn’t the only bible we have access to, or we’d miss this story about Jesus cleansing ten lepers. No other gospel carries this story. It would be a shame for us to miss out on this, because I think we can learn a lot about Jesus from this story.
Mark Harris, an Episcopal priest from Delaware, said that when he read this passage, he would have liked to hear for himself the inflection that Jesus gave to these words. “There were ten of you healed, weren’t there? Where are the nine?” The inflection of the words makes a considerable impact on the meaning of the reading as we hear it read, and would tell us much about Jesus’ reaction to the healing of the lepers.
Just as there is a great difference in reading a play and seeing and listening to it being performed, so there is a difference in reading scripture silently and hearing it read aloud in church. Every person who has ever stood here before you and read something from scripture, has had to figure out how to read it aloud. What words to emphasize. What tone to use. Think about the very best story tellers you’ve ever heard. Think about how they’ve used inflection and intonation to make their story even better. Using a monotone is probably not the most effective way to convey a story, is it?
So, if inflection and intonation are a natural part of speaking, what are we to do with them when sacred texts are read? And, more specifically, what are we to do with the Gospel text today?
How is the one speaking Jesus’ words aloud to say, “Where are the nine?” Do we say it harshly? With paternal interest? Should the reader sound scolding? And how should the reader give inflection and tone to “Is it really the case that the only one who had the decency to give God the glory was this ‘foreigner’”? Scorn? Affection? Amazement? Disappointment?
Maybe there’s another way to come at this. Rather than wonder about specific inflections for these words and how each inflection influences the next, what if we go back a step and ask a more general question. What if we asked, “Was Jesus smiling when he spoke to the one (now former) leper who turned back to give thanks?”
To answer this question, we need to go back a bit. At the beginning of Luke’s long section of Jesus sayings and actions, Jesus sent out 70 of his followers to the towns and villages he would visit on his way to Jerusalem. Their commission was to heal the sick and say, “The kingdom of God has come near to you” (Luke 10:9). These 70 followers were clear that, whatever else this advance-party business was about, they were about healing, and they did so in Jesus’ name, having made the connection between Jesus and the kingdom of God coming near.
Luke records that when they reported back joyfully, Jesus rejoiced as well and prayed “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will” (10:21). Now whatever else one might say, we would probably be right to assume that there were smiles enough to go around. After all, it worked!
Mark Harris said he likes to think Jesus was laughing with delight when he prayed, “I thank you, Father…” Stage directions for reading this would maybe indicate that the laughter here is the laughter of relief, not laughter at a person, but laughter with a person—in this case, laughter among the members of the Trinity. The healing was entrusted to people, and they did it!
So here Jesus is, on his way to Jerusalem to meet his end at the cross, and ten lepers call out to him, using his name and asking for mercy. Jesus seems preoccupied, and tells them to show themselves to the priests. “Right,” say the ten, and they shuffle offstage and are cured. When the Samaritan—now an ex-leper—turns back, surely Jesus realizes what has happened. The whole bunch has been cured of leprosy, and that’s no mean feat. The strange power of this peculiar sickness was so strong that all people could do was recommend that they be warned when it was near.
And this power of leprosy had been put down and a new power was near. It was enough to make Jesus smile, maybe even laugh. Not only can the 70 do it; these poor lepers can do it! It seems to me Jesus’ comments to the one who turned back are not a condemnation of the other nine, or some sort of commentary on ungrateful Jews and the humility of the foreigner, but an amused, delighted, smiling and soon-to-be-laughing reaction to wonderful news. The whole of this little snippet of conversation should be read as an explosive delighted laugh, the laugh of triumph over a great evil!
And maybe the last sentence should be read as a triumphal proclamation of what has happened: “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” And it should be said with a smile, for after all, being made well is something to make us smile, laugh and dance. Amen!
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Mustard seeds & the spirit: They are Enough
Luke 17: 5-10 (MSG)
This week's Gospel reading begins with a request we know well: "Increase our faith!" Maybe you've made this request many times, and you’ve used language just as insistent and desperate as the disciples’ language in Luke’s Gospel.
To be fair, in the verses just before our lectionary reading, Jesus delivers some heavy-duty teaching to his would-be followers: "Hard trials and temptations are bound to come, but too bad for whoever brings them on!” And, "Even if your brother or sister sins against you seven times in a day and seven times comes back to you saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them."
Hardly easy stuff; no wonder the disciples cry, "More!" Their request is so earnest, so well-intentioned. They're not asking for wealth, comfort, prestige, or safety. They're asking for faith. Isn’t that a good thing?
Apparently not, because Jesus responds to the request with bewildering impatience: "If you have a bare kernel of faith, say the size of a [mustard seed]," he tells them, "you could say to this sycamore tree, 'Go jump in the lake,' and it would do it."
Maybe even more difficult to deal with, Jesus then launches into a slave-and-master analogy that grates on our 21st century ears: "Suppose one of you has a servant who comes in from plowing the field or tending the sheep. Would you take his coat, set the table, and say, ‘Sit down and eat’? Wouldn’t you be more likely to say, ‘Prepare dinner; change your clothes and wait table for me until I’ve finished my coffee; then go to the kitchen and have your supper’? Does the servant get special thanks for doing what’s expected of him? It’s the same with you. When you’ve done everything expected of you, be matter-of-fact and say, ‘The work is done. What we were told to do, we did.’”
“Here’s the thing: I’m not sure I like Jesus in this passage.” This is what Debie Thomas says when thinking about this scripture. “He sounds so irritated. He seems to promise the impossible — a sycamore tree that bears fruit in the sea? — while simultaneously expecting his disciples to regard themselves as worthless slaves? What is happening in this passage?”
"Increase our faith!" the disciples ask. "Increase my faith!" maybe we ask in some guise or another nearly every day. What does Jesus say in response? No. He says no. Why?
Maybe the only way to answer the question is to unpack what we mean by "faith." What exactly are we asking for when we beg God to give us more faith? Sometimes, we’re asking for "the faith that moves mountains"—a supernatural ability to manipulate God into doing what we want. Sometimes, we’re asking for an intellectual booster shot—an increased mental capacity to affirm the more challenging tenets of traditional Christianity—the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, the Second Coming. And sometimes—maybe most of the time—we’re asking for an antidote to anxiety. “God, please take away the fear I feel as I face your invisibility and your silence. Grant me certainty so I'll feel happier, holier, stronger, braver. Rewire my brain and my heart so that it becomes impossible to doubt you.”
But what if faith isn't quantifiable? What if “more” faith isn’t “better” faith? What if, instead, faith is engagement, orientation, action? What if faith is something we do? Not something we have? Think about how often in the gospels Jesus commends the faith of those who seek him out. "Your faith has saved you," he tells a woman who anoints his feet, a Samaritan leper who returns to thank him, and a hemorrhaging woman who grasps his cloak. "Your faith has made you well," he tells a blind beggar. "Such faith I have not seen in all of Israel!" he exclaims about a Roman centurion.
What is it that Jesus admires in these people? As far as I can tell, the only thing they do is turn to him. They orient themselves in his direction. They trust him. What earns his admiration is their willingness — even in difficult, painful, and potentially risky circumstances — to lean into his goodness, healing, justice, and mercy.
"If you had faith the size of a mustard seed," Jesus says to his disciples. As if to say, “You do. You have faith—because you have me. You've seen me and known me. You don’t need more faith."
So, the invitation here is to do faith. To do the loving, forgiving thing we consider so trite we ignore it. Why? Debie Thomas says it’s “because the life of faith is as straightforward as a slave serving his master dinner. As ordinary as a hired worker fulfilling the terms of his contract. Faith isn't fireworks; it's not meant to dazzle. Faith is simply recognizing our tiny place in relation to God's enormous, creative love, and then filling that place with our whole lives. In this sense — and I know how unpopular this sounds — faith is simply showing up when we’re expected to show up. Faith is duty motivated and sustained by love.”
“One of the most damaging messages the Church communicates to people struggling in their spiritual lives is that faith is somehow the opposite of doubt, fear, ambivalence, or confusion. That when it comes to faith, our problem is scarcity—we don’t have enough. This is a cruel and deeply damaging lie. Having faith — even having enough faith — does not mean that we will never struggle with unbelief, distrust, or anxiety. Having faith means leaning hard into God’s abundance. Having faith means pursuing God and the things of God even when the pursuit feels painful or pointless. Faith is not deciding once and for all to follow Jesus. Faith is living within God’s extravagant decision to love and pursue us. Faith is trusting Jesus one step at a time, day after day after day. For the long haul.”
Faith the size of a mustard seed? It’s enough. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Food and a Safe Place to Sleep
Luke 16:19-31 (NRSVUE)
I read this quote from Audrey West this week when I was thinking about this scripture. You’ve heard me mention Audrey before. She teaches the New Testament at the Moravian Theological Seminary in Bethlehem, PA, and is a contributing writer to the Christian Century, to which I subscribe. There’s a whole cast of interesting rotating writers that focus on the lectionary readings for the Christian Century, and I often find their insights enormously helpful.
For this week’s scripture reading, I feel certain that Audrey West was writing with me in mind. Have you ever had that happen to you before? You read something, see something, hear something that you just know is somehow meant for you, because you can feel your heart rate increase, or your stomach go into a knot, or the pace of your breathing pick up and you know you’re supposed to pay attention?
In the midst of what Audrey writes about today’s scripture, this line jumped out at me and said, “this is for you!” She says, “Jesus aims this parable at everyone who knows they will still have food next week, and a safe place to sleep night after night.” Gulp.
I know I’ve preached on this scripture reading before. I must have. In the lectionary, it rolls around every three years, but even I forget what I say. So, I need to hear it again. And again. And I will be completely upfront with you: I do not know how to solve the problem of homelessness. I don’t know how to solve the food inequity crisis.
But I do know that everyone can do something, and that together, we an do more.
Listen to what Audrey West says, and pay attention to what message reaches you:
“I visited a church where large courtyards and breezeways create a protective haven for a handful of people experiencing homelessness who sleep there each night. Nestled alongside walls in the cold months and in the shade in the summer, the small community seems to find a measure of comfort. By an agreement forged with the church’s leaders, they arrive after the workday ends and leave the next morning before it begins. As they gather their few possessions each day, a church member distributes simple bag lunches to carry with them.
“The arrangement has worked so well that more people are seeking shelter on the church’s property. Unfortunately, a rift is developing between the church and some neighbors who do not want the church’s overnight guests so close to their homes. Hoping that familiarity might bridge the gap, the pastor invites neighbors to meet them and learn their names. Still, complaints have rolled into the city council, which has formed a task force to ‘look into the homeless problem.’
“Recently a local resident posted on social media: “You know you’re from here if you’ve never seen a person who is homeless.” Is this post intended to be ironic? Or does it represent the writer’s lack of awareness? In either case, it is an indictment of people who turn away from the plight of their unhoused neighbors or refuse to recognize their need.
“Their stance is nothing new. Every day on the way in and out of his gated compound the rich man in this week’s parable steps right past a poor man covered in sores, apparently paying him no mind. Lazarus is not hidden from him, shielded behind a grove of trees or huddled beneath a highway overpass or sheltered by a church courtyard. He lies there in plain sight, on the pathway in front of the house, where the rich man and everybody else can see him. He is so familiar that passersby no longer notice him there.
“In contrast, the rich man calls attention to himself with expensive purple garments and fine linen. He shares family characteristics with his cousin [from another parable], the man with crops so abundant that he tears down old barns and builds new ones in order to keep the surplus for himself. He is self-absorbed, pleased to show off his splendid possessions, and seemingly oblivious or unconcerned about how his prosperity could make a difference for others.
“Instead of killing a fatted calf or inviting the neighbors to a party, like the father of the Prodigal Son or the woman who finds her lost coin, [remember when we talked about her just two weeks ago?] the rich man [in this parable] enjoys private, sumptuous feasts that rival the barn-building man’s insatiable appetite to eat, drink, and be merry. If the rich man manages to think of anybody else, it is only his closest relatives, and even then, his concern comes too late to make a difference for them.
“At the end of the parable Abraham reminds him that anyone who ignores Lazarus or others who suffer ignores also the law, the prophets, and even the one who will rise from the dead. These emissaries are offered as a package deal, through a sweeping message that finds expression throughout the whole of scripture.
“The Torah commands care for the poor, love for both neighbor and stranger, and the provision of food for the needy. The prophets warn of consequences for our failure to do justice for each of these. God keeps sending the message that there is a better way. But when we have more than enough, it is easy to become distracted from the things of God.
“Jesus aims this parable at everyone who knows they will still have food next week and a safe place to sleep night after night. A chasm expands among us every time we ignore another’s needs and revel instead in our privilege, good fortune, or success. The parable reveals God’s desire to get through to everyone, even after so many human failures.
“But Jesus tells it especially for the sake of all the Lazaruses of the world, for everyone who gazes with longing at the crumbs that could sate their hunger or a space to rest their head. He tells it so they will be seen.”
What’s today’s message to you? What’s today’s message to us?
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
(From Audrey West, In the Lectionary, September 19, 2022)
When there is No Balm in Gilead
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1 (CEV)
“There was no balm that year and no more water for tears. I was young enough to believe that God’s presence would prevent tragedy yet old enough to know better.” This is what Audrey West, NT professor at Moravian Theological Seminary in Bethlehem, PA, says she thinks about when she reads this scripture reading from the Old Testament prophet, Jeremiah. Although the Contemporary English Version doesn’t use this language, you may know that these verses in Jeremiah are where we find that familiar phrase, “there is a balm in Gilead.” Or, more precisely, in Jeremiah, “Is there no balm in Gilead?”
West goes on to remember: “That June my grandmother died of a heart attack. That loss hit close to home—literally, as she’d lived next door for my entire life. Two months later, we received news that my other grandmother had also died. My family grieved those deaths deeply, though they were not unexpected. Death frequently comes as the long, slow consequence of age.
“One month later, we were crushed by grief—along with our city and nation [in September, 2001]—when death arrived in a horrifying instant. Flashed on the news in dreadful detail came images of a flaming jetliner, flattened houses, and a field of debris with no survivors [in Shanksville, PA]. More than 100 died, including “Matt.”
“Matt” was a “favorite dad” of our youth swim team, frequently serving as meet director or head timekeeper in an era when two dozen parents held stopwatches at the end of the pool. Matt had an encouraging word for every swimmer who stood on the blocks, even as he cheered loudly for his own kids. News of his death rocked our world. As we gathered at his funeral, it was impossible to imagine any greater grief.
“It took only two and a half weeks for tragedy to bring us together again. One of our swimmers drowned after climbing the fence of a neighborhood pool for a solo, late-night workout.
“Our tears, it seemed, would never end.”
Then she says, “Even so, little of what we experienced that year compares to the devastating losses around the country and the world in recent months. Then and now, we could have written the words of Jeremiah and his people: “No healing, only grief; my heart is broken . . . the summer has ended, yet we aren’t saved” (CEB). Who says “there is a balm in Gilead??”
I know you know about this. Some of you have told me about the unrelenting series of events that have brought you and your loved ones such grief and sadness. We all know about loss. We all know what it feels like to wonder, “has God deserted us?”
Where is God in all this grief? “Has the Lord deserted Zion? Is he no longer its king?” The questions hide nearby like a thief in the shadows of the alley, looking for a way to shatter a community’s faithfulness.
Jeremiah was called to a particular people in a specific time and place. Nevertheless, he speaks across generations during these months and months of unmitigated grief, when nation rises against nation, a virus retains its threat, and guns extinguish innocent lives. Jeremiah speaks to those who wonder whether God has abandoned the world altogether.
To be sure, God’s call is for Jeremiah to proclaim the hard truths about his peoples’ idolatry and the destruction that is about to befall them as a result. But even more essential is the calling for Jeremiah to be honest about what he perceives and to accompany his people as an agent of God. Twice at Jeremiah’s commissioning in the first chapter of the book, God asks him, “What do you see?” (Jer. 1:7–13). The question draws Jeremiah closer to God’s fundamental call: Look around. Speak the truth. Do not be afraid. God is with you.
This is where it all starts for Jeremiah: learning to name the reality that is right in front of him, however painful that may be to do. Jeremiah refuses to turn away from his people’s anguish, even if their distress is a result of human failure to love God and love neighbor. He hurts with their pain and mourns with their grief. The time will come when Jeremiah’s task is to call out the sins of the people—a task to which God still calls prophets 2,600 years later. For this day, however, Jeremiah’s role is to acknowledge their agony and share their sorrow.
No matter what you think about the value of a constitutional monarchy, the outpouring of grief upon the death of Queen Elizabeth II on September 8th, at the age of 96, has been amazing to witness. So much has been said and written about her since her death, and one of the things she said broke through to my hearing, as I was thinking about today’s scripture from Jeremiah.
Just one week ago, on the 22nd anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, President Biden recalled what Queen Elizabeth II said to the United States in the midst of our collective and overwhelming grief. She said, “Grief is the price we pay for love.” I do not think this is easy to hear. But I think it is true. Jeremiah says, “I’m burdened with sorrow and feel like giving up.” “My people are crushed, and so is my heart.” “I wish that my eyes were fountains of tears, so I could cry day and night for my people who were killed.”
When there is no balm in Gilead, maybe it is time to give voice to the summers of broken dreams, the realities of sorrow and loss. To start not by pointing fingers but by acknowledging griefs both small and large—those that hit close to home as well as those that appear in our news feeds from far away.
Honestly tell what you see, people of God, that we might weep day and night for the wounds of all God’s people.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
God is Where the Lost Things Are
Luke 15-1-10 (The Message)
I once was lost but now am found." Can you even begin to count how many times you’ve sung these famous lines from John Newton’s “Amazing Grace?” It’s what our scripture reading is about this morning.
As Luke sets the scene, Jesus is in trouble once again for hanging out with the wrong people. As “the men and women of doubtful reputation” come near to listen to him, the Pharisees and scribes begin to growl: “He takes in sinners and eats with them, treating them like old friends.”
In response, Jesus tells the scandalized religious insiders two parables. In the first, a shepherd leaves his flock of ninety-nine to look for a single lamb that is lost. He searches until he finds it, and when he does, he carries that one lamb home on his shoulders, invites his friends and neighbors over, and throws a party to celebrate.
In the second, a woman loses one of her ten silver coins. Immediately, she lights a lamp and sweeps her entire house, looking carefully for the coin until she finds it. Then, like the shepherd, she calls together her friends and neighbors and asks them to celebrate the recovery of the coin: “Celebrate with me! I found my lost coin!”
The first thing that strikes me about these parables is how easy it is to misread them. For a long time, really until I recently read Debie Thomas’s writing on these parables, I thought that the lost lamb and the lost coin represented sinners “out there.” Out there beyond the fold, beyond the home country we might call Christianity, beyond the purview of God, the Church, and me. But no. The lost lamb in the first parable belongs to the shepherd’s flock from the very beginning—it is his lamb. Likewise, the coin in the second parable belongs to the woman before she loses it; the coin is one of her very own. In other words, these parables are not about lost outsiders finding salvation and becoming Christians, as we often think of it. These parables are about us, the insiders. The church-goers, the bread-and-cup consumers, the Bible readers. These are parables about lostness on the inside.
But what does this mean? Well, it means that lostness isn’t an experience exclusive to non or not-yet Christians. Lostness happens to God’s people. It happens within the beloved community. “It’s not that we cross over once and for all from a sinful lostness to a righteous foundness. We get lost over and over again, and God finds us over and over again. Lostness is not a blasphemous aberration; it’s part and parcel of the life of faith,” as Thomas writes.
“But what does it mean to be lost? It means so many things. It means we lose our sense of belonging, we lose our capacity to trust, we lose our felt experience of God’s presence, we lose our will to persevere. Some of us get lost when illness descends on our lives and God’s goodness starts to look not-so-good. Some of us get lost when death comes too soon and too suddenly for someone we love, and we experience a crisis of faith that leaves us reeling. Some of us get lost when our marriages die. Some of us get lost when our children break our hearts. Some of us get lost in the throes of addiction, or anxiety, or lust, or unforgiveness, or hatred, or bitterness.
“Some of us get lost very close to home — within the very walls of the Church. We get lost when prayer turns to dust in our mouths. When the Scriptures we once loved lie dead on the page. When sitting in a pew on a Sunday morning makes our skin crawl. When even the most well-intentioned sermon sucks the oxygen out of our lungs. When the table of bread and cup that once nourished us now leaves us hungry, cranky, bewildered, or bored.
“We get lost. We get so miserably lost that the shepherd has to wander through the craggy wilderness to find us. We get so wholly lost that the housewife has to light her lamp, pick up her broom, and sweep out every nook and cranny of her house to discover what’s become of us.”
Can we pause for a moment and take in how astonishing this is? God searches, God persists, God lingers, and God plods. God wanders over hills and valleys looking for his lost lamb. God turns the house upside down looking for her lost coin. And when at last God finds what God is looking for, God cannot contain the joy that wells up inside. So, God invites the whole neighborhood over, shares the happy news of recovery, and throws a party to end all parties.
And think about this: maybe the most scandalous aspect of these lost and found parables is not that we keep getting lost. Maybe what’s most scandalous is what these parables reveal about the nature of God. God the searcher, the seeker, the determined, dogged finder. If Jesus’s parables are true, then God doesn’t hang out where we typically assume he does.
Debie Thomas writes, “If Jesus’s parables are true, then God isn’t in the fold with the ninety-nine insiders. God isn’t curled up on her couch polishing the nine coins she’s already sure of. God is where the lost things are. God is where lostness reigns. God is in the darkness of the wilderness, God is in the remotest corners of the house, God is where the search is at its fiercest. Meaning: if we want to find God, we have to seek the lost. We have to get lost. We have to leave the safety of the inside and venture out.”
This isn’t easy. Not by a long shot. For one thing, it’s kind of hard to believe that we’re worth looking for. That we’re not expendable. That we’re loved enough and desired enough to warrant a long, hard, diligent search. It’s so hard to trust that God won’t give up on me. That God does God’s best work when I’m utterly lost and unable to find myself. That God will feel so much joy at my recovery that he’ll tell the whole world the good news, and throw us all a party. Maybe that’s hard for you to feel, too.
But this is in fact the case. In her book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor makes a strong case for lostness, writing that lostness makes us “stronger at the edges and softer at the center.” Lostness teaches us about vulnerability. About empathy. About humility. About patience. Lostness shows us who we really are, and who God really is.
“The 13th century Sufi mystic, Rumi, said, ‘What you seek is seeking you.’ This is true, and this is grace. But maybe it’s even truer that what I can’t or won’t seek is still seeking me. God looks for us when our lostness is so convoluted and so profound, we can’t even pretend to look for God. But even in that bleak and hopeless place, God finds us. This is amazing grace. And it is ours.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Wherever God Chooses
Jeremiah 18:1-11 (NRSVUE)
“Charisse, come here.” This is a phrase Charisse Tucker, minister of administration at St. Paul’s Baptist Church in Philadelphia was remembering when she read these verses in Jeremiah 18. She said it was a common phrase in her household when she was growing up. She said she was prone to sequester herself in some nook where she could focus on her book or daydream her way into other worlds in peace.
“Yes, Mommy?” she would reply. It was part peace offering, part negotiation. She wanted to indicate that she heard her mother and knew she owed her mother her attention; she also hoped to have the conversation from her spot without having to peel herself away. But if she insisted, Charisse would have to go to her to find out what she wanted.
Often, she said, it was, “I thought I asked you to wash the dishes.” But sometimes she just wanted to show her daughter something she knew she would find exciting. There wasn’t a science to discerning the nature of the request. Charisse just had to make the adjustment to go to her, to the place from which she called, to find out what she wanted her to see or hear.
Charisse goes on to say, “Such childhood moments washed over me as I thought about Jeremiah’s instruction from God to “come, go down to the potter’s house . . . [to] hear my words.” Though I have read this scripture many times, I don’t know that this element ever struck me this way before. God says, in essence, “Come here and come hear.”
I think it’s important for us to be curious about this question of location and God’s speaking, especially given the last two and a half years and the forced separation many have experienced from our communal places of worship. We are accustomed to gathering in these sacred spaces, where we are led in song by our choir, musicians, or vocalists, are greeted by and ushered by someone on duty, and hear a word from the pastor or someone the pastor has authorized. Throughout it all we wait to hear a word from the Lord in the place where God has spoken before. So when safety measures forced us from our sanctuaries, we had to contend with the fact that we depend not only on the voice of God but also on its customary location and context.
Now, in this time of global fascination with the idea of a “return to normal”, this text is both a reminder and an encouragement: God’s speaking happens wherever God chooses to speak and through whatever means God desires. We could be in our sanctuary, as we will be again next week. We could be right here in our Fellowship Hall. We could be standing in our parking lot. We could be sitting in our own homes. There is nothing markedly sacred about the potter’s house. The potter is an artisan whose craft is for common use. Yet it is the potter in his dusty, clay-filled workshop, working away on his wheel, whom God uses as the entry point for God’s revelation to emerge.
Can we open ourselves up to the idea that there is truly no place, no person, no situation through which God is unable to speak? How different, Charisse wondered, does a playground or post office or dog park or Wegmans’ café look to us if we consider it all holy ground? How would our tender conversations with loved ones, our play-time with our children, our care for our elders, or even our difficult exchanges with friend or foe change if we were open to God’s presence in those moments? Can we re-familiarize ourselves with the kind of childlike wonder that sees messages in the clouds and prophetic insight in places other than sanctuaries, from people who aren’t necessarily wearing holy garments?
Such questions require loosening our grip on our traditional distinctions between sacred and secular. They also call for us to be willing to hear God on God’s terms.
We can and should and will continue to gather in traditionally recognized communal spaces. We will strain our ears and hearts to hear what the Ancient of Days has to say to our situation. We will sing the songs and pray the prayers that remind us of the continuation and complications of our faith. All of this is only right.
But we may also hear God call us by name to go somewhere less familiar, to leave our nooks and nesting places for a place where we can receive the sort of insight that can only be experienced when we let go of our comfort. Sure, we might be asked about why we’ve left things unattended, like dishes or the environment or the marginalized. Or maybe God, like Charisse’s mom, is simply waiting to show us something we’ll find exciting.
Let’s not miss what God has to say to us and show us. Amen!
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Compassion First. Always.
Luke 13:10-17 (The Message)
We don’t know her name. We don’t know where she comes from. We don’t know why she appears in the synagogue on the particular Sabbath day our Gospel reading records. But I can picture her. A weary woman, resilient and resigned. A woman “twisted and so bent over with arthritis that she couldn’t even look up.” A woman who spends her long days staring at the ground, staring at her own feet, staring at the dusty sandals of those who pass her by on the road. Not because she wants to avoid eye contact, or miss each morning’s sunrise, or forget what the stars look like, or never raise her face to the evening breeze, but because she has no other choice.
Luke tells us that by the time the bent over woman encounters Jesus, she’s been crippled for eighteen years. And, according to the text, the woman doesn’t ask Jesus for help when she appears in the synagogue on the particular Sabbath day in question. He’s teaching—most likely surrounded by a crowd. She doesn’t approach him. Who knows if she even notices him, bent over as she is? But he sees her. He sees her. When he calls her over and she approaches, he puts his sermon on hold, and says the thing Jesus always says in the Gospels when he encounters the sick, the broken, the dying, the dead: “You are set free from your ailment.”
Then, the Gospel tells us, Jesus “laid his hands on her, and immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.” This is the line I’ve been thinking about. The line that my brain can barely fathom: “Immediately she stood up straight.”
Like most of us, I imagine, I’ve had my share of physical ailments over my lifetime. But I can assure you that I have never experienced an immediate healing, the way this woman does. My healings have been slow and methodical and even torturous at times. When I was riding my bike as a sixteen-year-old, I crossed a major street—a street kind of like Niagara Falls Boulevard—and got hit by a car going through a red light. Thank God I was sixteen and healthy. Thank God there were people stopped at that light who jumped into action. Thank God my orthopedic surgeon was as skilled as he was in repairing the damage to my leg and ankle.
And thank God I was able to patiently slog my way through months and months of recovery. Even now, decades later, I experience repercussions from that initial injury when I was sixteen. There was definitely no immediate healing for me. So, this story captures my attention and imagination.
I think the line, “Immediately she stood up straight” also catches my attention because immediately after witnessing such a miraculous healing, the leader of the synagogue voices his displeasure and indignation. Essentially, his angry criticism drowns out her joyful praise: “Six days have been defined as work days,” he tells the crowds. “Come on one of the six if you want to be healed, but not on the seventh, the Sabbath.”
“In other words,” Debi Thomas says in her reflection on this scripture, “the leader protests because Jesus disrupts the regular Sabbath schedule of the synagogue. Jesus messes with tradition. Worse, he places a socially expendable, physically disabled, spiritually vulnerable woman at the center of the tradition. Jesus allows the woman's need to interrupt his own sermon, and welcomes her praise song even though it upends the synagogue's order of service.”
To be clear, the leader of the synagogue is not a “bad guy.” His intentions are not evil, and his concerns are not without merit. He cares about right worship. Right belief. Right practice. He cares about honoring the Sabbath, obeying God’s laws, and upholding the faith-filled traditions of his spiritual community. There is nothing wrong with any of these goals.
But what the leader misses,” Thomas insists, “is the heart of the Sabbath, the heart of God’s law, the heart of the tradition. What the leader misses is compassion. The kind of compassion that trumps legalism every single time. The kind of compassion that doesn’t cling to orthodoxy simply for orthodoxy’s sake. The kind of compassion that consistently sees the broken body, the broken soul, the broken spirit — before it sees the broken commandment.
“This story — like so many Gospel stories — illustrates a basic truth about God’s inbreaking kingdom: the kingdom doesn’t care about our timing, or our sense of etiquette, or our obsession with propriety and decorum. The kingdom cares about love. It cares about love NOW.”
This is what I’m thinking about, and what I want to encourage you to think about, as well: How, can we—the members and friends of Amherst Community Church—leave room for Jesus to show up and surprise us? How can we make sure we’re not so entrenched in our theological, liturgical, cultural, or political points of view that we fear and resist the new? The unorthodox? The unconventional? How can we make sure that our religious practices and preferences don’t get in the way of God’s tender, compassionate “unbending?”
Jesus responds to the leader of the synagogue by calling the healed woman “a daughter of Abraham.” “Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day,” as one version of the scripture says.
Jesus doesn’t stop at freeing the woman. He restores her to community — to her community. At the same time, he calls on that community to repent of its hypocrisy and narrow-mindedness, and embrace her as its own. Not as an object of pity or scorn. But as a daughter, as an heir, as a human being worthy of both love and dignity.
“Jesus laid his hands on her, and immediately she stood up straight.” What would it be like if the Church were known for this? For restoring stature, dignity, community, and honor to people crippled in all the terrible ways the world cripples them? Jesus is all about our unbending. Our standing tall. Our finding our voices so that we can praise the God who has unbound us. May we be about such compassionate acts, too.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
peace, the hard way
Luke 12:49-56 (NCV)
There have been many messages in the Lectionary readings lately that challenge me, and maybe they challenge you, too. If you don’t know, the Revised Common Lectionary is a 3-year list of readings for each Sunday. The Lectionary offers an Old Testament reading, a Psalm, a reading from one of the New Testament letters, or Epistles, and a reading from one of the four gospels. The Lectionary—while certainly not covering the entire Bible in three years—is meant to give congregations an understanding of the greater context of the Bible, and God’s redemptive plan for humanity.
I don’t always use one of the Lectionary readings to guide my thinking about each week’s worship, but I have been using it fairly regularly this summer, and as I said, there have been many messages in these readings lately that I have found particularly challenging.
We’re looking at another challenging reading today. I’m almost heart-broken to share this gospel reading with you, given how painfully divided our world is right now. It’s also a puzzling scripture to consider, given our theme for FIG LEAF, “Passport to Peace.” In FIG LEAF, we’re gathering together to consider how we can promote peace between people, not divide people.
And the gospel of Luke begins with the proclamation that Jesus will “guide our feet into the way of peace.” At Jesus’s birth, an angelic choir sings “Peace on earth!” On numerous occasions during his ministry, Jesus offers men and women words of peace: “Go in peace and sin no more.” “Peace I leave with you.” “My peace I give you.” “I have told you these things, so that in me you might have peace.” We assume — the vast majority of us do, anyway — that ours is a religion of peace. Of peace-making, peace-loving, and peace-keeping.
So, what are we to make of Jesus’s startling words in this week’s Gospel? “Do you think I came to bring peace to the world?” he asks his followers. “No, I tell you, I came to divide it. From now on, a family with five people will be divided, three against two, and two against three.” What are we to make of this week’s lectionary reading where Jesus—Jesus, of all people!—says, “I came to set fire to the world, and I wish it were already burning!”
I think this text is challenging because it invites us—or more accurately, compels us—to move beyond soft, saccharine Christianity, and wrestle with the hard, high costs of discipleship. Jesus declares in honest, unflinching terms what will happen if we dare to take our faith seriously. What will happen in our families, our communities, our churches, and our world if we allow the “fire” of God’s word to burn through us.
Bottom line? “If ‘tender Jesus, meek and mild’ is what we prefer,” Debi Thomas says about this reading, “then this week’s lectionary is not for us. If feel-good religion is the comfort zone we refuse to leave, then we’re missing out, because the shalom of God is about so much more than good feelings. Or to put it differently, if neither you nor anyone within your sphere of influence has ever been provoked, disturbed, surprised, or challenged by your life of faith, then things are not okay in your life of faith.” This is so challenging to hear and consider, isn’t it?
We can be assured that it’s not Jesus’s desire or purpose to set fathers against sons or mothers against daughters. It’s certainly not his will that we stir up conflict for conflict’s sake, or use his words to justify violence or war. That’s never true. But his words are a necessary reminder that the peace Jesus offers us is not the fake peace of denial, dishonesty, and harmful accommodation. “His is a holistic, truth-telling, disinfecting peace,” Thomas goes on to say. “The kind of deep, life-changing peace that doesn’t hesitate to break in order to mend, and cut in order to heal. Jesus will name realities we don’t want named. He will upset hierarchies we’d rather keep intact. He will expose the lies we tell ourselves out of cowardice, laziness, or obstinacy. And he will disrupt all dynamics in our relationships with ourselves and with each other that keep us from wholeness and holiness.”
Remember, this is not because Jesus wants us to suffer. It's because he knows that real peace is worth fighting for. Consider the fact that Jesus forced choices from just about everyone he met during his years of ministry. No one met him without feeling compelled to change. He consistently brought people to the point of crisis, tension, movement, or transformation. He consistently led people to decisions their families and communities didn't understand. Jesus himself was considered crazy by his mother and siblings.
Still, the status quo didn’t influence him one bit; his project was shalom or bust. And so, I have to ask myself, and you have to ask yourself: when was the last time my faith “divided” me? When was the last time I allowed Jesus to bring me to a point of saving crisis? When was the last time my faith life encouraged holy division, holy change, in someone else’s heart? In other words: what am I most invested in? My comfort or my salvation?
Scripture offers us so many beautiful names for Jesus. Son of God. Son of Man. Emmanuel. Logos. Lord. Christ. What if we added another one? Jesus, the Disturber of Peace? What would it be like to allow him to disturb us, unmake us, and divide us? What would it be like to experience the peace that costs, the peace that breaks, the peace that truly saves? Jesus will indeed "guide our feet into the way of peace." He will. But only if we'll let him. May we all be up to the challenge. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Tempted by Convenience
Luke 9:1-5 (NRSVUE)
I like my days to be smooth and easy, and I’d say I work pretty hard to make them so. I try to anticipate what could become a speed bump or a roadblock in the day ahead, so that I have time to figure out a way around the issue that might have the effect of making my day, well, not smooth. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
Try as I might, for example, to think ahead about the easiest route to drive from my house to the church, paying attention to where there are literal speed bumps or roadblocks like road construction or other anticipated delays, chances are good I’ll come upon something else that messes with the smoothness—the ease—of my trip from point A to point B. All it takes, really, is a traffic light that isn’t working, or a garbage truck stopping at every house to pick up the garbage, or a school bus waiting, and waiting, for the young child who had trouble getting out of bed that morning and couldn’t find her shoes.
Maybe you know what I’m talking about.
It’s this desire for smoothness in our lives, I think, that makes us so ripe for being sucked in by things that are convenient. If you search on the internet “things that make life easier,” you will see all sorts of lists pop up…30 things, 11 things, 50 things that make life convenient. I offer this caution, though: if you’re going to do this internet search, have a chunk of time available because there’s a LOT to learn about!
You might learn about the bendy bike—the revolutionary folding bike that actually wraps around a lamp post so it can be locked up safely without the need for a lock or chain. Or, the Cool Cooler, that includes a phone charger, a bottle opener AND a blender! Or, the multipurpose chair that unravels to make a ladder. Or, the self-heating butter knife. These and SO MANY other items have been created, in theory, to make our lives more convenient. To make them smoother.
Vince Amlin, who is co-pastor of Bethany UCC in Chicago, is also one of the writers for the UCC Daily Devotion that I receive by email each morning. Early in July he wrote: “Give me a choice of where to order delivery, and I’ll choose the place I don’t have to call on the phone. No chance of being put on hold, of them getting my order wrong, of needing to repeat my name three times.
“Better yet,” he says, “the place that’ll leave the food on the doorstep and text me it’s here. No need for human interaction. Seamless. Smooth.”
But in his book, “Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals,” Oliver Burkeman says that kind of convenience is a trap. “Smoothness,” Burkeman writes, “…is a dubious virtue, since it’s often the unsmoothed textures of life that make it livable.”
The shared laugh when they finally understand your name. Your embarrassment when they catch you singing the hold music. The satisfaction (and tiny bit of self-loathing, Vince Amlin admits) when they know your order BEFORE you place it. It’s what we’re made for.
A couple of chapters before today’s scripture reading in Luke, Jesus chooses the disciples, and the next chapters show us Jesus teaching these disciples what they need to know in order to be effective in their discipleship. He teaches them about blessings and woes, about loving their enemies, and not judging others. He tells them parables and he heals people, to show them how it’s done. And then he “gives them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases,” the scripture says, and sends the disciples out.
Left to their own devices, Jesus knows the disciples will stay in, order room service, and come home insisting no one was much interested in good news. They’ll be tempted by convenience. We all are to some degree, aren’t we? We all like our day-to-day living—our whole lives, really—to move along smoothly. Easily.
But understand this: as Vince Amlin writes, “The gospel requires inconvenience. Interaction. People being thrown together with their demons and their diseases, their hunger and dirty laundry. [The gospel] thrives on laughter, embarrassment, and mutual recognition.”
So, Jesus sends the disciples out with nothing. Absolutely nothing. Can you imagine?! Jesus knows that the less smooth their journey is, the more livable the world will become.
What a lesson for me to learn. Maybe it’s an important lesson for you to learn, as well.
Vince Amlin ends his Daily Devotion on this scripture with this very short prayer, so short I could probably actually remember it if I put my mind to it. This is the prayer: “Lead me on the unsmoothed way.” Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Is Dwayne Poor?
Luke 12:13-21 (The Message)
I agreed with Debi Thomas who said, when she looked up the Lectionary Gospel reading for this week, that she groaned because she “really, really, really [didn’t] want to write about money. Money is one of those things we’re not supposed to bring up in polite company. We get squirmy when people ask about it. Especially when they ask in ways that challenge our lifestyles or our priorities. For all sorts of reasons, we prefer talking about Christian virtues that are safely abstract—faith, hope, love, joy. But budgets? Retirement plans? Shopping habits? Tithes and offerings? Those are so specific,” Thomas said. “So concrete. So private. But here’s the thing: Jesus doesn’t care one whit about our middle-class sensibilities. So here we go...”
In reading other reflections on this story in Luke, often called “The Parable of the Rich Fool,” I was taken back in my memory to 1982, when I went—just weeks after graduating from college—with a group of people from my church to Haiti for a mission trip for 12 days. We went to help paint a church, to conduct a Vacation Bible School, to learn about Haiti, and to learn from the people in that poorest of all countries what it means to live by faith.
This week I re-read my journal from that trip, and remembered how very, very tired I was when I got home! I also remembered how irritated I became--upon my return—with people who were talking/complaining about things like the cost of food, and the hot weather, and the slow traffic to work. People really did not seem to understand just how rich they were, and it made me angry.
Of course, that anger didn’t last too long. Because, in the end, I like the things that make my life—our lives—easy and comfortable. And after all, I’m not “rich,” right? Not “rich” like the fool in the story, right? Then I read this reflection on the rich and the poor, written by Barbara Brown Taylor, and I was stopped in my tracks yet again.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “About a dozen years ago, I took a bunch of rich kids from midtown Atlanta on a mission trip to rural Kentucky. To be fair, many of them did not know they were rich. Because they had only each other to compare themselves to, they thought all teenagers received cars for their 16th birthdays and went on cruises to the Bahamas for their senior class parties. Without exception, they were well fed, well educated, and well supplied with everything their hearts desired. The only thing they were missing was an experience of poverty, so we drove to Appalachia to get them one.”
A group of ten headed to Barnes Mountain, where a rural mission had been set up in an abandoned farmhouse in the woods. This group’s job was to finish the log cabin that would serve as a home for the new minister in the fall. They slept in an old chicken house across the clearing.
Although they did not realize it at first, part of the reason for their being there was to draw local people out of the woodwork, and within 24 hours this group from Atlanta had attracted three helpers from the pool of local teenagers, including one particularly sweet boy named Dwayne.
Barbara Brown-Taylor says, “Dwayne was as fascinated by our stories as we were by his. We told him about the dining room at the top of the Marriott Hotel that goes around once every hour. He told us about his uncle, who had fallen into an abandoned coal mine and broken his hip. We told him about the Braves. He told us about the pet barn owl he had raised from a baby.
“Dwayne worked with us, played with us, ate with us--and at the end of the week he prayed with us, as we gathered for a communion service before we got into our van to go home. There was lots of crying that Saturday morning. We had discovered a kind of community with one another that many of us had not known before and no one wanted to let go. When we got to the prayers of the people, they lasted a long time. Everyone had a chance to say something, and quite a few of the prayers had to do with what a privilege it had been to serve the poor people of this area, upon whom we asked God's special blessing.
“Under the circumstances I guess that sort of thing was predictable,” Brown-Taylor wrote, “but later I learned that it was also tragic, at least for Dwayne. When I asked him afterward what was wrong, he said, ‘You all called me poor! I swear, I never thought of myself that way until you said it. I have all these woods to run around in. I have a grandmama and a granddaddy who love me. I got a whole shed full of rabbits I can play with any time I want. Does that sound poor to you? It don't sound poor to me. You all should save your prayers for someone who needs them.’
“No one meant to hurt him, but our language gave us away. We thought of "the poor" as people other than ourselves. We separated ourselves from Dwayne in our prayers, and our partiality stung him to the quick. By setting him apart like that, we withheld the one thing he really wanted from us, which was simply to belong--not one up or one down but just one of us--a member of the community, not a mission project.
“Our prayers also exposed our narrow definition of poverty as not having enough money… It was not entirely our fault, either. Most of us learned to pray in church, where the general consensus seems to be that the poor and the oppressed are in much greater need of prayer than the prosperous and the privileged. …It is difficult for me to remember ever hearing a petition for the rich who have received their consolation.
“Ever since Dwayne raised my consciousness, I have wondered what it would do to the Christian community to hear ourselves praying for the rich as earnestly as we pray for the poor.
For those in bondage to their assets, let us pray to the Lord.
For those whose success does not satisfy, let us pray to the Lord.
For the entitled and the comfortable, for the isolated and the elite, let us pray to the Lord.
She ends her meaningful reflection this way: “All I know for certain is that prayers like that would confront me in ways that prayers for the poor never do. If I heard them over and over again, they might even lead me into another reality where categories such as first and last, rich and poor, lost and found, began to change places in my mind. At the very least, I am pretty sure Dwayne and I could pray those prayers together, and both say "Amen" at the end.”
Was Dwayne poor? Go back to the scripture reading in Luke, and you decide.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Flannel Graph or Reality?
Luke 10:25-37 (NRSVUE)
Just one week ago today, on July 17, a mass shooting occurred at the Greenwood Park Mall in Greenwood, Indiana. A FOX news report said, “The alleged gunman, 20, opened fire with an AR-15-style rifle around 6 p.m. Sunday at the Greenwood Park Mall, located just south of Indianapolis, firing 24 rounds within two minutes before a Good Samaritan stepped in and killed the shooter.”
I was disturbed on so many levels when I heard about this. I was deeply disturbed that the incident happened at all, and I found myself feeling disturbed that the young man who shot and killed the attacker was hailed as a “Good Samaritan.” A good Samaritan.
So, I went to this story we are thinking about this morning from the gospel of Luke, the story many of us know as “The Good Samaritan.” This story was the prescribed Lectionary reading for worship a couple of weeks ago. At the time, I chose not to focus on this reading because, I thought, what can I say about this story that hasn’t already been said? Many of us learned about the Good Samaritan when we were young children in Sunday School.
And then God, in the way that God so often does, nudged me into thinking more about the Good Samaritan when I finally paused long enough to read a reflection on the familiar story, written by Diana Butler Bass in her blog, “The Cottage.” Bass, an American historian of Christianity whose most recent book, Freeing Jesus, I’ve been working my way through this summer, is close to my age and she writes about learning about the story of the Good Samaritan in Sunday School.
“The flannel graph board was blank except for three colors — soft blue fabric for sky, green for the ground, and a thin brown stripe for a road. Miss Jean, my Sunday School teacher, called us to gather in a circle. She reached into a box and drew out a man cut from felt. “A traveler was walking down the road,” she moved him back and forth to imitate a stroll, “when some robbers attacked him, took his clothes and money, and threw him in a ditch.”
“She pressed the felt victim onto the board in a prone position. She pulled more figures from the box. A priest, then a Levite (what’s a “Levite,” I wondered?) passed by without helping the man. Then, a fabric Samaritan with a cut-out donkey came down the road. He stopped and picked the injured man up, gave him a drink and bandaged his wounds. Miss Jean peeled the prone felt character from the board and placed him on the donkey. She continued, saying that the Good Samaritan “took the man to an inn and cared for him.”
“Who would you like to be?” she asked. She held up the felt priest; then the Levite. No takers. And then, she removed the Samaritan from the board and showed him to us. “Him?” We all raised our hands.
It may well have been one of the easiest questions I’ve ever been asked. Everybody wanted to be the Good Samaritan. Of course.”
Bass goes on in her reflection to share a story about a time when she was riding a steep escalator from the Dupont Metro stop in Washington. Several steps ahead of her on the escalator was an elderly man who suddenly cried out and crumpled, tumbling down the moving stairs until he reached the step above her. He was bleeding, so she yelled for help. Immediately, a young man was at her side and he was able to lift the injured man off the escalator. Soon, others rushed in to help tend to him and “the impromptu band of Good Samaritans waited for the professionals to arrive.”
“About three weeks later,” she writes, “I was crossing a street in Alexandria, the town where I live outside of Washington. It is a much less hectic and friendlier place than downtown DC. I tripped, landing spread eagle in the crosswalk. My purse flew one direction, my glasses another. My hands were scuffed and bleeding from my feeble attempt to break the fall. And my knee was hurt. Dazed, I looked up, and saw that the crosswalk signal was about to change. I couldn’t pull myself together in time to get out of the road before the light turned green. I started to cry, searched for my glasses, and hoped for help.
“A car stopped, and a woman opened the driver’s side door. I felt relieved — someone was going to assist me. Instead of helping, however, she began to yell at me: “What’s wrong with you? Get up! You’re blocking traffic!” When I didn’t answer, she shouted, “Are you deaf?” and she leaned on her car horn. I crawled across the street to the far corner. “Idiot,” she shouted as she drove away. I sat on the curb sobbing. No one asked me how I was; no one helped. Several people walked by without comment, turning their gaze away from the rattled woman on sidewalk.
“And that’s the thing about this parable. Occasionally, you get to be the Samaritan. But sometimes you’re in the ditch.”
When she thought back to the flannel graph days of learning the story of the Good Samaritan, she said Sunday School never alerted her to the possibility that she might one day be the one in the ditch. She believed she was always going to be the Good Samaritan, and it felt virtuous to be the Good Samaritan. Helping the man who fell on the escalator made her feel useful.
“But it felt terrible to be the victim,” she said. “Not only did the fall hurt, but I was shocked by the response of all those around me. That woman yelling. People ignoring my pain. Wondering if some inattentive driver would run me over while I struggled in the road. Reaching for my glasses, unable to see clearly. My sense of helplessness quickly turned to fear and then, unexpectedly, anger. After all, I’d recently been a good Samaritan. When I needed someone, however, no one was there. I had to help myself.
“Some people will always pass by — even if they don’t want to admit it to their Sunday school teachers. Many people will help. But, sooner or later, we’ll all be in the ditch. And there, in that utterly dependent position, we see everything differently.”
Splayed on the road, Diana Butler Bass didn’t care who helped her. She just needed help. And that’s the real point of the parable. Amy-Jill Levine insists that Jesus’ first audience — Jewish hearers — would have identified more with the victim in the ditch than the Samaritan:
“For the perspective of the man in the ditch, Jewish listeners might balk at the idea of receiving Samaritan aid. They might have thought, “I’d rather die than acknowledge that one from that group saved me”; “I do not want to acknowledge that a rapist has a human face”; or “I do not recognize that a murderer will be the one to rescue me.” That’s what the Jews in Jesus’ day thought of the Samaritans — that they were descendent from rapists and murderers, collaborators with rulers who oppressed God’s people and who worshiped at a corrupt Temple. That’s who showed up as the hero in the story, the person who administered mercy — their enemy.
“Who is my neighbor?” asked the lawyer.
The answer? The very worst person you can imagine, Jesus responds. Your enemy. That’s the real story of the Good Samaritan. Whoever shows up—even your enemy—especially your enemy—is your neighbor.
So, what about the so-called “Good Samaritan” at the Greenwood mall in Indiana? The young man who shot and killed the gunman with the AR-15 style rifle? I honestly don’t know.
What I do know is that God continues to nudge me into thinking in bigger, more radical ways, about my neighbor. By grace alone, God isn’t finished with me, yet. I suspect God isn’t finished with you, either.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Once in a Lifetime
Psalm 105:1-6 (The Message)
Abraham Heschel, a Polish-born American rabbi, once said, “Awareness of the divine begins with wonder.” That made sense to me when I saw the photos this week from the James Webb Space Telescope. Have you seen these photos? I encourage you to see them. When NASA released the first pictures from its new telescope on Tuesday, the world seemed to stop for a moment to gaze — and gasp — at that which has been hidden from us.
“Today, we present humanity with a groundbreaking new view of the cosmos from the James Webb Space Telescope – a view the world has never seen before,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “These images, including the deepest infrared view of our universe that has ever been taken, show us how Webb will help to uncover the answers to questions we don’t even yet know to ask; questions that will help us better understand our universe and humanity’s place within it.”
The photographs are beautiful — gas cliffs sheltering newborn stars, a four-billion-year-old star cluster appearing to dance across a dark sky, a star shedding its dust toward all corners of the universe, and five galaxies of such luminosity that they seem to be angelic beings.
Diana Butler Bass, an American historian and religion scholar said this about seeing the photos: “I cried.”
Then she said, “Wonder. Jubilation. Such things bring us human beings to our knees. As the Psalmist once cried out, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”
Awe is the first response to seeing the expanse of the heavens. And, as a scholar of religion, I’m fairly certain that’s the origin of religion itself. Some ancient ancestor of ours looked up at the night sky and said, “Wow.” Wow…
I’m not surprised by how easy it is for us to be speechless by the big wonders of the universe. I admit I had a bit of trouble keeping my eyes on the road on Wednesday night when I saw the most spectacular sunset that I can remember seeing in quite some time. It’s easy for us to be left in awe by the amazing wonders of the universe, where we remember we are part of something much larger than ourselves.
But what about the little wonders? They’re equally amazing, I say. And the little wonders point us to the divine in exactly the same way the big wonders do. Remember what Heschel said: “Awareness of the divine begins with wonder.” Just wonder. And wonder—in all forms—seems to be hard for us to notice these days, in our troubled world. So I want to share with you this very short story about an experience of wonder, written by Brian Doyle:
“A high school kid asks me this morning, What’s the greatest sports moment you ever saw? Before my brain can rumble into gear and produce the 1986 Boston Celtics (the best basketball team I ever saw), or the 2004 Boston Red Sox (the greatest comeback in the history of baseball), or the 1969 New York Mets (for sheer shocking unbelievability, not to mention that I got to watch that whole World Series on a television in our grade school classroom—how cool was that), or the 1980 Miracle on Ice USA Olympic hockey team, or Doug Flutie’s preposterous last-second touchdown pass for Boston College against Miami, or autistic teenager Jason McElwain drilling seven long shots in four minutes when his Athena High coach put the diligent cheerful team manager into uniform for the first time at the very end of the last home game of his senior season and he went bonkers and the whole student body went bonkers and they carried him off the floor and every time I see the film again I am elevated to tears…Before I can recall any of this, I say this instead:
“One time when my twin sons were little, maybe six years old, and they were playing soccer, in the town league in which every single kid I think proudly donned his or her blue uniform with blue socks every Saturday so that anywhere and everywhere you went in our town on Saturdays you would be surrounded by small blue grinning chirping people, not just on the fields and in parking lots but in burger joints and pizza places and the farmers market and the library and the grocery store, and it was a crisp beautiful October afternoon, and I was standing with the other parents along the sideline, half paying attention and half keeping an eye out for hawks, suddenly the tiny intent players on the field all formed a loose circle on the field, and play stopped.
“I remember seeing the ball roll slowly by itself into a corner of the field. I remember that the coach, one of those dads who was really into victory even though the boys and girls were three feet tall and could hardly tie their laces, was yelping and expostulating. I remember that two of the moms ran out onto the field, worried that a child was hurt. I remember that a referee, a lean long teenager who had been the most desultory and unengaged of referees up to that point, sprinted toward the circle, worried that a child was hurt.
“And then the circle devolved into a sort of procession, with all the players on both teams following a girl in front, and cupped in this girl’s hands was a praying mantis, which she and all the other players on both teams were escorting reverently off the field, because, as a child helpfully explained to me afterward, the praying mantis was on the field first, and maybe even lived there, while we were all visitors, and you’re supposed to be polite when you visit someone’s house.
“I have seen many extraordinary moments in sports—” Doyle said, “stunning achievements, stunning reversals, terrific teams, teams that, at the exact moment when their absolute best and most meshed play mattered most, played even better than they ever imagined they could. But I don’t think I ever saw a more genuine moment than the praying mantis moment. All of it was there for us to see—teamwork, decisive collective action, a leader rising to the occasion, humor, generosity, respect, surprise, narrative, drama, tension, release, grace, satisfaction, laughter, and the subtle virtue of being something you see only once in a lifetime.”
My friends, there are examples of wonder all around us…all the time. Sometimes they’re huge, like the images of the very beginning of the universe. And sometimes they’re small, like the young children playing soccer stopping to protect and pay attention to a praying mantis of all things.
Remember what the Psalmist tells us: “Keep your eyes open for God, watch for his works; be alert for signs of his presence.” The signs of God are all around us. Thanks be to God!
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
beauty in the rain
2 Kings 5:1-14
By all accounts, Seoul, Korea, is a great place to live, and one of the most visited cities on the planet. It is a modernized metropolis with many amenities. There is a wonderful public transportation system, easy access to great parks, wonderful food and great weather in the spring and fall.
The weather in the summer, however, is less than desirable. It rains nearly as many days as it doesn't. Then there is monsoon season. Weeks of clouds and rain cover the vibrant and colorful city of Seoul and its people with drab, dreary grays that weigh heavily upon one's spirit. Although it hasn’t happened this summer, we certainly that know days without the sun can cast darkness over our general disposition. We know what it is like to feel down, or depressed, when the sun does not shine.
But what if there was a way to bring color and joy into our lives in the midst of the gray pall of clouds and rain?
Designers from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) wondered the same thing. They traveled to Seoul, Korea, with a novel idea to bring some color to monsoon season. On sidewalks, streets, crosswalks and alleyways the designers and artists painted colorful murals. On one busy sidewalk, they painted a giant pink whale surrounded by fish of many shapes, sizes and brilliant colors. They all appear to be swimming down the street together with the pedestrians. On an alley walkway, the artists painted a team of colorful tortoises swimming alongside some smaller creatures. Elsewhere, a colorful group of fish look like they are feeding near a curb. All the brilliant blues, pinks, yellows, reds, purples and greens are in stark contrast to a gray sky.
But here's the amazing part! Most of the time the murals are invisible. They were painted with hydrochromic paint, a special design that only becomes visible when activated by water. In other words, these beautiful works of art are only visible when it rains! So, when the sun shines down on the people of Seoul, and there is plenty of color in their lives, the murals are invisible. The painted streets and alleys look like every other walkway.
When it rains, though, the water activates the hydrochromic paint and the colors burst through the gray. Those walking with their heads and hearts down are greeted not with more gloom, but with wonder and playfulness. A dreary walk to work or the market becomes a fun-filled adventure of discovery.
This happens not in spite of the rain, but because of it. The water from the dreaded storm causes the murals to appear and brings a semblance of healing to the brokenness caused by the dreary weather.
Our weather around here can affect us dramatically, and sometimes we find ourselves in the midst of a dreary season of the soul. Ailing bodies, broken relationships, tight finances, boring jobs and general feelings of dissatisfaction with our day-to-day existence can feel like darkness and clouds that will not break apart. In fact, things just seem to go from bad to worse. As the saying goes, "When it rains, it pours."
Naaman's storm begins with an illness. Naaman is a man who appears to have everything going for him. He is a high-ranking general in the army of Aram, a powerful nation. The Bible describes him as a great man, a mighty warrior, well-regarded by his king and the people. But there's a problem. Naaman has a skin disease. All of his power, reputation and skill in battle are useless against the illness, and he's desperate for healing.
On the advice of an unnamed servant girl, one who has none of his power, reputation or freedom, Naaman journeys from Aram to Israel to see the prophet Elisha for healing. He travels with an entourage and plenty of cash. He is ready to pay. Maybe this is the one way he still feels like he has some power, some control over his illness. He can pay for the best medical treatment of his day, whether in or out of network.
When he arrives in Israel, though, Naaman isn't treated with the respect he feels he deserves. He first stops at the royal palace to meet with Israel's king. There he is met with fear and confusion before being given the address of someone who can help him. When his motorcade pulls up to the curb in front of Elisha's house, you can imagine Naaman rechecking the address. This cannot be the right place. It is not a state-of-the-art dermatology clinic, but the simple house of a prophet. His heart sinks.
Then, even here, he is not greeted and treated in a way that is worthy of the magnitude of his position and wealth. He doesn't see the doctor. There is no examination, no tests, no sympathy or bedside manner.
Instead, a messenger of the prophet meets him at the curb with instructions to go wash in the Jordan River seven times. Can you imagine arriving at your physician's office with a serious illness and being told by the receptionist that the doctor wants you to take a couple of Tylenol to see if that would do the trick?
Naaman is irritated, to put it politely, and insulted. He's been treated disrespectfully, and his hope for a cure is dashed. But his servants—who, like the girl in Aram, are also unnamed in the story—eventually convince him to give it a shot. Reluctantly, Naaman agrees. He and his entourage arrive at the Jordan and Naaman wades in before following Elisha's prescription and immersing himself seven times. To everyone's surprise, he's healed. In the verses following today's reading, we learn that not only is his skin restored to that of a much younger man, his heart and life are also changed. Naaman confesses that there is a God in Israel!
In the climactic scene of the story, when Naaman is at the height of his frustration, he talks about the water. He angrily questions what Elisha thinks is so special about the Jordan River, and in some sense, he's right. Water is water. The water he has been bathing in at home every day is exactly the same as the water in the Jordan.
What Naaman doesn't know is that the healing powers are not in the water, but in God who is already alive in the life of Naaman. Naaman's healing is, in a sense, hydrochromic. Like the rain on the streets of Seoul activating the paint, the water of the Jordan makes visible what had previously gone unnoticed, but had been there all along. Colors burst through the gray. Joy peeks through the sadness. Wonder and awe break through feelings of brokenness and weakness. The power of God was made visible by Naaman's bathing in the Jordan River.
We’ve heard stories about all this before: The beauty of the diamond is exposed by the cutting, chipping and polishing of the stone. The brilliance of the pearl is revealed after prying apart the shell of the oyster. The block of marble becomes David only after bearing the brunt of Michelangelo's chisel and hammer.
"That is why," the Apostle Paul exclaims, "I delight in weakness, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Corinthians 12:10, NIV). I know this is a difficult paradox: your weakest moment is also the moment of your greatest strength! But it is very often the story we read in scripture.
The rain that fell on Paul and Naaman -- the dirty waters of the Jordan River -- revealed the power of the God of Israel. That's basically God's message to the apostle. And Paul responds, "Ah, I did not know that. Okay, then, instead of complaining about the rain, I will welcome it. I will 'boast' about it. Because in the rain, I will see the glory of God."
In the dark seasons of your soul may the waters of adversity reveal to you the presence of Christ alive in you. And may you find joy. Amen.
Rev. Lisa L. Drysdale
Isaiah 51:1 (The Message)
If you have a dog, you probably know how challenging this holiday weekend can be. I can almost guarantee there is going to be a lot of noise throughout the weekend. I live in Niagara County, and over the last two weeks I’ve noticed some tents popping up in parking lots, where fireworks are being sold to celebrate the 4th of July. I don’t remember these tents popping up before, but they’re popping up this year.
A lot of dogs and a lot of humans struggle with the noise of fireworks.
Thankfully, I’m not traumatized by the noise of fireworks, but I do think I’m particularly sensitive to noise, in general. I remember one morning this past winter when I got out of bed and walked past the open door to another bedroom. Still a little foggy with sleep, I could clearly hear the noise: drip! Water from icicles hanging outside the window was making its way through the window frame and dripping inside the window and down the wall. Drip! I definitely heard that noise.
The scripture we’re thinking about this morning is just one sentence long: “Listen to me,” God says. “Listen to me, all you who are serious about right living and committed to seeking God.” It’s one short verse, but it leaves us with a lot to think about.
“Listen,” God commands.
“God already knows that this will be a struggle for us. Because there’s a long list of voices that cause a cacophony in our heads, asking so much of us before our days even begin. And somewhere, inside of us—again, whether we realize it or not—we are answering to them.” This is what the Rev. Kaji Dousa, Senior Pastor of the Park Avenue Christian Church in New York City, wrote in a recent UCC Daily Devotion about this one sentence in the 51st chapter of Isaiah.
I think she’s right. We are answering the voices, and we are paying attention to, the noise in our heads.
“This requires energy,” she goes on to say. “Brainwaves. Attention. The asks from the voices take from us without necessarily putting anything back. And when this is our steady state, how do we have the capacity to even begin to listen to what God has to say?”
How can God get through? Listening to God means we have to change our steady state. We have to find a way to tune into God’s frequency while tuning out some others.
Have you ever turned a radio dial to tune in to a station? I have only one radio where I still have to turn a dial to receive the particular station I want. It’s the alarm clock radio that sits next to my bed. I actually set two alarms for the morning. The first to go off is the alarm on my phone, and because my phone does not sit right next to my bed at night, I actually have to get out of bed and take one step to turn that alarm off. Then, to ensure that I don’t just take one step backward to get back into bed, I set the clock radio alarm for five minutes later.
But the dial on the clock radio that allows me to tune into the particular station I want to wake up to is very finicky. If it’s not perfectly tuned to the station, the station will make no sound at all five minutes after the first alarm. It can be a long time before I wake up again and figure out what has happened!
“Getting a radio dial to the right station frequency takes some fine tuning,” Rev. Dousa writes. “You’d start with static, but you’d keep turning the knob. More static. But keep turning, and as you do, you start to hear some sound come through. And as you get closer and closer, the sound becomes clearer. Words become discernible. And you keep turning. You keep turning and you might still get some noise, some interference, from another station—not the one you’re looking for. But keep turning. And you turn, and you turn, and, in time, you will tune in to that which was casting out to you all along.”
I completely agree with her suggestion in her Daily Devotion that “if listening to God is our objective, then we need to turn the dial. And tune in. This works. It is powerful, and it works.”
But you know what doesn’t work? Trying to tune into countless stations, all at once. That’s just a jumbled mess. And while we would never try to do that with the radio, for some reason we try to do that with God.
“To hear God loud and clear—to faithfully listen, as God calls us to do—we really need to shut some things down. Turn off the stations—or at least, turn them down. Limit the asks.”
I was in my car not long after reading Rev. Dousa’s Daily Devotion, and I was using the GPS on my phone to guide me to my destination. As I often do, I had the radio on while I was driving. I really didn’t need the GPS directions until the last few turns, so the competing voices from the radio and the GPS voice didn’t really bother me. Until I got close to my destination. Then I had to turn off the radio! I simply cannot listen to the directions with the noise of the radio competing for my attention.
“To hear God loud and clear, we really need to shut some things down. Turn off the stations—or at least, turn them down…”
“Listen to me,” God says. “Listen to me, all you who are serious about right living and committed to seeking God.”
This summer, I want to encourage you—and encourage myself, as well—to take a deep breath and turn. Keep listening. Turn the dial. Tune in. Shut out the noise that is not helpful or life-giving to you.
Keep listening. Turn the dial. Tune in. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Our Assumptions vs. Jesus’ Call
Luke 9:51-62 (The Message)
We are not very good at predicting the future. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit the United States in March 2020, many of us assumed we’d be home for a few weeks. The virus would pass through the country, and then we’d all be back to school, work and church. I clearly remember assuming we’d be able to gather for Easter Sunday in April! It’s Easter, after all. Of course, it didn’t exactly turn out that way.
We carried a lot of assumptions and made a lot of predictions in those early days of the pandemic. But all through history, people have made questionable assessments of what a good next step would be, based on assumptions and predictions.
In The Washington Post, columnist John Kelly lists a number of the most questionable. In the year 1486, a royal committee was gathered in Spain. They said it would be wrong for the king and the queen to provide funding for an Italian explorer named Christopher Columbus. The committee members insisted that sailing west to Asia would take a ridiculously long three years. And why would anyone want to spend so much time at sea? They believed that there was nothing between Europe and Asia but a vast and featureless ocean. “Don’t do it!” they advised. We know how that turned out.
In the gospel of Luke, Jesus knows exactly where he needs to go — “he set his face to go to Jerusalem”. The importance of that city to his ministry and mission is very clear to Jesus. But confusion arises on his way to Jerusalem, causing his disciples and a number of potential followers to make some problematic predictions based on their assumptions.
First, two disciples enter a village of the Samaritans and attempt to arrange some hospitality. But the Samaritans do not receive Jesus, because they are not supportive of his plans to go to Jerusalem. James and John are incensed. Assuming Jesus’ reaction, they say to him, “Master, do you want us to call a bolt of lightning down out of the sky and incinerate them?” They are convinced that Jesus would want the complete destruction of this rude and unwelcoming town.
But the assumption held by James and John is wrong. Jesus is not interested in the destruction of the Samaritans, so he turns to James and John and rebukes them for their destructive impulses. Then the disciples and Jesus move on to another village.
More assumptions are coming! Next, as Jesus and the disciples are going along the road to Jerusalem, a person says to Jesus, “I’ll go with you, wherever.” Jesus says to him, “Are you ready to rough it? We’re not staying in the best inns, you know.”
The man probably thinks to himself, “Gee, I really like to sleep in my own bed at night.” Don’t we all? At this point, it seems that he slips away and heads home.
Then, Jesus says to another potential disciple, “Follow me.” The man says, “Certainly,” which is a good start to his response. Then there’s a “but.” “But first excuse me for a couple of days, please. I have to make arrangements for my gather’s funeral.” That seems like a reasonable request, doesn’t it? A good next step. After all, the Ten Commandments say, “Honor your father and your mother”.
But Jesus says, “First things first. Your business is life, not death.” The grieving man doesn’t know how to respond, so he drops out of the crowd — probably to take care of the funeral arrangements.
Finally, another potential follower says, “I’m ready to follow you, Master; BUT (there’s that word, again) first excuse me while I ge things straightened out at home.” Again, a reasonable and respectful request: A quick good-bye to the family, so they won’t think that their loved one has just disappeared.
What does Jesus say? “No procrastination. No backward looks. You can’t put God’s kingdom off till tomorrow. Seize the day.” The request of the final follower is immediately denied.
The first man envisions a place to rest. The second assumes he will be able to bury his father. The third is anticipating a chance to say good-bye to his family. They seem like reasonable expectations. So why does Jesus consider these assumptions to be problematic?
All three of these potential disciples fail to see and understand that a future with Jesus is very different from the past. They cannot imagine a time in which they don’t have a bed to sleep in, or the opportunity to go to a funeral, or the chance to visit with their family.
They are like the man who wrote about airplanes in the March 1904 issue of Popular Science Monthly. He said, “The machines will eventually be fast, they will be used in sport, but they are not to be thought of as commercial carriers.”
Jesus is calling his followers to look towards a new way of life, one that is hard to predict with any accuracy. When Jesus looks into the future, he sees the kingdom of God coming near. He doesn’t see comfortable beds, respectful funeral services or satisfying family visits. Jesus envisions a future that is very difficult for us to imagine, because it is a future being created by God.
But this does not mean there is nothing for the followers of Jesus to do. “We can’t build the kingdom by our own efforts,” writes biblical scholar N.T Wright. “But we can build for the kingdom. Every act of justice, every word of truth, every creation of genuine beauty, every act of self-sacrificial love, will be reaffirmed [in the kingdom of God].” All are solid steps forward.
These acts do not have to be shocking in order to be significant. The cup of coffee given with gentleness to a homeless person at a day shelter, “the piece of work done honestly and thoroughly; the prayer that comes from heart and mind together; all of these and many more,” says Wright, “are building blocks for the kingdom.”
Looking to the future, we followers of Jesus often misunderstand and fail to see what he desires for us. Like James and John, we assume that Jesus wants to destroy the people who disrespect us. Like the three potential followers on the road, we cannot envision that discipleship will disrupt our normal routines.
The truth is that our assumptions and predictions will cause problems for us, unless they are in line with the coming of the kingdom. But if we act in ways that are in response to the words of Jesus, we will be adding important building blocks to the kingdom of God. Let’s commit to building the kingdom of God.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale,
the sound of silence
1 Kings 19:1-15a (NRSVUE)
The famous Simon and Garfunkel song “The Sound of Silence” explores the difficulty of communicating truth in a way that will be heard. While it may be easier to believe that truth is told in the booming shouts of the powerful, or in the loud shouts of those with the biggest megaphones, truth is often uttered in the whispers of the vulnerable: “The words of the prophets / Are written on the subway walls/ And tenement halls / And whispered in the sound of silence.”
Simon and Garfunkel were not the first to make this claim.
Elijah’s whole job as a prophet was to call out the idol worship that was rampant in the kingdom of Israel and that was perpetuated by those in power—those with the megaphones at the time—namely Ahab and his wife, Jezebel. But the prophet we encounter in today’s reading seems to be the complete opposite of the prophet spoken of in the previous chapter, where Elijah’s zeal and swagger on behalf of God clinches victory over the prophets of Baal, even though the odds were clearly in Baal’s favor.
If you look back to chapter 18 in 1 Kings, you’ll find the story of Elijah saying to the people, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” Elijah was the only prophet standing before the people representing Yahweh, while there were 450 prophets representing Baal. Elijah is ridiculously outnumbered.
Then Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal to cut up a bull, put it on wood, and then call on Baal to set fire to the wood. The 450 prophets take the challenge, and after cutting up a bull and putting it on the wood, they call upon their god, Baal, to answer their cries for fire. “But there was no voice, no answer, and no response.”
So, Elijah does the same; cuts up a bull, puts it on wood, even drenches the wood with water again and again until it fills a trench around the wood, and then calls upon Yahweh and says, “O Lord…let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. Answer me, O Lord, answer me so that this people may know that you are God…” Immediately, fire from God falls and consumes the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, “and even licked up the water that was in the trench.”
With God on his side, Elijah triumphed over the prophets of Baal, “and when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, ‘The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.” Elijah had to have been thrilled at this victory!
Then, surprisingly, when Elijah hears of the death warrant Jezebel has placed on his head because of his triumph over the prophets of Baal, his whole demeanor flips from empowered and confident to helpless and miserable. As readers, we are left to guess why.
The change in Elijah’s behavior may strike us as irrational, but human emotions often are. In his depressed state, he falsely believes that he has been left alone to complete the work of God, and so he declares that he is done with his ministry and even with his life.
But an amazing thing happens when Elijah tries to get out of being a prophet: God does not shame Elijah for his feelings and for his wanting to flee, but God validates his feelings. Before asking more of him, God
addresses Elijah’s basic physiological needs, providing him with food, water, and 40 days of retreat. Elijah calls on God to take his life, and instead, God feeds him!
Then pay attention to what happens next: this compassionate God coaxes Elijah out of his cave in an unexpected way, and Elijah finds God not in the powerful wind, not in the earthquake, not in the fire (of all things!) but in the “sound of sheer silence.”
Commentators debate the theological meaning of this phrase. I take the view that the text implies God’s presence is also in silence as opposed to only in the standard pomp and circumstance of, say, fire raining down from heaven. That Elijah encounters God in silence and receives direction through this encounter reminds all of us that powerful leaders like Ahab and Jezebel ignore the prophetic voice of political dissenters and the vulnerable…the ones Simon and Garfunkel sing about in “Sounds of Silence.” God’s presence in the sound of sheer silence serves as a foil to the way Baal worshipers like King Ahab and Jezebel rule, a foil to how they understand divine power.
On the mountain, God then tells Elijah to return to the work of his calling and to mentor a new prophet, Elisha. Elijah must complete his portion of the task at hand, but God assures him there are others called to the work as well. It turns out God never intended for Elijah to be alone in his ministry and mission as a prophet of God. But we do need to heed God’s call to step out of our caves and face the challenges of the day.
In the story from 1 Kings, Elijah is devastated and afraid: he retreats into the wilderness, and calls on God to take his life. Instead, God feeds him. And in his encounter with God on the mountain, he witnesses God’s power in the wind, earthquake, and fire.
But don’t forget: Elijah actually encounters God in what comes next—the sheer silence—as if to say, God is in the silence. Or more pointedly: Elijah, even when you feel that I am absent, when you feel most isolated and alone—even there I am with you. I am with you in the absence, in the silence, in the struggle. Now go—we have work to do!
So do we. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale,
How Can We Possibly Come Back from This?
John 16:12-15 (NRSVUE)
Four times now. Four times I have been treated for the same persistent, unrelenting infection. I have to say I’ve learned a lot over these last three months. I’ve learned that after I’ve been on an antibiotic for a couple of days, I feel good. Really good. All is well!
I’ve also learned that that good feeling can be a tricky illusion, for when the antibiotic is complete, the infection has continued to lurk. Or come back. Whatever. I don’t really know. I just know that it’s taken me a full three months to learn how this cycle moves along.
I’m a little less fearful of it now than I was during my first encounter with the infection, when I had NO idea what was happening. I still don’t like dealing with an infection…at all. I would NEVER wish this on anyone. But I am learning…albeit slowly.
I was thinking about how long it’s taken me to get my mind even partially wrapped around what’s been happening to my body while I was also thinking about this lectionary reading from John for today’s worship.
“I still have many things to say to you,” Jesus tells his disciples before his eventual arrest and crucifixion. Or, ““There is so much more I want to tell you,” according to the New Living Translation. It seems there’s more for us to know. More for us to learn. More for us to understand.
At the right time.
Elizabeth Evans, an ordained deacon in the United Methodist Church and an advocate for victim-survivors of sexual assault in Lawrence, Kansas wrote about this reading from John and said, “I am not the type to learn as I go. Even when others around me believe in my abilities, I prefer to train and prepare in excess, hoping to achieve some internal standard of readiness that provides the illusion of preventing mistakes and embarrassment.
“When I started in my role as an advocate for victim-survivors of sexual assault, I dreaded the first time I would have to answer a hotline call. Despite nearly a decade of experience in ministry, plus the month of training my agency offered me related to advocate counseling in particular, I still felt unprepared.
“Then two advocates were occupied and unavailable to answer the hotline, so my director asked if I was ready to turn on my phone. Turning to a colleague who had worked for weeks with me on role-play scenarios, I asked, “Do you think I’m ready?”
“I can’t answer that,” she said. “Only you know. But at some point, you’re just going to have to learn by doing it.” So, I did.
“There comes a time when we have exhausted all the available training and must act. What I’ve learned as an advocate is that not every situation can be anticipated enough to train for or plan ahead. Sometimes we cannot take in any more information until we face the crisis at hand. It is in responding to crises in real time that fresh understanding and wisdom reveal themselves to us.”
Responding to crises in real time.
Perhaps this is what Jesus means when he tells his disciples they cannot bear what he still has to tell them. It’s not that he is finished teaching them or that there is nothing left to reveal to them. Nor is it that he considers them too weak to handle what’s to come. It’s that the things Jesus has left to share will only make sense in the future, when they face new challenges in real time.
In anticipation of Jesus’ death, the disciples face a crisis themselves—losing not only their friend and teacher but also the ultimate, in-the-flesh revelation of God’s loving presence among them. How will they continue to know God after Jesus’ death? How can they continue to live out Jesus’ teachings as they endure unanticipated challenges without his physical presence?
Not only that, what implications will Jesus’ death have on the first readers of this text, huddled together in their house churches as they live through their own crisis, trying to remain faithful to the teachings of a man they never met while facing persecution from the authorities of the day?
For the Gospel of John, the Holy Spirit is the answer to such a crisis. John conceives of the Holy Spirit as a divine advocate who persists in guiding communities of faith in the way of Jesus after Jesus’ physical life on earth has ended. The Holy Spirit is the unending promise to communities of faith of God’s loving presence with humankind, continuing to reveal God’s nature and God’s hope for creation in new ways—ways particular to who, where, and when we are. The Spirit of Christ empowers communities to face the challenges that arise in their context with new understandings of Jesus’ life and teachings.
The Holy Spirit is the one who makes tangible the life and teachings of Jesus for contemporary faith communities like ours, as we face our own crises particular to our time and place.
Communities of faith the world over have grappled with crises that feel like a signal of the end. We are not the first to face multiple, complex global crises and wonder, “How can we possibly come back from this?” Yet it is unlikely that if Jesus had unloaded onto the disciples the truths of how to respond faithfully to every crisis that would ever befall the world, they would have been able to conceive of global climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, the unrelenting scourge of assault weapons.
At the same time, there are undoubtedly more crises bubbling up that we cannot anticipate, fathom, or prepare for. There is evidence to suggest that many feel unprepared to respond to the crises already at hand. Perhaps, like the disciples, we are waiting—just waiting with bated breath—for Jesus to reveal the many things he still has to say to us.
The Holy Spirit reminds us that we already have all we need to respond to the current needs of the world. We have already learned all we can learn before it’s time to act, and we are not acting alone. While our particular crises were foreign to the disciples in Jesus’ time, feelings of fear, anxiety, grief, burnout, and pain are universal. The disciples also knew injustice, violence, and suffering, and as they were equipped to face those challenges in their day, so are we in ours.
The Holy Spirit, the continued embodied presence of God’s love through Jesus, makes possible the collective memory of how God has worked with communities of faith of every generation to respond to such challenges. As long as the Holy Spirit keeps reminding us who Jesus is and nudging us toward fresher understandings of Jesus’ way in light of our own circumstances, we will have what we need to respond. For now, there is nothing left to prepare.
May we pledge to be open to the Spirit’s presence and guidance. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
All in the Family
All in the Family was an iconic sit-com that ran from 1971 to 1979. Archie and Edith Bunker became household names all across the U.S. Their family, which included Gloria and her husband Michael (aka, “Meathead”), came to be embraced in humorous and serious ways, by a wide audience. As the series title implied, they were all in the family. Archie with his ultra conservative opinions and Michael with his ultra liberal view of things, honed in the crucible of the late ‘60's. Edith with her restrained values and mores and Gloria with her Flower Child sense of personal freedoms. They were all there in one family: spitting and fuming, laughing and loving one another.
Where are Archie and Edith and Gloria and Michael when we need them? How would they deal with red states and blue states? What do you think they’d say about restroom wars being waged over gay, lesbian, transgender, and transsexual access to those facilities? What about immigration and border walls? How about critical race theory or the banning of books in a school’s curriculum?
All in the Family wasn’t the first attempt to address unity in diversity in our lives. No, there’s an older project that’s still running. Originally, it gathered and held together quite a diverse group of folks. They were educated and uneducated. Some worked with their hands for a living – blue collar, you could say. Other’s handled money – white collar, you could say. And their political views ranged all the way from a populist uprising to maintaining the status quo. I’m referring, of course, to the followers of the Way, a movement that would eventually become Christianity. Norman Mailer did well to keep his show on TV for eight years in a tough, demanding market. The unity in diversity movement that Jesus started is still running today, far eclipsing, in numbers, its original 12 subscribers.
The Church was formed as a multicultural, diverse body of people. That’s its strength and its gift to the world. Unity in diversity. The Body of Christ is not homogenized. It’s not a melting pot. The Body of Christ is more of a tossed salad where all the different ingredients lend their own unique tastes to the whole dish. Green leaf lettuce, peppers, cucumbers, feta cheese, Buffalo Wing chicken – they all taste great on their own. But put them together in a salad, and suddenly you have something really special – a riot of flavor for the palate.
That they may all be one all in the family. That is Christ’s prayer for us, and, fittingly, it is the motto of the United Church of Christ. Brown, black, red, yellow, white, male, female, liberal, conservative, gay, straight. On their own, each can leave his or her mark on the world. Put them together in the Church, and suddenly you have something really special. You have a miracle from God, the instrument through which God is saving the world by mixing it all in the family.
Rev. Stephen Hall
Ubiquitous Ubiquity. In the field of English grammar, that’s what’s known as gilding the lily. It’s worse than using a double superlative to describe something. I can just see my 10th Grade English teacher, Mrs. Brath, shaking her head vigorously from side to side, while wearing a furrowed brow and a down-turned mouth.
But this exercise in gilding the lily does make a point when it comes to today’s text. First there’s the word, ubiquitous. It isn’t exactly common fare in most people’s conversations, but I like it for the way it sounds: ubiquitous ubiquity. It just trips off your tongue, doesn’t it? Well, maybe it’s more of an acquired taste. Now, let me try to define it by sharing some ancient history. Back when I was in high school in the late 1960's, I liked to listen to a crazy radio program that had the tag line, “He’s everywhere; he’s everywhere.” Who was everywhere? Chickenman – “Chickenman, he’s everywhere; he’s everywhere.” Chickenman was the antihero who bumbled and geeked around but always managed to save the day by being there for people in need. He was ubiquitous, because he was everywhere, all the time.
I like ubiquitous as a description of God’s Holy Spirit – one of the subjects in these verses that we heard from the Gospel of John. Christ promises us the presence, or you could even say “the present – as in gift”, of God’s Holy Spirit in our lives. The Spirit will be with us everywhere, all the time.
I also like ubiquitous as a description of our relationship to God and one another. It’s a relationship that’s everywhere, all the time. Just like the word ubiquitous, this relationship starts with the sound, “u”. Now that can be the letter, but it can also be the word, you. You is a very important word, because without at least one you in this world, there would never be a me. The Seventeenth Century French philosopher Renée Descartes is famous for having said, “I think, therefore, I am.” In my own life, I’ve developed a variation on his observation: “You are, therefore, I am.”
My point is this: God made us to be a gregarious bunch of people. We’re folks who find our existence in God and in each other. We haven’t been put in this world to fend for ourselves, sometimes at the expense of others. God put us here to guide us and care for us so that we might guide and care for each other. And how does God manage this? Through the most amazing ubiquitous ubiquity in the universe. Through the Holy Spirit.
Five verses before this passage, Jesus is quoted as saying, “I will not leave you orphaned.” This means that he will not leave us alone to fend for ourselves. He will come to us. Until then, God gives us the Holy Spirit to keep our memory of Christ’s promises sharp and to continue our instruction in the gospel. We are not alone; we are not orphans. We have company everywhere, all the time. We have the wonderful, ubiquitous gift of God’s Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit. It’s everywhere. It’s everywhere. All the time. All the time.
Rev. Stephen Hall
It’s an Order
How much time have you spent with young children? Enough to know that they
can turn into little tyrants in the blink of an eye? Yes, without the proper
guidance, they easily come to believe that the entire world revolves around them.
Their wants become their needs, and there is absolutely no distinction between
those two things. Never mind the fact that the children right next to them may
have their sights fixed on the very same thing. It doesn’t matter. In that moment,
that child has become a world of one. Unless we direct them – unless we
command them – they will never grow into the adults whom they need to become.
“Little children.” It’s a way that I have chosen to speak to and about the twelve
who follow me. It isn’t always a term of endearment. Often, it’s a clear-eyed
term of discernment. So many times they have acted like little children –
bickering, backbiting, badmouthing children. There was the time, on the road,
when they got into a heated argument over who among them was the greatest.
And then there was the time when James and John tried to cut a private deal with
me that would assure their prominence in the group as my right and left hand men.
James and John, the Thunder twins are always quick to explode in anger. But
they aren’t the only ones to suffer from that affliction. Nearly all of my Galilean
followers are like that. Three of them have not even tried to hide their passions
for the Zealot insurrectionist cause. Simon has been the clearest on this score, but
Judas the brother of James also has harbored violent Zealot passions. Judas
Iscariot, as well. I sense that Iscariot, in particular, hopes that I will draw the
insurrectionists to me and ignite a nationwide war against the Romans. Zealots
aren’t the only personalities among my 12 followers. There is also a tax collector,
Matthew and a Greek, Philip. Outside of my small circle, these twelve men
would have reason enough to avoid, if not despise, each other. But I have worked
to bind them to me and to one another in love. It hasn’t been an easy thing to
accomplish. Indeed, after two years of constant company – preaching, teaching,
healing, casting out demons – they are still resistant, still blind to who I am and
what I have tried to do among them.
Love one another. Sometimes, with children, you just have to give them an order,
especially when their well-being and that of others depend on it. Love one
another as I have loved you. James and John: did I give them the glory that they
craved at someone else’s expense? No. Love one another as I have loved you.
Peter: did I forsake or turn away from him when he tried to turn me away from the
path that God has set before me? No. Love one another as I have loved you.
Matthew and Philip: have I denied them a place at my table because one has
collected money for the Romans and the other is a Greek? No. Love one another
as I have loved you. Iscariot: have I denied him a place in my heart, even now, as
he goes to betray me? No. Love one another as I have loved you.
There is only one way that the world will know that these twelve are my
followers: if they love one another as I have loved them. It will serve them no
purpose at all to quote scripture or my teachings, not if they can’t stand to be with
and for each other. The world will see only what it has always seen – little
children bickering, backbiting, and badmouthing each other.
Little children, God is doing a new thing in the world. Can you not see it? Can
you not hear it? Can you not feel it? Too much rides on you being able to see,
hear, and feel what God is doing in this world. So I command you as I
commanded the Twelve. Love one another as I have loved you. It’s an order.
Rev. Stephen Hall
Life Out of Death
To be a widow is to know the pain of loss. First, comes the loss of one whom you have loved with the fullness of your heart. That kind of pain is nearly unbearable. You move through your days, fending off an emptiness that is voracious. It’s insatiable, pressing on until it utterly consumes you.
But that isn’t all the loss that you face. Next, comes the loss of standing. You become invisible to those around you. You have no means of support. Some of us are fortunate to own our own dwellings, but they are precious few in number. No, most of us have no means in our lives. We rely totally on the charity of others. And, as you might expect, that charity can be thin and uneven at times.
That’s why Tabitha has been such a blessing to us widows in Joppa. Her name actually comes from an Aramaic word. Aramaic is our native tongue – the language that we speak every day. Tabitha means, “gazelle.” It’s such a fitting name. If you have ever watched a gazelle, you will see right away that this is an animal endowed with great grace. That is Tabitha – a woman endowed with great grace. She literally flowed into our lives with such compassionate care. Without her, we would all be living in rags. But she has sewn us clothing – the kind of clothing that protects us against the elements and makes us presentable. Her gifts make us feel like women again. She always makes them with an excess of love. And she’s constant. Where others offer momentary grace and disappear, Tabitha has been the consistent thread in our lives. She is dependable, committed, solid. Tabitha is the bond of God’s love that keeps us from being devoured by death.
When she died, our world collapsed. Every one of us felt ravaged by her death. She was the embodiment of life to us. In many ways she was life to us. Death had its way with us once when it took our husbands from us. Then, against all hope, this woman, this graceful gazelle, flowed into our hearts and restored us to life. Now, death would rob us of the constancy of her love.
Ah, but God is great. The leader of those who followed Jesus of Nazareth – Peter is his name – derived from another good Aramaic word, Cephas, which means “rock.” Anyway, Peter intervened with the full power of his master – the full power of God. He restored our beloved Tabitha to life and to us. I had heard the stories about God raising Jesus from the dead. We all have. It seemed to me a wonderful, yet, incredible tale. I thought to myself that God probably reserved this miracle for his Son. It was a miracle for him and him alone. How wrong I was! How joyfully and stupendously wrong!
I see God’s life-giving power everywhere. It’s so clear now. I find it in moments large and small. It’s there when bread is broken at table. It’s present in the healing touch of those who work with the sick. I find it entwined in the teachings that are passed to young and old alike. Especially now, wherever I encounter death, I discover God drawing forth life. Everywhere that I turn, I see God’s life, unrestrained, running free with the grace of a gazelle. It all began with the amazing resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and has continued with the restoration of our beloved Tabitha’s life. Life out of death. It will not stop until God has overwhelmed death with life. That’s what God wants. And God always gets what God wants.
Even When We’re Not Sure
John 20:19-29 (NRSV)
I wonder what it was like in that room when Jesus showed up. Can you even imagine? Imagine that you saw him die on the cross. Imagine that you saw his bloodied, mangled body laid in the tomb, and, by the way, this massive boulder rolled in front of the opening to the tomb. Imagine what it must have been like, a couple of days later, to get the news that Jesus’ body isn’t in the tomb anymore…that the boulder had been rolled away, the body was gone, and, by the way, Mary Magdalene says she saw him and talked with him. Risen from the dead! Not mangled. Not bloody. She is positive it was him.
Now try to imagine that you are among the disciples who have gathered in this room. You’ve locked the doors because you are afraid of what’s going to happen when people find out that Jesus’ body isn’t in the tomb. It’s not a big room, so you’re kind of huddled together.
Then, Jesus shows up! John says Jesus “entered” the room. He says Jesus “stood among them.” Are you kidding me?!
John also says that when the disciples saw Jesus, they were “exuberant.” Maybe they were. But I wonder what the lag time was between seeing Jesus among them, hearing his voice as he greeted them, and being “exuberant.”
Most often, I think, when something tragic—or even something exciting—happens, when something happens that is just too overwhelming for the logical part of our brains to absorb, our brains freeze. Your logical self cannot make sense of what you’re seeing and it is as if time stops—or maybe for you time speeds up—perception and memory get thrown out of whack.
For any of you that have been through an experience like this: the death of a loved one, getting fired from a job, being in an accident, seeing a crime committed, maybe you’ve found it hard to recall exactly what happened in those first moments after the incident, after you first heard the news, after you first took in the trauma.
The day after Easter this year, I found myself quite fascinated by the running of the Boston Marathon, after I heard and followed the story, and then contributed to the efforts of Team Beans. Team Beans was running to honor Francesca, daughter of CNN reporter Andrew Kaczynski and Wall Street Journal journalist Rachel Ensign. Francesca died on December 24, 2020 from a rare brain tumor, at nine months old. Team Beans was working very hard to raise $500,000 for infant cancer research.
Whenever the Boston Marathon reaches my consciousness around the middle of April every year, I can’t help but think of the deadly bombing attack at the finish line of the event in 2013. I picked up a book written by one of the many injured in the bombing, Jeff Bauman, and once I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down.
You might remember Jeff…there is an iconic photograph of him shortly after the bombing, in a wheel chair, being pushed by a woman, with a big man in a cowboy hat running next to him, and an EMT also running alongside him, pulling his wheelchair. His right leg is gone from just above his knee, and he’s holding onto the thigh of his left leg, though he ends up losing that leg from the knee down as well.
Jeff wasn’t a runner that day. He was at the finish line to cheer on his girlfriend. When he woke up on Tuesday, the day after the bombing, he was in the Boston Medical Center, groggy from a series of life-saving surgeries, and the first thing he did was try to rip out his breathing tube so he could speak. When he realized he couldn’t, he asked for a pad and paper and wrote down seven words: “Saw the guy. Looked right at me,” setting off one of the biggest manhunts in the country’s history.
In the book, Jeff tells about a moment that he recalls with his mother, after the early days of trauma, and when I read it, it reminded me of what it must have been like in that locked hideaway when Jesus entered and joined the disciples.
This is what Jeff wrote: “I knew there were two ways you could go,” Mom tells me now, her hands still shaking. “You could be…” She stops. Mom doesn’t say depressed, because she doesn’t like that word, but that’s what she means. … “I don’t know if you remember…” “I don’t, Mom,” I tell her, knowing what’s coming. “…we were all standing over you.” “I know. It’s creepy.” “And you opened your eyes. This was early, maybe Tuesday, so we weren’t expecting it. We didn’t know what to say. Your eyes went from one person to the next, and nobody was sure whether you recognized them or not. Finally, you tried to speak. But you couldn’t. So it must have been Tuesday, right? Anyway, I bent down so you could whisper in my ear. ‘What is this,’ you whispered, ‘a funeral viewing? Everybody sit down.’”
“I’m not sure about Mom’s story. There are certain parts of it that don’t quite work. I was in the emergency intensive care unit, for one thing, so only two people were allowed in my room at a time…how could the whole family have been there? And when I woke up, I was on a breathing tube. How could I have whispered even those two sentences to her? But that doesn’t mean I don’t believe her. In fact, I know it’s true, that the moment must have happened, because it means so much to her.”
“And besides, my brother Tim tells a similar story. In his version, everyone was there, and he was squeezing my hand, asking if I knew who he was, when I made the joke.” So maybe it happened on Wednesday, after my third surgery. Or maybe it happened on Monday night, before my second surgery. Maybe they had me off the breathing tube for a while, before slicing open my stomach and poking around inside me.
“It doesn’t matter to me. It doesn’t matter if it never quite happened like that. Everybody has a story about those days, which they swear is true, even though none of the stories are the same.”
Those moments, hours, days of confusion when something overwhelming has happened…of course it’s hard to remember the details.
So I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that’s exactly what Thomas experienced when the news of Jesus’ appearance in the room reached him. Remember, he wasn’t there at the time, so the word has to travel to him. And when he hears this part of Jesus’ incredible story, he’s the one who says, “Oh yeah? That’s amazing. But you know what? I’m not going to believe what you say until I see him for myself…until I can actually touch the nail holes in his hands.”
And who can blame him? But we all do at some point…we’ve given Thomas this bad reputation for being a doubter when what I suspect he was doing was what any of us would do….he asked for more information because the logical part of his brain could not catch up to what he was being told. It just didn’t make sense.
And I bet nobody was telling the story the same way! One disciple might have said, “Jesus knocked on the door!” Another would say, “No, he didn’t knock, he just opened the door and came in.” Another would say, “No, he couldn’t have just walked in through the door. Remember how we locked—and double-locked—the doors?”
Like Jeff Bauman letting his family and friends tell him over and over again the story about his first words after losing his legs in the bombing, can’t you understand why Thomas needed that “proof” to help soothe his confusion and calm his racing brain? He simply wanted to touch the wounds on Jesus’ hands and side. Then he would know for sure that what he was being told was true.
Some biblical scholars say that Thomas’ refusal to believe without seeing for himself puts him into a new category. He is not merely a frightened, hiding disciple. He is faithless. Thomas was the first person approached by the Spirit-endowed disciples, and he was the first person to refuse to take the Spirit-empowered authority of their witness to heart. I can see that. I can appreciate that point of view.
I can also see how much like us Thomas was. And I can see that while he wasn’t just going to take the disciples’ word for it, he came on his own…in his own time…to a place of deep, deep faith and action. And for me, that is as significant a part of his story as are his moments of doubt.
God has come to us in Jesus Christ, who continues his mission through doubters and misfits like Thomas and like us. Faith is a willingness to follow him, even when we’re not sure where it will lead us.
Whoever you are, and wherever you are on life’s journey, God is ready and waiting to use us. My hope is that we will at some point respond by saying that we are ready, as well. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
How Come No One Has Ever Told Me This Before?
Matthew 28:1-15 (NRSV)
A friend of mine readily admits to having a bad memory. She was telling her congregation recently about the time—when she was a seminary student—that she scheduled a meeting with a committee of students, and then forgot to go to her own meeting. The day after the meeting was supposed to take place, when she realized she had missed it altogether, she called to apologize to her co-chair for forgetting to go to the meeting, and then, the day after that, she called the co-chair again to apologize…because she forgot she already called the day before!
I am sure every one of us can tell a story like this. One thing I’ve learned about myself over the years is that I can be the ideal “confidential listener.” I tend to remember the content of what I’m told, but can’t recall who told me. It’s an interesting “gift” I apparently have to ensure everyone’s privacy.
If you are like me, and like many other people, then you can understand why it is that we can be thankful that Holy Week—the week I was crushed to miss out on this year as I was recovering from illness at home—we can be thankful Holy Week comes around every year to remind us what it is this whole faith experience we celebrate on Easter is about.
As a colleague described it, “If I didn’t sit at the Table every year on Maundy Thursday to take the bread and cup, or watch the [Christ candle being extinguished at the end of the service on Good Friday], or get up at the break of dawn every Easter to greet the news of resurrection, I’d be apt to forget why I worship and that there is hope for me even in the darkest of nights.”
If we don’t deliberately walk our way through the events of Holy Week, from the joy of Palm Sunday, into the depths of darkness and death on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, and back out to joy again on Easter Sunday, I think we are apt to forget what happened.
“Christianity is described by religion scholars as a ‘linear’ religion. Unlike the eastern religions which see time as cyclical, these scholars say, Christianity views time and the world as moving in a forward progression, starting with a moment of creation and moving toward a final fulfillment of God’s purpose […someday…out there in the future.]
“That may be true theologically, but [in our actual day-to-day experience] Christianity is just as cyclical as Buddhism or Hinduism because Christianity, like all religion, is grounded in real life experience, and our real-life experience never moves in an orderly progression forward.
“Instead, our lives are filled with ups, and downs, and reversals, and discovery, and forgetting, and reminding ourselves again of those lessons we once learned but have to re-learn all over again.”
That’s why the Jewish tradition of Passover begins with the question: “What makes this night different from all other nights?” It’s a way to open up the memories of those at the table, to hear the story again of the deep connection between God and the Hebrew people. It’s like asking someone, “Tell me about when you were a kid…”
“Even those with steel-trap memories [for some things, like, trigonometry formulas] learned in high school, even these people can forget the simplest things like, ‘It’s better to count to ten and wait until I’m calmer than it is to let my tongue loose and then have to pick up the pieces from the damage I
caused.’ Or, ‘If I eat the whole gallon of ice cream in one sitting, I will regret it.’ Or, ‘Helping someone else can [bring joy to my own] downcast heart.’”
“During Holy Week, we rehearse the last week of Jesus’ life, so that we will be reminded again that Christ’s love for us was so great that he was willing to take on for us the worst the world could do to him, and on Easter—and for 50 days after—we re-enact the resurrection to remind one another that even the world’s worst was not powerful enough to overcome that love. With God, life will always triumph; love will always win.
“It’s strange that we need to go through Holy Week every year—you’d think with such an incredible piece of good news [at the end of the story we’d be able to remember it for all time]—but we’re human. And when the darkness presses around us and our hearts are heavy within us, we forget.
“We forget that God promises the bare branches will grow full with lush leaves again.
“We forget that the frozen fields will ring forth with the songs of birds one day.
“We forget that God can lift the burdens that lie so heavily on our hearts.
“We forget that no matter what death we face right now, God will raise us to new life, and one day the tomb will be empty.”
“I wish I didn’t need to be reminded of this every year—I wish that I could just remember it at every moment of my life, good or bad, up or down, but my memory is just not that great and I need reminding…a lot.
I suspect maybe you do, too.” Maybe that’s why you’re here today. Just as we need to remember the events of Holy Week every year, we need to hear the great story of the resurrection…over and over again.
That’s one of the things I am really drawn to in Matthew’s version of Jesus’ resurrection. Over and over again, people are told to “get on your way quickly and tell the disciples” what you saw. Or, “Don’t be frightened…Go tell my brothers that they are to go to Galilee and I’ll meet them there.” Even the guards quickly go to the city and tell the high priests everything that happened, though they clearly don’t hear the account of Jesus’ resurrection as good news. In fact, they come up with a way to make sure that their own version of events at the tomb—an incorrect version of events, by the way—gets told around town so that people will begin to doubt that Jesus is raised from the dead. The Scripture says, “That story, cooked up in the Jewish High Council, is still going around.”
All throughout Matthew’s story, people are told to tell others about this amazing event. It is through the verbal sharing of this story—over thousands of years—that we come here to today to celebrate.
Please…notice that we are not told to simply remember. We are commanded to tell others. We are urged to share the good news. We are compelled to tell the story, not just so we can remember, but so that others can hear it. We have got to find ways to do this.
Diana Butler Bass, whose writings got me thinking about the importance of Holy Week, tells of an experience she had, and I want to leave you with this both as a reminder and as an encouragement to
you who have heard the awful story of Jesus’ death and the good news of his resurrection. She says: “After a long day flying, I went to the hotel lounge for a glass of local red wine. There, I got in a conversation with a woman, who is about my age, who never heard of Holy Week and asked me to explain Palm Sunday and Easter to her. I told her the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry to Jerusalem, of his betrayal, death and resurrection. About how human it is; how our betrayals turn into our rebirths. She got tears in her eyes. ‘That’s so beautiful,’ she said. ‘How come no one has ever told me this before?’”
Tell someone the story of what we celebrate today.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale, April 24, 2022
[Based on essays by Diana Butler Bass]
A Dangerous Thing
Easter Sunday, 4/17/22
I remember a discussion at one of the many bible studies that I led over the years. We were talking about the resurrection and one of the group’s members asked, “Do you have to believe in the resurrection to be a Christian?” I sensed that there was another question behind that one: “Is the resurrection essential to the Christian faith?” So I responded, “The short answer is “yes;” the long answer is “yes.” This woman was steeped in the scientific method. She had an empirical approach to life. For her, believing in the resurrection was a heavy lift. If it couldn’t be observed, quantified, or proven, then it wasn’t real.
All of us approach life in the same way, at least some of the time. We see our lives and the world in which we live as flat, two-dimensional. I know that’s true with my life on most days. I see my life as moving forward, moving backward, or sometimes simply sliding sideways. But is there more to it? Is there a third dimension to life? Let’s try a little show and tell. What do you see; what is this? (hold up a two liter bottle) A two liter Coke bottle? Does anyone see a clown? If not, then I’m right with you. I look at a two liter bottle and that’s all I see. A two liter bottle. But Marion Henning would look at that same two liter bottle and she would see a clown. Marion was a member at St. Peter’s United Church of Christ, the congregation that I came to Lockport to serve 40 years ago. She was one of the most gifted crafters whom I have ever known. Her gift was deeply rooted in the third dimension of life. This is the place where creativity exists and thrives. Marion turned Coke bottles, Pepsi bottles, Sprite bottles into clowns of all shapes and colors. Those clowns brought people a sense of joy – a slice of life. One of Marion’s clowns sat for year at the nurses’ station in the intensive care unit of Lockport Memorial Hospital.
More times than I care to admit I, like a lot of people, see the world and my life in it as flat –as two dimensional. And because I see the world as flat, I can offer no clowns, no slice of life, no joy. Death wins every battle and every debate in a flat world. Fortunately, for all of us, God did not create a flat world and hand it over to death. God created a multifaceted world where life reigns supreme. God created a world where the dead are resurrected to new life.
A life lived completely in two dimensions is a dangerous thing. In a flat world, I know just enough to get myself into trouble. For me, that applies to all things medical. I don’t have a degree to practice medicine, but too often I talk like I do. That doesn’t mean that any of you are going to want me to perform brain surgery on you. Knowing just enough to get myself into trouble also applies to electricity and plumbing. Now I have the Reader’s Digest Complete Guide to Home Repairs, and I’ve even read it. I was shocked (shameless, intended pun!) when it didn’t turn me into a master electrician. And maybe it was just one of my pipe dreams (another shameless, intended pun!), but it also didn’t turn me into a master plumber. Just ask Jerry Schultze; he’s cleaned up several of my self-inflicted messes. Jerry, I only ask that you leave the more entertaining details out of your after-church conversations. I could go on, but I don’t think I need to; you get the point.
When it comes to the resurrection, we tend to know just enough to get ourselves into trouble. Suddenly, we turn into Mr. Spock from Star Trek. Reality gets defined solely by the laws of nature. But that’s only half of the knowledge that’s available to us. The other half is just as powerful, indeed, sometimes more powerful, than the rational half. This is the half that gives our lives depth – that third dimension. It’s the half that’s driven by mystery and passion and love. It’s the reason why we have significant others. For my money, love is the anchor occupant of the deep dimension in our lives. Love cannot be separated from life, nor can life be separated from love. Love is to life as oxygen is to fire. You can’t have one without the other. That’s the reason why my biologist daughter plays violin and piano and my physicist son plays cello. I’m not embarrassed to tell you that my daughter brought me to tears this past Tuesday with her performance of Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances, and my son did the same thing when he performed Shastokovitch’s Cello Concerto with the Colgate University Orchestra.
People don’t have difficulty with the resurrection because they know too much. They have difficulty with the resurrection because they know too little. Today’s Gospel lesson covers the complete gamut of responses. Peter doesn’t yet have the framework in his life that can embrace the resurrection, so he reaches the only conclusion that he can – someone must have taken Jesus’ body from the tomb. The beloved disciple, whom church tradition identifies as John, looks at the evidence and believes. I resonate the most, though, with Mary Magdalene in this story. She goes to the tomb expecting to find Jesus’s dead body. She’s confined by the same limiting trap as Peter. Mary discovers an open, empty tomb, and that’s just too much for her to bear. It’s bad enough that her master was arrested, tortured, and crucified. Now this! The enemies of Jesus didn’t even have the common decency to allow his body to rest in peace. But unlike Peter and the other disciple, Mary doesn’t go home; she stays. She grieves but she also seeks. Mary has an encounter with God, a totally unexpected conversation with two angels. Then she sees Jesus, but she doesn’t recognize him. Thinking that he’s the gardener, she asks him where he has taken the body. Jesus speaks her name, and that’s when the mystery of the resurrection opens itself to Mary and draws her in.
That’s what the resurrection is – mystery. There’s no narrative describing how it happened, just a declaration that it has. The New Testament and the Church exist because of this mystery. We are here today because of this mystery.
So, let’s try this again. What is this? If you still don’t see a clown, don’t despair. Let me show you what a Coke bottle became. This little clown was sitting on my office desk at Lockport United Church of Christ one morning. An anonymous note simply read, “Hi, my name is Stevie.” A slice of life. A splash of joy.
The empty tomb is more than an empty tomb. If you don’t yet see that, don’t despair. God is relentlessly patient and will give you the eyes of faith to see that it is the resurrection. And the resurrection, dear sisters and brothers, is life everlasting for us all.
Rev. Stephen Hall
How Quickly Things Can Change
I want you to know this morning that I am sharing someone else’s story with you. I’m sharing it, not because the details describe anything I’ve actually experienced, but because the point of the story stopped me in my tracks…and made me think about you, and us and how important this fellowship of Christ is to me, especially as we stand together on the threshold of this most holy week in the life of Christians.
The story comes from Lillian Daniel, a pastor in a UCC church. This pastor, like many, loved Palm Sunday and Holy Week, though she knew Easter would end in exhaustion.
But shortly before Palm Sunday one year, her eight-year-old son was under the weather, and she and her husband soon learned that Calvin, had type 1 diabetes. Unlike the more common type 2 diabetes, the much rarer juvenile diabetes, or type 1, cannot be reversed by diet or lifestyle. With type 1 diabetes, the body’s own immune system attacks the pancreas for no apparent reason. The pancreas then shuts down—slowly over a few months—and there is absolutely nothing that can be done about it. Suddenly, out of nowhere, her son was dependent on insulin, and would be for the rest of his life.
“It is ironic,” Daniels says, “that all this happened just days before Holy Week—ironic, because Holy Week begins with the cheerful procession of people waving their palms before Jesus, shouting Hosanna. His followers are ecstatic. They are having a party in the street. But in a matter of days, the disciples will be eating their last meal with Jesus. He’ll be betrayed. They’ll be afraid. The cheering and partying will seem like a distant memory from a time when they thought life was easy.
“Those days spent in the hospital, I later realized, were more about us as parents than about our son. His health stabilized quickly once he received the insulin his body had stopped making. But we, his parents, needed a lot more treatment. The doctors would not release Calvin from the hospital and into our care until they were convinced that we could manage his treatment, that we had adjusted to this change. We learned about what he should eat to avoid high blood sugar levels. We learned that he would have to monitor his carbohydrates so the right dosage of insulin could be supplied. This would keep his blood sugar at the right level and allow him to live a “perfectly normal life.”
“Just when we got that straight, we learned that when Calvin’s blood sugar was too low he should eat the very things that otherwise he shouldn’t eat. Treating this disease is frustratingly counterintuitive. “I thought diabetics couldn’t eat sweets,” I said. “Actually,” the doctor said, “in a case of low blood sugar, when he’s had too much insulin, he has to have sweets in order to avoid a diabetic coma.” This was not sounding to me like a “perfectly normal life.”
“What is a perfectly normal life? Have you noticed that the only time that phrase is invoked is at times when life is neither perfect nor normal? But is life ever perfect or normal? We had been at the hospital for days, taking turns there and with our five-year-old daughter at
home. We had friends but no family nearby. My mother had died a year before, and I don’t think I ever grieved for her as much as I did in those days at the hospital.
“By now it was the Saturday before Holy Week. Because I love Palm Sunday, I had planned a lot for that day. There was to be the usual grand procession with the palms, the special music, the triumphant entry into Jerusalem. But because I had assumed that this would be a celebratory day, I had decided that it would also be the day that new members would join the church. Early that Sunday morning, I sat at the desk in the church’s front office, not feeling celebratory at all. I wondered if it would be easier to simply lead the congregation through the service and then tell them the news, or whether I should tell them first. It seemed like a different person had planned this festive Palm Sunday worship service.
“One of the new members who was to join the church that day, a young man in the medical field, had arrived bright and early. “How are you this morning?” he asked, not realizing that he was the first person I had seen at church that morning and that he was about to really find out how I was. “You know what, I’m not doing too great. My son is in the hospital, diagnosed with diabetes, out of nowhere, and he may or may not get to come to church today. No, diabetes doesn’t run in my family, unless you count my great uncle, who I am just now remembering. He lost his leg to it in his thirties and his life to it in his forties, leaving behind a widow and a little daughter. They say he never took care of himself, but how do you make someone take care of himself? So how am I doing? To be honest, I’m a little shaky.”
“I realized that I had said more than I had wanted to say, and more than he, a new member, had asked. I think I remember saying, “Sorry,” as we careful people do when we are accidentally honest with one another.
“Juvenile diabetes or type 2?” he asked, evidently knowing a distinction that most people do not. “Type 1?” I nodded. “Well, I have type 1 diabetes too,” he said. “In fact, it’s what drove me to go into medicine. I’m passionate about helping people to live healthy lives with this condition.”
“I looked at this young man who seemed to have it all together—he was the picture of health, a person who had talked about climbing mountains and kayaking and who traveled the world. Suddenly my image of this disease had a new face, and I liked it a lot better than my late great uncle’s. “I think that’s why I am joining the church today,” he said, and we both stopped to take that in. “I’m going to be a friend to your son, and help you deal with this.”
“And that is exactly what happened. That young man’s friendship changed our lives in the years that followed, and none of that would have happened were we not joined together in the body of Christ, not just when our news is good but also when it’s bad.
“On Palm Sunday, things change so quickly. The followers of Jesus move from triumph to tragedy in a matter of days. That’s how quickly life moves too. But as surely as the arc goes down as we begin the solemn services of Holy Week, we know that the arc will go up again at Easter Sunday.
“Some resurrections are enormous and get recorded in scripture to be read about year after year. Other resurrections are smaller. They happen in the midst of ordinary lives. And we witness one another’s resurrections in church all the time. For me that Palm Sunday morning, what was resurrected was hope. And when my son ran into church that morning, finally out of the hospital and being his energetic self, I knew that as quickly as things change, they can change in all directions, as much as they do in Holy Week. The lesson of Holy Week is that pain and sorrow do not have the last word.
In the midst of all that went wrong right before that Holy Week, God was working on the bigger picture, and my Holy Week story now has yet another hero, an eight-year-old boy whose courage I admire every Palm Sunday when I think about how quickly things can change. And I also think of that new member. He probably thought that he was joining the church that day because he needed it. But sometimes the reason you join the church is because somebody there needs you.”
(Story by Lillian Daniel, April 21, 2009, Christian Century)
For the joy we know this day, we give you thanks, O God.
For the sorrow and the darkness to come, we ask for your mercy, O God.
For the hope that is before us, we praise you, O God. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Cheering On God’s People
I Peter 2:4-5, 9-10
“Come on, David!” “C’mon, c’mon!” “Come on, Dave, yeah!”
“With shouts of encouragement and steady applause from his teammates, David Gorczynski crossed the finish line at Orchard Park High School late Tuesday afternoon, long after most of the other runners in one more race that he almost was not allowed to run. But David Gorczynski is still running, and because of his fight, all young athletes with disabilities in New York will have one less obstacle to overcome in the seasons ahead.”
I loved reading this story that appeared in the Buffalo News nearly ten year ago, now. The article said, “Gorczynski, 20, has autism and loves to run. This summer, his family’s court case against a state education regulation that banned him from competing because of his age attracted wide attention. Hundreds of people – including his Orchard Park teammates and runners from other schools – signed an online petition objecting to the law, and State Supreme Court Justice John L. Michalski issued an injunction that would allow David to run.”
Like any long-distance runner, David benefited from The Bislett Effect. I may have talked with you about this interesting phenomenon before, but it seems to me, as we gather for worship and to celebrate new members in this congregation of God’s people, that the Bislett Effect is a perfect reminder of what has been our strength in years gone by and what needs to be our passion going forward. The Bislett Effect is a phenomenon that has implications for us all, whether we are practicing our running or practicing our faith.
The name comes from the Bislett Stadium in Oslo, Norway, a place where 65 track-and-field and speed skating records have been broken since the start of the annual Bislett Games over 50 years ago. We’re not talking about one broken record. Or two. Or 10. Or even 20. But a full 65 records. No other track can boast such a record for record-breaking achievements. According to an article in Runner’s World (November 2003), the British runner Sebastian Coe set several records at Bislett, including a series of stunning miles. Another fine British miler, Steve Cram, who shattered Coe’s record for the mile, said, “If you can’t run well at Bislett, you can’t run well any bloody where.”
But what’s the secret of Bislett?
In a word, it’s the crowd. The original track was narrow, with only six lanes, and the grandstand is so steep that the fans are practically on top of you. “The sound of 21,000 screaming maniacs rakes your reflexes,” writes Kenny Moore, “forcing you to keep your rhythm, the crowd’s rhythm, for one more stretch, one more turn. The frenzied fans keep you going.”
That’s why 65 records have been broken at Bislett. We run faster in front of great crowds because we are inspired by community — we run not only for ourselves but for the team, the family, the congregation, the tribe, the party, the nation. “Our deepest nature,” concludes Moore, “is that we are at our most majestic when we do for others.” Just ask David Gorczynski…he kept running as the crowd cheered him on.
The apostle Peter knew all about The Bislett Effect although, unlike his colleague, Paul, he never used the racetrack, race-running metaphor. Instead, Peter uses a construction metaphor in these words to the Christians who were scattered across five provinces in Asia Minor: “Present yourselves as living stones for the construction of a sanctuary vibrant with life, in which you’ll serve as holy priests offering Christ-approved lives up to God” (1 Peter 2:5). The point is the same. There’s nothing individualistic about the Christian faith, according to Peter — nothing that gives credence to an isolated, one-on-one relationship with Jesus Christ.
Peter knows that inspiration comes from the crowd. The Bislett Effect. The Living Stone Syndrome. Whatever. It’s critical to the health of the Christ Body, as well as to our mission in the world, to see ourselves as a community that empowers and enables each other, thereby allowing us to set all sorts of records. Enabling us to do much more than we had ever dreamed possible.
This is not to say, however, that the church is merely a gathering of frenzied fans. Remember that as living stones we are cemented to the cornerstone that is “chosen and precious,” according to Peter (2:6). Without a good cornerstone in Jesus Christ, we cannot remain standing as a solid spiritual house. So, we need to stay connected to Jesus. That’s what this whole church—any church--is about at its very core.
Even so, the crowd is crucial. We’re living stones in the building, or fans in the stands. Sometimes we’re the runners, the contestants, but in the “stands” we’re cheering on, helping, assisting, empowering, those who are on some particular track, some particular course, who are facing some particular challenge, obstacle, trial or test, and having been on the course, having run the track, having flown over those hurdles ourselves, we’re in a position to yell and scream and cheer and urge our sisters and brothers onward.
We know what it’s all about. We have to stay close to one another. If we’re going to have any chance of proclaiming the mighty acts of God to a hurting and hope-starved world, then we’re going to have to hang together as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (2:9). We are at our most majestic when we work for the good of the body, and when we do for others instead of ourselves.
All of which should lead us to reflect on the times in our lives when we have been inspired to greatness by the support of the Christian community, maybe by this Christian community that gathers today.
And, more importantly, we really should be thinking about what we can do today to be a source of encouragement to the people around us, especially those who are running tough races. Who is it out there that needs to hear words of encouragement and hope from us? Who is it out there that needs to feel energy from us…God’s people in this place?
I’ve heard it said that there’s an understanding in the marathon world that you only have to run 20 miles in a practice run in order to run 26.2 miles in the marathon itself. The fact of the matter is that the extra 6.2 miles are given to the runner as a gift of the crowd. The cheers and support of the spectators are enough to push the marathoners beyond any distance they have ever run before.
We have benefitted from the unwavering faith and support of those who came before us. And as we welcome our new members—sisters in Christ—let us commit to sharing our faith and support with someone else, someone we don’t yet know. That’s how we become building stones for the construction of a sanctuary vibrant with life. That’s what will keep us alive and thriving years to come.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Stay. Love. Repeat.
John 15:1-12 (NIV)
Someone told me recently in a text that I have the patience of a saint. I laughed! Then I began to think about it a little bit, and I guess this person is right, to some degree. I can be a patient person. Maybe I learned to be a patient person because my father was NOT a patient person, and he paid the price for his impatience early in his adult life—before I was born—with debilitating ulcers. So, he wasn’t particularly patient, AND he didn’t really know how to deal with his impatience. I know I don’t want to go down that path.
But while I may generally be a patient person, that doesn’t mean that I couldn’t relate when I read this in a Lenten devotion written by pastor and author, John Pavlovitz. He said, “I don’t like waiting: for takeout food, online orders, doctor visits—anything. As I move through the world, things almost never function as expediently as I’d like, and a smoldering restlessness is always rumbling just beneath the surface. Traffic tends to amplify this ever-latent frustration, and I can easily lose my religion in a good gaper delay or unexpected construction area. My continual impatience is compounded by a terrible affliction I suffer (one doctors have yet to properly identify), which causes me to always choose the wrong lane in a backup. Always. The very instant I complete my transition to what is clearly the faster option, its as if the lane I’d just vacated suddenly glides briskly along and my new one now ceases to move.
“That is, of course, until I veer back to where I’d been originally seconds ago, upon which that lane once again screeches to a standstill. I soon look ahead into the distance and lament the place farther down the road that I would have occupied had I only stayed put. I watch another driver claim the smooth travel I missed out on, and in a fit of rampant lane envy I pray a pox upon their house—or at least a nice pothole to mess with their alignment.”
I love how down-to-earth Pastor Pavolvitz can be!
In this particular day’s devotion, Pavlovitz reflects on the scripture from John we are thinking about today. “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean,” Jesus says, “because of the word I have spoken to you. REMAIN in me, and I also REMAIN in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must REMAIN in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you REMAIN in me.”
Can you hear it? In this extended sermon in the fifteenth chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus uses the word REMAIN nearly a dozen times—“…which makes me think,” Pavlovitz muses, “that it’s both important and also probably something that isn’t easy, or else saying it once or twice would have been enough.”
Since I read this devotion this past week, I’ve found myself thinking about “remaining,” or staying, or waiting. I usually think about waiting, in particular, during the season of Advent, where we encounter the images of Mary and Joseph waiting for their baby to be born. When I’m practicing yoga, I hear the teacher talk frequently about “staying”; staying in the pose, paying attention to what it feels like to “stay with it.” Ugh, is usually my unspoken response! It can be so challenging to stay in a pose when I think my legs are going to give out under me and/or my arms are simply going to fall off.
Then, since the lifting of the state of emergency in Erie County, I’ve been reflecting on where we’ve been these last two years. Much to our distress, we have lived through long periods of time when we’ve been forced to “remain,”…indoors, away from each other, out of school, away from work, away from restaurants, away from yoga, away from those we love who were hospitalized. It has been hard to stick with it. Some people managed to “remain” better than others.
Then we encounter these words from Jesus today, this message about how critical it is to remain in constant contact with him. “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”
But staying put is a profound challenge for many of us, especially if our present is uncomfortable, or confusing, or turbulent. In seasons of struggle—and we all have them—it’s counterintuitive to not want to get some distance from whatever it is that is causing us pain, heartbreak, sadness, grief. But Jesus reminds us that growth is sometimes painful and slow. (Ugh!) It cannot be rushed even when it is both of those things.
Last week, we heard the story of Jesus being driven into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights, right after his baptism. It’s the very next thing that happens to him. No baptism parties. No rest. No special meal. He immediately finds himself in the wilderness. I feel confident that Jesus, at some point, during those 40 days and 40 nights felt like time was moving painfully slow. And I started thinking about this: in that story of Jesus in the wilderness, we hear nothing about him trying to find his way out. Could he have prayed for guidance in finding a way out? Could he have started walking, maybe?
Jesus doesn’t do any of that. He REMAINS in the wilderness for the whole 40 days and 40 nights.
Pavolvitz says, “There is something sacred and rare about staying: about enduring the waiting and trying to stay grounded in love while we face the frustration of what we want to be through with right now. The words of Jesus offer the wise path forward for those of us who don’t wait very well:
Stay. Love. Repeat.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
You’re All Alone
Luke 4:1-12 (NIV)
“God hates nothing God has made. Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.” These are the words many people heard on Ash Wednesday as we began our Lenten journeys. Church leaders put ashes on our foreheads, said these challenging words, and invited us to face a mind-numbing paradox: we are loved by God. And we will die. The first truth does not prevent the second. The second truth does not negate the first.
After two years of a global pandemic that has taken nearly six million lives worldwide, we’ve had plenty of opportunities to witness life in all its goodness crumbling to dust and ashes. Just over a week ago, as our brothers and sisters in Ukraine and Russia began to face the terror and losses of war, we were once again asked to consider what it means that we—all of us, regardless of where we live or what political views we hold—are small, mortal, vulnerable and defenseless.
On top of all this, we get some biblical whiplash this Sunday. Last Sunday we observed Jesus on the mountaintop—"a wonderful, Broadway-style production with costume changes, offstage voices, and guest stars brought in from previous productions of God’s glory,” as Jennifer Moland-Kovash describes it. Today we flash back to the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, encountering him immediately after his baptism, still dripping wet, and headed into the wilderness.
Thankfully, there’s comfort in familiarity, isn’t there? We know when we start reading it how it will end. We know that Jesus overcomes the temptations that the devil sets before him. It’s great to start Lent with a win, especially because I can almost guarantee that lots of people have already given up on whatever Lenten discipline they set for themselves.
What do you picture in your mind when you hear the word “wilderness?” Some people have a particular landscape they picture. Pastor Moland-Kovash says she grew up about 100 miles from the Canadian border in an area of northern Minnesota dubbed the Edge of the Wilderness. It is known far more for lakes and trees than for high population density. That’s what she pictures. Maybe you associate a similar landscape with the idea of wilderness, or perhaps you envision the Badlands of the Dakotas, the Sand Flats of Utah, or the deserts of Arabia or Africa. Whatever the landscape, the wilderness rarely features a lot of other people.
But even in this early moment for Jesus, he’s remembering—in some of the same ways he does with Moses and Elijah on the mountaintop. He quotes Deuteronomy to respond to the tempter’s offers; he stands on the faith of his ancestors and finds their words to be rock solid in the face of temptation. Jesus might not have anyone with him in the wilderness, but he is not alone.
One of the biggest temptations we face during times of struggle and wilderness wandering is the temptation to believe that we’re all alone. Part of it is the myth of self-sufficiency, a myth often upheld and perpetuated by our society. We, like the toddlers in our lives, want to proclaim with a foot stomp and a fist clenched, “I do it myself!”
The other side of this temptation is a heartbreaking sense that in this big world we are all alone. In Hebrew, one of the words for wilderness is more literally translated as “the wordless place.” While maybe at times in our lives we might crave for some peace and quiet, this wordless wilderness has a frightening landscape that whispers from the shadows, “You’re all alone.”
Today’s scripture tell us that Jesus is hungry. This isn’t that bored, “I’m hungry but there’s nothing that looks good” hunger. After 40 days, his hunger is a body clamoring for sustenance, a haze-inducing kind of hunger. It’s no wonder that the devil first pulls from the backpack of temptation the offer of a loaf of
bread. But I wonder about this: I wonder if Jesus is also hungering for connection. Hungering for God’s voice that called him the beloved at his baptism to ring out again across the landscape and from the mountaintop. To know that he isn’t alone.
Wilderness time can feel really long, whether it’s 40 days or 40 years or 40 minutes. Most of the time when we encounter the wilderness of the outdoors, we do so intentionally with enough supplies, a plan, and an emergency contact if we don’t come out after a certain amount of time. But when we are in the woods of anxiety or the deserts of despair, the temptation is to believe that we are alone. We’re so close to two years since we learned new, heightened meanings for words like quarantine, pandemic, and pivot. I know I’m not the only one desperately wanting to keep others safe, but there have been moments during these years when I think we have all felt alone and isolated with our thoughts.
Maybe the true comfort of this passage isn’t that Jesus can stand firm against temptation while we help ourselves to the chocolate we swore we were giving up, but rather that we’re not alone in the wilderness. Not only do we have a community of faith, we have the promises of God. We, like Jesus, do not head into the wild without feeling the waters of baptism still dripping down our foreheads. Without hearing that we’re God’s beloved.
We do not embark on this journey to live and trust and have faith without the assurance that the Spirit leads us: we do not go alone. We remember and acknowledge the wilderness of our journey—a wild place of questions and fears and doubts and temptations. This wilderness is part of our story but not the end. We have the voice that speaks in the wilderness, Christ shouting down the tempter and assuring us we are not alone. We have the promises that respond to our wilderness wanderings—the assurance of God’s grace, the gift of worship and living bread from Christ, the communion of saints and the forgiveness of sins, the celebration of all the good things God has given us.
We are not alone on this Lenten journey in the wilderness. Thanks be to God.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
up and down
Luke 9:28-36 (NRSV)
Transfiguration Sunday is an odd church festival. The mountaintop experience of the Transfiguration is the last stop before we begin the journey of Lent, which leads to another mountaintop, Jesus’ face transfigured again—not in glory, like on this mountain—but in suffering and death.
Transfiguration Sunday is the highlight of the liturgical season we call Epiphany. For weeks now, we’ve caught hints and glimpses of the holy in Jesus’s early ministry. A dove descending from the heavens. Water becoming fine wine. A fishing net nearly bursting from a miraculous catch. But today, we see Jesus in his unveiled glory. Today, we see the view from the mountaintop.
Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell the story of the Transfiguration and just as Peter, James and John are coming down the mountain, these three gospels all tell the story of the healing of a “demon-possessed” boy down in the valley. It’s an important story, because it reminds us that what happens in the ordinary trials and tribulations of human life is just as God-infused as the experiences that occur on faith’s mountaintops.
Unfortunately, we don’t always believe this. We fall into the habit of measuring the depth and success of our faith by the number of spectacular epiphanies we can claim. Have we “felt the Spirit” in Sunday worship? Has Jesus “spoken” to us? Have we seen visions? Encountered God’s living presence in our dreams? Has God answered our prayers in the specific and concrete ways we desire?
Most of the time, my answer to these questions is “no.” Or at best, “I'm not sure.” From there, it’s a short distance to feeling like a spiritual failure. Mature Christians, (we assume), probably have lots of experiences like Peter’s on the mountaintop. They see visions and dream dreams. Jesus reveals himself to them in spectacular ways they can’t describe or deny.
It's not true, of course. And yet it lingers in us — this yearning for a particular kind of emotional experience to come along on a regular basis, and validate our faith. After all, if Peter could see Jesus in his unfiltered glory, why can't I? Why can’t we?
The danger of “God on the mountaintop” Christianity is that it prompts us to compartmentalize our lives. As if God is somehow more present during a rousing choral anthem, a stirring sermon, or a silent retreat in a seaside monastery, than God is when we’re doing the laundry, buying groceries, or sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
At its worst, mountaintop Christianity is addictive, leading us to spend our days pursuing a “high” we confuse with spiritual success. Then, when we don’t experience that high, we feel empty, unloved, angry, or bored. Meanwhile, we don't notice the ever-present God in whom we actually live and move and have our being. Desperate for the mountain, we miss the God of the valley, the conference room, the pharmacy, the school yard. “Worshiping the extraordinary,” one pastor said, “doesn’t make for a healthy faith.”
The problem in the Transfiguration story is that as soon as Peter experiences a spiritual high, he tries to hoard it. I suspect we’d do the same thing! What I hear in his plan to “make dwellings” is an understandable but misguided attempt to contain, domesticate, protect, and possess this fleeting thing. To harness the holy. To make the fleeting permanent. To keep Jesus shiny, beautiful, and safe up on a mountain. After all, everything is so good up there. So clear. So bright. So unmistakably spiritual. Why not stay forever?
Well, because God is just as present, active, engaged, and glorious down in the valley as God is in the visions of saints, clouds, and shadows Peter experiences in the high places. In fact, what Peter eventually learns is that the compassionate heart of God is most powerfully revealed amidst the broken, the sinful, the suffering, and the despairing. The kingdom of God shines most brightly against the backdrop of the parent who grieves, the child who cries, the “demons” who oppress, and the disciples who try but fail to manufacture the holy. God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness. God’s beauty is best contained in broken vessels. We might not like this aspect of faith, but it's an aspect that has a lot to teach us.
It’s interesting, I think, so I want you to notice that the amazing experience with Jesus on the mountain doesn’t give Jesus’s disciples the faith or the strength to heal the suffering boy, or comfort his heartbroken father. What they experience during their spiritual high doesn’t magically translate into vibrant, transformative faith down below. “Which is to say,” another preacher has said, “if we’re sitting around waiting for more mountaintop experiences to mature and deepen our faith before we love and serve God’s children in the valley, then we need to rethink our strategy immediately.” Finding God in the ordinary requires dwelling in the ordinary.
I suspect we all still yearn for mountaintop experiences, and that’s okay. They’ll come and go according to God’s timing. We can’t control them. What’s really hard to do—and what I hope we are committing to do today—is to follow Jesus back down the mountain. Committing ourselves to finding Jesus on the long road. In the deep sorrow. At the heart of the unanswered prayer.
With Transfiguration Sunday, we come to the end of another liturgical season. Having seen the brightness of Epiphany, we prepare now for the holy darkness of Lent. We can’t know ahead of time what mountains and valleys lie ahead. We can’t predict how God will speak, and in what way Jesus might appear. But we can trust in this: whether on the brightest mountain, or in the darkest valley, Jesus abides.
So, don’t be afraid to come down from the mountain. Keep looking and listening for the sacred, no matter where the journey takes you in this season of Lent. Because Jesus is present everywhere. Both the mountain and the valley belong to him. He is Lord of all. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
How Do You Hide a Scar?
Genesis 45:4-11, 15 (MSG)
The topic would be perfect for a Jerry Springer show: Siblings who sell each other into slavery. Picture the sons of Jacob on stage, a line-up of rough and questionable characters who openly admit to selling their teenage brother Joseph down the river. No doubt they'd bluster about why they did it: "I hated him." "Dad loved him best." "He had the fancy robe, and wouldn't get his hands dirty." "The kid drove me crazy with his dreams" "Thought he was the king of us!" And then they'd explain just how they pulled it off: "We thought about killing him." "Wanted to throw dream-boy into a pit." "Say that the wild animals ate him." "But Reuben said no - said we shouldn't kill him." "So we stripped him and we sold him." "Got 20 pieces of silver for him. Pretty good money." Finally, Jerry Spinger would bring out the surprise guest: Their long-lost brother Joseph, who ended up as chief minister in Egypt. "I am your brother," he'd reveal. "But don’t feel badly, don’t blame yourselves for selling me. God was behind it. God sent me here ahead of you to save lives.” Joseph would promise to feed the brothers in their time of famine, and all would be amazed at his generosity. But what about the scars? You know there would have to be scars. All those years of hatred and jealousy, abuse and violence ... there would HAVE to be scars. Liana Gedz knows all about scars. She went into the hospital for the birth of a child which was delivered C-section. Later, she noticed that the physician who had performed the surgery had carved his initials - "AZ" - into her belly. Bizarre Jerry Springer stuff. But how do you get rid of a scar like that? The answer for Liana was a tummy tuck. Both the AZ and the C-scar disappeared with one additional surgical procedure, while the surgeon was hauled into court and thrown into jail. Unfortunately, there are times when you can't hide your scar with a tummy tuck. If a large area of skin has been lost - as with burn victims - a surgeon will have to remove the entire scar and shift a piece of healthy skin to the injured site. Even better, scientists have come up with recipes for advanced bandages that jump-start the repair of injured skin, but then break down - leaving behind only healed tissue. These bandages are "biodegradable scaffolds" that improve the odds of scarless healing.
But injuries are everywhere, and not every scar can be treated. Think of the deep and numerous scars in the life of Joseph and his brothers. The constant taunting when he was a child. The plot to murder him. The heartless sale into slavery. How do you heal these wounds? A tummy tuck's not going to do it. The text tells us that Joseph and his brothers reconcile, and they kiss and weep and talk. But the scars that this family bear are not easily sanded away through dermabrasion - in fact, their story illustrates well the medical axiom "once scarred, always scarred." As one doctor has observed, "You can't airbrush
out a scar, but you can create great camouflage." Joseph's scar won't go away. He knows it won't, and he doesn't pretend it will. In fact, he points to his scar and reminds his brothers that they sold him into slavery. He makes no attempt to airbrush the fact that something terrible was done to him, but in spite of this history, Joseph is somehow able to heal and move toward reconciliation with his brothers. How does he do it? Joseph discovers that a divine scaffold has been built over his wound - a scaffold that will prove to be much more healing than any modern biodegradable scaffold. Looking back over his life, he sees that God has managed in a truly mysterious way to bring good out of evil, using even the dastardly act of his jealous brothers to put him in an important position in the land of Egypt. "God sent me before you to pave the way," Joseph explains to them all. "God sent me to make sure there was a remnant in the land, to save your lives in an amazing act of deliverance". The spiritual scaffold doesn't remove the scar, but changes its appearance. You might say that it "camouflages" it, and makes it look like something else. But it does more than simply provide cosmetic reassurance. What first looked like a cruel, heartless and hateful act on the part of Joseph's brothers now looks like a graceful, heartfelt and loving act on the part of a God who wanted Joseph to prosper and save his family from famine. God brings healing. "Even though you intended to do harm to me," Joseph tells his brothers, "God intended it for good" (Genesis 50:20). The scar is still there. But now it looks beautiful, instead of ugly. God's spiritual scaffold has changed its appearance forever. Does this mean that every tragedy we experience has a silver lining? That all evil is really good, and that all our suffering is somehow being orchestrated by God? Not at all. The world is full of senseless violence, horrifying hatred and a whole range of actions and attitudes that attempt to block the will of God. It would be absurd to assert that God is orchestrating all this evil.
But one thing that both the Old and the New Testaments teach us is that God has the power to transform human evil into divine good. He used the slavery of Joseph to save a family, and he transformed the death of Jesus into the salvation of the world.
Joseph didn't ask for his scars to be removed. Neither did Jesus. God can create a life in which our wounds are transformed into something good. He does not remove our wounds, but builds a spiritual scaffold over them - one that shows us that healing is always a possibility, even when it comes in surprising ways. Thanks be to God!
Rev. Lisa Drysdale,
Blessings Alongside Woes
Luke 6:17-26 (NRSV)
Blessed are you who are poor, hungry, sad, and expendable. Woe to you who are rich, full, happy, and popular. This week’s Gospel in a nutshell.
In Luke’s version of the famous Beatitudes story, Jesus has just spent the night on a mountainside, praying before he chooses his twelve apostles. As morning dawns, he and the newly called twelve descend from the mountain to find a crowd waiting. People in need of help have come from everywhere, and Jesus — in his element, with power literally pouring off his garments — heals them all.
Then, standing “on a level place” with the crowd, he tells his would-be followers what life in God’s upside-down kingdom looks like. Those who are destitute, unfed, grieving, and marginalized can “leap for joy,” because they have God’s ear and God’s blessing. But those who are wealthy, full-bellied, carefree, and well-liked should watch out, because their condition is precarious, not enviable. The material “blessings” they cherish most, the very possessions and attributes they consider signs of God’s favor, are in fact liabilities that might do them spiritual harm.
What should we do with this scripture reading? What should we specifically — those of us who are comfortable and privileged — do with this?
What most of us probably want to do is edit Jesus’s words until we can tolerate them. As in, he didn’t really mean we have to be poor, hungry and weeping in order to be blessed by God, right? Obviously, Jesus was exaggerating, wasn’t he? Speaking figuratively? There must be some way we can wiggle out of the “woes” column and sneak into the “blessed” column, right? Right?
Unlike Matthew, who softens the Beatitudes with phrases like “poor in spirit,” instead of “poor,” and “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” instead of plain old “hungry,” Luke keeps Jesus’s “Sermon on the Plain” raw, to the point, and close to the bone. There’s no way around it; as far as Luke’s Jesus is concerned, God’s preference for the poor is crystal clear. God’s blessing rests on those who have absolutely nothing to fall back on in this world. No credit line, no nest egg, no fan base, no immunity. If we want to know where God’s heart is, we must look to the world’s most reviled, wretched, shamed, and desperate people. They are the fortunate ones.
So, again. What should we do with this Gospel? Wallow in guilt? Romanticize poverty? Avoid happiness? I doubt it. Debie Thomas, in her essay on this text, reminded me in my thinking about this that right before Jesus shares this hard teaching, he alleviated suffering in every way possible. That suggests, she says, that Jesus doesn’t in any way validate misery for its own sake. Pain in and of itself is neither holy nor redemptive in the Christian story, and in fact, Jesus’s ministry is all about healing, abundance, liberation, and joy.
And pay attention to this: nowhere in his litany of blessings and woes does Jesus tell his listeners how to behave. As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, the sermon “is not advice at all. It is not even judgment. It is simply the truth about the way things work.”
In his sermon, Jesus isn’t sorting out the good folks from the bad folks; he simply says: this is the human pattern. This is where all of us live. We move from blessing to woe over and over again in the course of our lives. We invite blessing every time we find ourselves empty and yearning for God, and we invite woe every time we retreat into smug and thoughtless self-satisfaction. “When I am ‘full’ of anything but God, God ‘empties’ me,” Thomas says. “Not as punishment, but as grace. Not as condemnation, but as loving reorientation. When I am bereft, vulnerable, and empty in the world’s eyes, God blesses me with the fullness of divine mercy and kindness.
“In other words, our God is a God of both comfort and challenge, and in the divine economy, we are, all of us, on one level. Blessed and woeful. Saint and sinner. We occupy ‘the plain’ of this beautiful and broken world together.”
Maybe, then, our calling in this gospel reading is to accept the tensions of living in this place of both-and. Maybe our task is to admit that most of the time, we are not desperate for God. We are not keenly aware of God’s active, daily intervention in our lives. We are not on our knees with need, ache, sorrow, longing, gratitude, or love. After all, why would we be? We have plenty to eat. We live in comfortable homes. Our families are safe. We’re not in dire need of anything. Wow. This is hard stuff to hear and think about.
Maybe what Jesus is saying in this Gospel is that we all have something to learn about discipleship that our life circumstances will not teach us. Something to gain from the humility that says, "Those people I think I'm superior to? They have everything to teach me. Maybe it's time to shut up and pay attention."
Is it comfortable to sit in the “woes” column? No. Might a willingness to do so save our lives? Debie Thomas says yes. I think this is what each of us has to decide.
In a beautiful reflection on Jesus’s upside-down kingdom, Frederick Buechner writes this: “The world says, ‘Mind your own business,’ and Jesus says, ‘There is no such thing as your own business.’ The world says, ‘Follow the wisest course and be a success,’ and Jesus says, ‘Follow me and be crucified.’ The world says, ‘Drive carefully — the life you save may be your own’ — and Jesus says, ‘Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.’ The world says, ‘Law and order,’ and Jesus says, ‘Love.’ The world says, ‘Get’ and Jesus says, ‘Give.’ In terms of the world's sanity, Jesus is crazy as a coot, and anybody who thinks he can follow him without being a little crazy too is laboring less under a cross than under a delusion."
May the God who gives and takes away, offers comfort and challenge, grant us the grace to sit with woe, and learn the meaning of blessing. Amen.
If you say so
Luke 5:1-11 (The Message)
“Master, we’ve been fishing hard all night and haven’t caught even a minnow. But if you say so, I’ll let out the nets.” As Luke describes the scene in this week’s Gospel story, it’s early morning, and Simon Peter is cleaning his fishing nets after a miserable night out on the lake. He and his partners have worn themselves out, casting nets from dusk until dawn into the dark water. As the sun rises, they have nothing to show for their efforts but sore muscles and weary hearts; their nets are empty.
Just then, Jesus shows up, steps into Simon’s boat, and tells his would-be disciple to “put out into the deep water.” In other words, to do the same old same old one more time, with no guarantee that he’ll see better results. Simon protests: “Master, we’ve been fishing hard all night...” But then he obeys: “But if you say so, I’ll let out the nets.” As soon as Simon’s net hits the water, his emptiness gives way to epiphany.
Let me say up front that I don’t fish. Never have, and I don’t picture it anywhere in my future. I know nothing about fish. Even so, I can see there is a lot for us to think about, as we figure out how this gospel story intersects with our lives. Let’s look at a couple of things:
First, it’s amazing that the story describes failure so honestly. As I so clearly stated, I’m no fisherperson, but I know what it’s like to work really hard at something that matters, and have nothing to show for my efforts when I'm done. I imagine we all do. I imagine we all know what’s it’s like to pour ourselves into a job, a relationship, a ministry, a dream — and come away exhausted, frustrated, thwarted, and just done. But if Simon's experience is representative, maybe Jesus has a way of showing up at precisely these moments of loss and defeat. Maybe he has good reasons for asking us to return to old places of pain and failure. In any case, when he encounters us, he doesn’t stand at the shore and wave us forward saying, “Try fishing over there!” He steps into the boat and ventures into the deep water with us. Is his timing maddening sometimes? Yes. But maybe his timing is also perfect. Maybe we’re most open to epiphanies when we’ve exhausted our own resources, and know that we’ve got nothing much to lose in saying “yes” to one more attempt -- this time with Jesus at our side.
Second, the story honors the “same old same olds” of our individual lives. Jesus’s call in this story is specific and particular, rooted in the language, culture, and vocation his hearers know best. Simon and his partners understand the nuances of the “fishing for men and women” metaphor in ways I never will. They know from years of experience what depths of patience, resilience, intuition, and artistry professional fishing requires. Simon knows the tools of the trade, the limitations of his body, and the life-and-death importance of timing, humility, and discretion. Most of all, he knows the water. He knows how to respect it, how to listen to it, and how to bring forth its best. When Jesus shows up and commissions the seasoned fisherman, Simon understands the call not as a command to leave his experience and intelligence behind, but to bring the best of his knowledge and expertise forward — to become even more fully and freely himself.
Think about that for you, for us. Maybe a point of this story is to remind us that we don’t follow Jesus in the abstract. We don’t heed his call “in general,” as if Christianity comes down to nothing more than attending church or being a nice person. If we’re going to follow him at all, we’ll have to do it in the particulars of the lives, communities, cultures, families, and vocations we find ourselves in. We’ll have to trust that God prizes our intellects, our backgrounds, our educations, and our skills, and that he will bless and multiply the daily stuff of our lives for his purposes.
Debie Thomas says in her essay on this reading, “This is a promise to cultivate us, not to sever us from what we love. It's a promise rooted in gentleness and respect — not violence and coercion. It's a
promise that when we dare to “go deep,” to do what we know and love with Jesus at our side, God will enliven our efforts in ways we couldn't have imagined on our own.”
Third, think about the abundance at the heart of this story. In Jesus’s day, the fishing industry in Palestine was fully under the control of the Roman Empire. Caesar owned every body of water, and all fishing was state-regulated for the benefit of the urban elite. Fishermen couldn’t obtain licenses to fish without joining a syndicate, most of what they caught was exported — leaving local communities impoverished and hungry — and the Romans collected exorbitant taxes, levies, and tolls each time fish were sold. To catch even one fish outside of this deeply unfair system was considered illegal.
How amazing then, is an image of boats so laden with fish that even a weathered fisherman like Simon Peter finds the catch overwhelming. This is extravagant, excessive, bountiful generosity. Food for all, food security for all, justice for all, nurture for all. In this extravagant food for everyone, Jesus shows Simon what God’s kingdom will look like when it’s fully established. God’s kingdom will suffer no empty nets, no empty tables, and no economic exploitation of any kind. God’s kingdom will mean good news for all. Meaning that if whatever we profess as Christians is not good news for all — it’s not God.
Lastly, think about how this story tells the truth about our—at least, my--fraught journey with God and with faith: “Master, we’ve been fishing hard all night and haven’t caught even a minnow. But if you say so, I’ll let out the nets.” Sometimes it feels like we’re stuck in the gap between those two sentences. Maybe we all live in the gap between weariness and hope, defeat and faith, resignation and obedience. Though we’re often reluctant to admit it (for fear of sounding ungrateful or irreverent) life can be a grind. A same old same old of monotony and failure. Even the most earnest and hardworking of us can land up on shore some mornings with empty, stinking fishing nets tangled in our fingers, wondering what the heck went wrong.
“The hardest thing for any of us to do at these moments is to make the leap of trust that Simon makes. “If you say so, I will.” If you say so, I will try again. If you say so, I will be faithful to my vocation. If you say so, I will go deep rather than remain in the shallows. If you say so, I will trust that your presence in the boat is more precious than any guarantee of success. If you say so, I will cast my empty net into the water, and look with hope for your kingdom to come.” (Debie Thomas)
May it be so.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Is He With Us, Or Not?
Luke 4:21-30 (NRSV)
Katie Hines-Shah—a Lutheran pastor in Hinsdale, IL—tells about asking her six-year-old daughter what she learned in Sunday school that day. The six-year-old put down her fork, turned to her mother the pastor, and in a very serious tone said, “We learned that Jesus was not a Lutheran!”
So, Katie Hines-Shah did what any modern parent does with this kind of stark theological realization: she posted it on Facebook. And then came the comments: “Of course not, Jesus was a Presbyterian,” typed a Presbyterian friend. “Next they will be telling her he wasn’t even a Christian,” quipped another.
We know that Jesus was a Middle Eastern Jew; the joke is that somehow, we imagine that Jesus was like us, and because he was like us, he liked us. That’s how Jesus can become, say, a light-skinned, blue-eyed Christian American, Hines-Shah contends, who votes the way we do, or at least roots for our favorite football team. And we aren’t alone. This idea that Jesus is our guy goes all the way back to the first Christians, to the first disciples, to the people who knew Jesus before anyone did—the people of Nazareth.
Today’s gospel reading is a continuation of last week’s—two diametrically opposed scenes in one narrative. The first one is nothing but good news: Jesus reads the Isaiah scroll at the Nazareth synagogue. He preaches his first sermon, just one short verse: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
This is good news, at least as far as the people of Nazareth are concerned. They know this Jesus—he’s the son of Joseph, the guy they grew up with. And now they assume salvation is coming their way. The Jews of Nazareth aren’t xenophobes. They don’t wish ill on their neighbors. They simply believe what we all believe: these promises, this good news, these miracles are primarily and maybe even exclusively for us.
And then in today’s gospel reading, Jesus upends everything.
It’s helpful to remember that Jesus doesn’t just go around doing nice things. It’s useful to know that the point of scripture isn’t always to make us feel good. Communities of faith and their leaders aren’t always going to meet our expectations, partially because they are human but also because sometimes we have to hear things that we would rather not. Which may be why Jesus says in Nazareth that day, “No prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” And then he goes on to prove it.
“Remember Elijah?” Jesus says. Of course, they do. Elijah was the greatest of Hebrew prophets. But whom did Elijah feed in a time of great famine? Not anyone from Nazareth or Jerusalem or even Capernaum, but instead a widow in Zarephath—a small town in Lebanon.
And Jesus doesn’t stop. “Remember Elisha?” he continues. Of course, they do. Elisha’s everyone’s favorite wonder-worker. But did Elisha heal anyone in the Northern Kingdom? No. Jesus reminds the congregation that the only leper Elisha heals is Naaman, the Syrian. The people of Nazareth probably haven’t forgotten: Naaman was also an enemy army commander. It hurts. No wonder the people of Nazareth want to throw him off a cliff.
There isn’t really a cliff in Nazareth. When you go to the Holy Land and ask to see the place where this happened, they will take you to a gentle hill. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t want to get thrown off the gentle hill, but still—doesn’t it kind of seem like Jesus deserves it? If he’s with the other guy, how can he be with us?
Jesus escapes—if not certain death, then at least certain bruising—but how? Luke includes a tantalizing detail: Jesus goes through “the middle.” He refuses to be caught in the binary trap. He is not pro-Jew and anti-Samaritan. He’s not pro-Capernaum and anti-Nazareth. He won’t be pinned down as supporter of any political party or football team. Jesus will not be a Presbyterian or, as much as it pains Katie Hines-Shah to say it, a Lutheran. He won’t be contained.
She goes on to reflect: “Jesus came to be with us, whoever we are. This is so important because at some time or another, we will find ourselves on the wrong side of a dividing line. Our gender, our age, our race or color, who we love, how much money we make, our physical abilities or challenges, our nationality, where we went to school, how we pray—these will make us unworthy in the eyes of some. Someone once said whenever the world draws a line, Jesus steps across to the other side. His love is just that big.”
Another lectionary reading for this Sunday maps out a great promise of faith. It’s the well-known love chapter from the first letter to the people of Corinth. In this 13th chapter, Paul writes that our love should be too big for envy or boasting or rudeness to gain a foothold. Our love should be big enough to bear with one another, to see the good in our neighbor, to rejoice in truth over convenient lies. In an era when so many would pit us against one another, when bearing with one another is not the norm, Jesus calls us to remember: we are beloved siblings, and a beloved sibling cannot be our enemy. Our enemy is sin, death, and the devil—and Jesus has defeated them all.
The world we live in is full of division. Even a six-year-old can see it. And yet, we live with a diametrically opposed sure and certain hope. As the people of Nazareth once rejoiced to hear, we still believe: the scriptures are being fulfilled. The work Jesus began in Jerusalem broke through boundaries to reach people in every space and time. Jesus walks in the midst of all people: widows, lepers, folks who root for the opposing team, and even the unlikeliest: Christians like us. Thanks be to God!
Rev. Lisa Drysdale,
God Says Today Is Holy
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 (NRSV)
If someone told you to feast, celebrate, and rejoice right now, because today is a day “holy to the Lord,” how would you respond? If someone insisted that this year — 2022 — is “the year of the Lord’s favor,” what would you say?
I think a lot of us would say, “You’ve got to be kidding. This year? This one? Today? Right now? How can that possibly be?” We’d probably be skeptical.
I don’t have to tell you why we’d be skeptical: Omicron is overwhelming the planet. Hospitals are reaching capacity, physicians and nurses are exhausted, national and local economies are struggling, and Covid’s death toll continues to rise. And this is before we mention any of the other challenges facing us. Wars and threats of wars. Violence of all stripes. The catastrophic effects of climate change. The long shadow of racial injustice. Alarming breakdowns in civility and basic kindness. Rising epidemics of anxiety, depression, addiction, and despair.
Who on earth would reasonably call our current moment holy, or favored of God?
We need to think about this, because our lectionary this week does exactly this. Today we hear a story about people gathering to read, hear, and inwardly digest the word of God, we hear a call to attend to now. The story ends with an invitation to recognize the sacredness of the present moment. The story insists that when we seek the divine, today shimmers with the presence, the blessing, and the favor of God.
This is true regardless of circumstances. Regardless of the trials we face, the sorrows we carry, and the pain we bear. Not because God’s joyous “today” is dismissive of our hardships, but because God’s presence infuses all things. God’s joy — the joy which is our strength — has within it the capacity to hold and honor our tears.
This story from the book of Nehemiah describes a tender and hard-won moment in Israel’s history. Nehemiah is a minor figure in the court of Artaxerxes, the king of Persia. When Nehemiah hears that Jerusalem is a broken, fire-razed wreck, he begs the king to let him return to his homeland and rebuild the city of his ancestors. The obstacles to rebuilding are significant, but Nehemiah persists, and finally succeeds in restoring Jerusalem’s wall and gates. He then invites his people back from exile and asks them to gather in the square before the Water Gate for an assembly.
Our lectionary picks up there, at the moment when the prophet Ezra “opens the book in the sight of all people,” and reads from the law of Moses. He reads until the assembly of men, women, and children gathered in the square open their ears, stand up, raise their hands, worship “with their faces to the ground,” say, “Amen, Amen,” and weep. The story ends with Nehemiah and Ezra telling the people to dry their tears, return to their homes to “eat the fat and drink sweet wine,” and share the feast with those who are poor. Following an intense divine encounter, the people embrace the day and time they live in as “holy to the Lord.”
What a great story for us today! I think it offers us a beautiful reminder of what can happen when we seek the presence of God together, and allow that presence to touch every part of our lives. Remember, the Israelites who gather at the Water Gate to hear the reading of the Torah are not people living in a “happily ever after,” all their trials and travails behind them. They are people newly returned from exile to a homeland that’s still in ruins. Their traumas are fresh, and their future is unclear. Their most recent memories are memories of loss, dislocation, oppression, and chaos.
And yet, something powerful happens among them when Ezra opens the book and reminds them of who they are in the long arc of God’s story. What happens is not magic. And it’s not manipulation. What
happens is transformation. As the people work to listen to God’s word with their whole hearts, to receive what’s read in a spirit of openness and vulnerability, and to express their comprehension as honestly as they can, everything changes.
There’s no doubt, the honesty they express includes sorrow, lament, and repentance. Ezra reads for hours—from early morning until midday—and in that time, the people enter into a period of deep reflection and remembrance. And they weep. We aren’t told why they weep, but I imagine that when the Israelites hear the sacred stories of their tradition—the stories of the Exodus, the stories of God’s provision in the desert, the stories of their ancestors’ failures and rebellions—they feel everything from nostalgia to elation to horror to happiness. They weep in gratitude over God’s goodness. They weep in bewilderment over God’s silence. They weep in regret over their own sins. They weep in mourning for all they’ve surrendered or lost. And they weep in relief that the exile is over, and Jerusalem—a mess though it is—is once again their home.
God’s word—living and active among them—holds all of this. It allows all of this and blesses all of this. When the time is right, God transforms the entire encounter into an experience of joy.
Joy feels hard to come by these today, doesn’t it? For nearly two years now, we’ve been living as if the days we live in right now don’t count as “real life.” “Real life will resume after the pandemic,” we say. Real life will resume when church services go back to being in-person only. When we can celebrate communion without trying to get that plastic cover off the elements. When we put away our masks for good. When we get some sort of handle on climate change, police brutality, teen depression, and violence everywhere.
Are we, like Ezra’s listeners, full of pent-up grief, longing, regret, and lament that has nowhere to go? Do we assume we can’t lean into God’s joy until all our sorrows are spent? Or that worship can only be an articulation of happiness—not grief or anger or confusion or doubt? If that’s what we assume, can we possibly remind ourselves that God’s embrace is wide enough to hold all of human experience? Can we trust that God’s abundance is possible now, even in the midst of uncertainty and pain? Can we say “Amen” to God’s word in the complicated circumstances we live in right now? Today?
Can we accept the possibility of “holy discomfort,” as Rev. Debie Thomas describes it in her Journey with Jesus blog? Perhaps the “now” of God, she says, means we have to stand up, shake the dust off, and move. It’s one thing to scan the horizon of someday for the “year of the Lord’s favor.” It’s quite another to live boldly into that favor now. Today.
“This day is holy to our Lord.” May it be so for us.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
They Have No Wine
John 2:1-11 (NRSV)
This week’s scripture reading celebrates Jesus turning water into wine during the Wedding at Cana — one of three traditional focal points for Epiphany through which Jesus’ identity “shows forth”; the other two being the visit of the Magi and Jesus’ baptism, the Gospel readings for Epiphany and last Sunday, if you’ve been following along. Next week, we’ll look at Luke’s story of how Jesus begins his public ministry — and so this week and next make for an intriguing comparison and contrast between two accounts of how Jesus “goes public.”
John organizes his Gospel around seven astounding “signs” that reveal Jesus’ identity and mission. The turning of water into wine is the first of these signs. John’s name for these events — “signs” — is a clue to their purpose: they’re supposed to catch our attention (even catch our breath!), drawing us toward what for John is the whole point: life with and in God. But amazement doesn’t always work that way. It’s only too easy to get caught up in the miraculous and miss the larger purpose, pulling the car over, as one commentary suggested, to ooh and ahh at a road sign pointing us toward our destination, instead of moving on to the destination itself! And as it turns out, this tension is a running theme throughout John’s Gospel. Jesus repeatedly scolds the crowds (and his disciples) for focusing too much on signs, urging them to move on to higher, more important matters.
But let’s look at this sign, in particular. Still a largely unknown rabbi, Jesus is invited to a wedding along with his disciples and his mother. Mary appears exactly twice in John’s Gospel: in this scene at the outset of Jesus’ public ministry, and at the foot of the cross at the end of it. On both occasions, Jesus addresses her as “woman” — an ancient form of address roughly equivalent to “madam,” a relatively formal gesture of respect.
The fact that Mary is concerned about the wine running low may mean the bride or groom is a close relative; in any case, in the ancient world, this kind of shortage was far more than mere inconvenience. Wedding celebrations would often last a week, and running out of wine would be a major embarrassment for the host family. The shortage may also indicate that both the family and the attendees lacked resources, since wedding guests often brought wine as a contribution to the party. In other words, as John tells it, this is a relatively modest, humble gathering of ordinary folk.
Rev. Debie Thomas is a great writer of essays based on the lectionary readings, and this is what she said about the heart of this story in John: “I doubt it’s the line I’m supposed to fixate on in this week’s Gospel reading, but I can’t help it. I can’t help wondering exactly how Mary says it. Quietly, urgently, after pulling her distracted son away from his friends, away from the music and the dancing, away from the servants working hard to hide their growing panic as countless wedding guests swirl obliviously around them. I imagine Mary takes Jesus into an inner room, fixes his attention with a stern stare, and whispers the shameful news into his ear: “They have no wine.”
Debie Thomas says what strikes her—in part—about this story, is the struggle to reconcile a Bible story about abundance with her own contemporary reality—both personal and global—of scorching scarcity. Mary’s line, ‘They have no wine,’ is a line Thomas says she can get behind. “They have no money.” “There is no cure.” “He has no friends.” “I have no strength.” Mary’s line is a line Thomas says she repeats daily, for herself and for others. It’s the line she clings to when she feels helpless, when she has nothing concrete to offer, when Christianity seems futile, when God feels like he’s a million miles away.
Unless one of you is keeping some amazing super power to yourself, none of us knows how to turn gallons—as much as 180 gallons!—of water into gallons of wine. But we do know how to say what Jesus’ mother says. Sometimes, it’s the only thing we know how to say. “There is need here.” “Everything is not okay.” “We’re in trouble.” “They have no wine.”
In an amazing twist in the story, Jesus initially dismisses his mother’s suggestion (How is this our problem?) — but Mary dismisses his dismissal. The moment goes by in an instant, but it’s nonetheless striking (and funny!): Mary sees something Jesus doesn’t, and rather than argue with him, she simply presumes victory and turns to the servants: “Do whatever he tells you.” What is it that Mary sees? Is she concerned about the host family’s reputation? Or does she see in this dilemma a golden opportunity for Jesus to start his ministry? Jesus says, in effect, The time isn’t right. His mother knows better: The time is perfect — seize the day!
Of course, Jesus is no fool; he knows that his countdown to crucifixion will begin as soon as he makes his true identity known. Maybe he’s reluctant to start that ominous clock ticking. Maybe he thinks wine-making shouldn’t be his first miracle. Maybe he’s having fun with his friends, and doesn’t want to be interrupted. Maybe there’s a mysterious timeline he prefers to follow — a timeline known only to him and to God. Whatever the case, Mary doesn’t cave in the face of his reluctance; she continues to press the urgency of the need into Jesus’s presence. As if to say, “I don’t care about your ‘hour’ — there’s a desperate problem, right here, right now. Change your plans. Hasten the hour. Empathy first. Help!”
So what about us? How can we fit into this story?
Maybe we can be like Mary. Maybe we can notice, name, persist, and trust. No matter how profound the scarcity, no matter how impossible the situation, we can elbow our way in, pull Jesus aside, ask earnestly for help, and ready ourselves for action. We can tell God hard truths, even when we’re supposed to be celebrating. We can keep human need squarely before our eyes, even and especially when denial, apathy, or distraction are easier options. And finally, we can invite others to obey the miraculous wine-maker we have come to know and trust.